The Centre for Governance and Scrutiny (CfGS) is working on a project with the Gambling Commission to raise awareness and improve oversight of action to tackle gambling harm locally.

Our work has focussed on involving councillors in scrutiny roles – these are councillors not formally tasked with decision-making but in the vital role of testing, challenging, shaping, and supporting local policy.

Through our research we have found that in many local areas gambling harm is an underexplored issue for councils. Whilst tackling other public health issues are recognised as political and strategic priorities, gambling harm tends to be discussed from a regulatory perspective within licensing committees. This means understanding the impact of gambling harm on individuals and communities, or how it is contributing to demand for local services, can be a challenge and makes it more difficult to raise awareness of gambling harm and support those affected.

We are currently facilitating a series of gambling harm inquiry days - these are designed to provide a forum for councillors, partners, academics and experts by experience to raise awareness and discuss how to best address the issue of gambling harm in the community. They serve as a tool to assess local circumstances and evaluate council strategy and partner plans. Ultimately, these inquiry days are aimed at supporting and challenging an area-wide approach to tackling gambling harm.

Although councils do not have a specific public health responsibility to provide treatment for gambling harm, local licensing teams do have a responsibility “to protect children and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by gambling” (Gambling Act 2005). Many council services come into contact with people who are considered vulnerable, and who may experience harm from gambling. These include, but are not limited to: children’s services and adult social care, where gambling may be a contributory factor to family breakdown or domestic abuse; drug and alcohol treatment services, given the high rates of co-occurrence between these addictions and gambling addiction; and housing services, where gambling can be a contributory factor in rent arrears and homelessness.

Through these inquiry days councillors involved in scrutiny have questioned the current local evidence base on gambling harm, what prevention and treatment services are available, and the effectiveness of awareness raising and service provision. The key areas the inquiry days identified for council action involved:

  1. Raising awareness and supporting education programmes in schools to highlight gambling harm and promoting initiatives like Responsible Gambling Week.
  2. Developing a Local Area Profile and using mapping to identify areas and populations at greater risk of gambling harm to inform licencing decisions.
  3. Addressing gaps in local data on the scale of gambling harm, exploring if the council’s own services screen for gambling harm as part of their assessment processes, especially in relation to services that support vulnerable groups.
  4. Including gambling harm in the council’s Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (JSNA) – where local organisations, commissioners and providers of health related services go to for information about the health and wellbeing needs of local residents.

A growing challenge highlighted in the inquiry days is the prevalence of online gambling, which goes beyond the council’s licencing role and is difficult to monitor. Councillors recognised the elevated risk of harm that emerges alongside the increased availability and accessibility of gambling products and the increased time spent gambling online.

However, despite the limited scope of control in some aspects, councils are well placed to have an influence on tackling gambling harm through their wellbeing and community leadership role, especially considering the wider commitment to reducing health inequalities and an equitable post-covid recovery. As with any public health issue, reducing harm is often complex and involves a ‘whole systems’ approach.

Earlier this year, we compiled a case study collection to showcase the work that has been done so far in councils that have used scrutiny to consider the local issue of gambling harm – which you can access here.

We are also producing a 10 questions style guide in the autumn to provide a framework for scrutiny councillors to better understand and seek oversight on gambling harm in their localities. The guide will suggest questions that councillors can ask decision-makers, partners and other stakeholders to make sure that local plans and strategies for tackling gambling harm are effective.