Lee Willows: Funding debate threatens UK’s ‘world class’ treatment ecosystem

The debate surrounding gambling research, education and treatment (RET) funding has been heating up significantly ahead of the government’s Gambling Act review White Paper.

A range of viewpoints have been expressed on the matter, and notably, calls for the introduction of a statutory levy to support RET operations have been rising, although with some differences as to how this would operate. 

Sharing his opinions on the matter at the Westminster Media Forum – Next steps for UK gambling regulation, Founder and former CEO of YGAM and Founder of ESG Gaming, Lee Willows, argued that the UK’s gambling harm treatment ecosystem is ‘world-class’.

However, he asserted that the ‘funding debate’ has been ‘tarnished by some who feel there is a lack of independence, which is completely inaccurate’; this approach to my view is threatening to break-up the ecosystem which in his view has helped many overcome problem disorder.

The Third Sector provides over 90% of treatment and prevention work in the United Kingdom, reaching all four nations. We should be proud of that and humbled with this reach, progress and impact. The Third Sector approach is well-thought-through, evidence-led and independently evaluated.

“These divisions and the potential introduction of a statutory levy carry significant risks to my mind and in many ways undermines a lot of the good work that’s been undertaken,” he explained.

“We have built an eco-system to deliver treatment, support and prevention that has impressive reach across the United Kingdom. This didn’t happen overnight, it took time, and a huge collective effort on behalf of many very decent people. 

“A statutory levy risks being seen by operators as another tax and as a result may dilute their level of interest in reducing harms.”

So far, the funding debate has seen a divergence of opinions – GambleAware CEO Zoë Osmond, the Northern Gamblng Clinic and Social Market Foundation (SMF) thinktank have been some notable voices in favour. 

However, leaders of the latter two groups have criticised GambleAware for perceived lack of independence from the industry, and have called for RET duties to be transferred to a new organisation.  

Last February, NHS governors informed GambleAware that they would no longer accept grants from the gambling sector to help co-fund nationwide problem gambling clinics and RET programmes. Just yesterday, the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) also weighed in on the debate, stating a case for how a public health levy should operate. 

Meanwhile, Dealmeout Founder and CEO, Jordan Lea, criticised GambleAware for allegedly allowing funds to sit in its accounts in a discussion with SBC News last month – prompting a response from Zoë Osmond – whilst arguing that the NGC and SMFs calls for a NHS-focused levy would do more harm than good.

For Willows, the current model is not perfect, with the lived experience specialist asking: “Why is it so difficult for start-up organisations – often led by individuals with Lived Experience – to access funding, is something I hear a lot from the Lived-Experience community. I have long suggested we need a choir of voices to deliver services and we to consider taking a more agile approach to pilot, test and evaluate new ideas ?”

However, he added that RET stakeholders should be ‘humbled’ by progress made on tackling problem gambling – evidenced by UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) figures showing a declining rate of 0.2% – whilst also questioning whether NHS-only programmes ‘can do any better’ than the current system in place. 

“It will not surprise you that I do not support a statutory levy,” he continued. “There is much comfort to take from the current ecosystem and the many charities and non-profit organisations working hard in this space and it would be a big mistake to risk this.

“Additionally, I believe our prime commissioner of services in this space might want to ask themselves what they can do better to support start-up organisations and foster agility, spending their income in a timely manner, with a percentage aimed at small start-up organisations. 

“I also believe they might consider their ballooning establishment chart, which for many seems excessive.”

Also making an appearance at the Westminster Media Forum was UKGC CEO Andrew Rhodes, who acknowledged the wait industry stakeholders were facing on the White Paper publication – but adding that this should not be used as an excuse for inaction on issues.

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