NHS mental health chief condemns gambling bosses in letter

16 January 2020

NHS England mental health director Claire Murdoch has written letters to the chiefs of the UK’s leading gambling operators about the, “clear and worrying links between gambling and mental ill health.”

Writing on social media, Murdoch, who also serves as chief executive of the Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust, said: "As an NHS nurse, a mum and someone who has listened to countless accounts of lives lost, wrecked and blighted by the gambling industry, I had to write and ask betting firms to stop causing avoidable mental health problems now".

Murdoch’s letters were addressed to chief executives Denise and John Coates of bet365, Fred Done of Betfred, Kenny Alexander of GVC Holdings, Peter Jackson of Flutter Entertainment and Ulrik Bengtsson of William Hill.

The letters called on the operators to ban credit cards as a form of payment immediately, rather than in April when the Gambling Commission’s prohibition comes into effect. Murdoch said that this would help, “ensure people don’t spend money they don’t have and potentially rack up life-changing debt and the anxiety that comes with it.”

The letters also called to end “bet-to-view” streaming deals, after bet365’s streaming deal to show FA Cup football matches came under fire earlier this month.

In addition, the letters called on gambling operators to “stop targeting high-loss customers” through VIP schemes, which have been the subject of scrutiny after data from the Gambling Commission revealed that while just 2% of nine operators' customers are VIPs, they account for 83% of deposits.

“In particular, the reports of certain tactics used by firms to target those of your customers who have already lost sums and are willing to bet more, to seek to recover losses are concerning,” Murdoch wrote. “If reports are correct I am concerned that offering people who are losing vast sums of money free tickets, VIP experiences, and free bets, all proactively prompt people back into the vicious gambling cycle which many want to escape.”

Murdoch also criticised “pervasive advertising” of gambling and said it was “ appear[s] designed to undermine people’s ability to stay in control.”

Murdoch said that the NHS has been making efforts to tackle gambling addiction, noting that 430,000 people in England have been identified as having a “serious betting problem” and that the NHS has opened up a series of gambling addiction treatment centres, including one in Sunderland earlier this month.

However, she added that the onus was on gambling firms, rather than the NHS, to fight problem gambling.

"For seven decades the NHS has adapted services in response to current challenges, but we should not be expected to pick up the pieces from lives damaged by avoidable harm,” she said. “In order to operate safely, the gambling industry has a responsibility to prevent the occasional flutter turning into a dangerous habit.”

In response, the Betting and Gaming Council - the UK gambing industry’s newly formed trade association - issued a letter of its own to Murdoch.

Signed by BGC chair Brigid Simmons, as well as Denise Coates, Done, Alexander, Jackson, Bengtsson and Gambling Commission chief executive Neil McArthur, the reply said the operators take responsible gaming commitments seriously. It added that the industry was determined to raise standards and make gambling safer, while acknowledging Murdoch's points were important.

The response added that put in a great deal of work to create a safer environment for players.

“Just some of the work our members have already done includes new age-verification checks, increased funding for research, education and treatment, introduced a whistle-to-whistle ban on gambling advertising, worked together as an industry to create GamStop which will now be mandatory for all operators, created monitoring algorithms to monitor play both online and in retail to help identify those at risk of harmful play and just last week waived exclusivity on FA Cup games,” it continued.

“We have also announced Safer Gambling Commitments which represent a set of measures to deliver long-term and fundamental changes in how gambling companies are run in the UK and how they empower, protect and support their customers.

The five core safer gambling commitments aim to prevent underage gambling and protect young people; increase support for treatment of gambling harm; strengthen and expand codes of practice for advertising and marketing; protect and empower our customers and promote a culture of safer gambling.”

The letter also said that, as the BGC continues to work on safer gambling initiatives, it would be happy to hear about Murdoch’s experience and knowledge of problem gambling in more detail so it may better address these issues. The chief executives of the five companies also invited Murdoch to meet with them to discuss the issue further.