The UK government last night (21 April) stood accused of ignoring its own promises and research evidence on the harmful effects of gambling, as parliament agreed to double the amount of money which may be staked and won on the kind of fruit machines found in pubs and amusement arcades.
This means that the prize limit on fruit machines will be higher than some weekly benefit levels, at a time when many families are struggling to make ends meet.
In a letter to the Guardian newspaper, Dr E Moran, a specialist adviser on pathological gambling for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, accused the government of "gambling with lives", claiming that the latest change was "not a result of public pressure" or for public benefit, but had been pushed through because in the government's words,"many operators across the gambling industry are finding trading conditions very difficult in the present economic climate".
Moran added: "During the passage of the gambling bill, the government gave two important undertakings: 'In future we will continue to put the interests of children and vulnerable players first, second and third'; and 'there will be not one but two further gambling studies before we even consider any calls for further relaxation of the new regime'."
Both government promises have been broken, says Dr Moran. "It is barely 18 months since the full implementation of the Gambling Act and there has been only one gambling prevalence survey. Yet gambling promoters are to join investment bankers in not being allowed to go to the wall as a result of the recession. Punters and their families will pay a heavy price for this."
In response to yesterday's vote, an alliance of nine UK Christian organisations said: “We are deeply disappointed, though not surprised, by the decision of Parliament to accept the government’s proposals to increase stakes and prizes for category C and D gaming machines."
They continued: "The government had promised that no such increase would be made until a further gambling prevalence study had been published and has reneged on this promise. We do not know what effects this legislation will have on the levels of problem gambling or on the lives of those already addicted to slot machines, but we have always urged the government to act with caution.
The groups say they will continue to campaign for the protection of those "vulnerable to the harmful effects of gambling". In particular they are urging the Government to prohibit children from gambling and research the effects of allowing them to do so.
Britain remains the only developed country which allows children to play on fruit machines. Campaigners say that the substantial increase in prizes for children will add another hazard which should be evaluated.
They also want the Government only to increase future stake and prize values in line with inflation, at no more than three-yearly intervals and to undertake research into the impact of such changes, with a promise to reverse the decision if this research demonstrates a likely increase in problem gambling.
Toby Scott, Director of Communications and Campaigns for the Methodist Church added: “Although we are disappointed with this decision, we are extremely grateful for the level of support we have received and to all those who have added their voices to this campaign.”
The groups who issued the joint statement are: the Methodist Church, the Church of England, the Salvation Army, the Church of Scotland, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the United Reformed Church, Quaker Action on Alcohol and Drugs, the Evangelical Alliance and Care.