Newsmaker: Game for change - Peter Cox, Managing director, Gamcare

Indira Das-Gupta

It may come as a surprise to learn that Peter Cox, managing director of the charity that helps problem gamblers, takes the view that on balance, the draft Gambling Bill is a good thing.

Critics of this Bill, which has caused a public outcry and whipped the media into a frenzy, uniting even the Daily Mail and The Guardian, think it would amount to throwing the UK's 300,000 problem gamblers into the lion's den and run the risk of creating even more addicts. But Cox regards the hysteria with scepticism. "Gambling is an emotional issue, and while the Bill has been debated, there has sometimes been too much emotion and not enough logic.

"Gambling must not go underground because it would simply create crime - it has been proven that prohibition doesn't work. That is why we want self-regulation and this Bill will introduce laws that will help addicts to a certain extent."

The growth in gambling opportunities, particularly in remote gambling - online, on interactive TV and mobile phones - has made existing legislation increasingly inadequate, according to Cox. He says: "We have been involved in the consultation process all along and while the way the Bill has been covered in some parts of the media has been sensationalist, it's forced the Government to be more cautious.

"We are happier with the Bill since changes were made to take fruit machines out of the places where young people go. We are also glad that there is likely to be a cap on the number of casinos so they will be harder for addicts to get to."

However, Cox does not wish to underplay the devastating affects of gambling addiction. On the contrary, he believes that the consequences can be as dire as drug and alcohol addiction. Cox says: "It's a hidden addiction in that people are often able to keep it from their loved ones as it doesn't necessarily take its toll physically. For every one person who becomes an addict, another 15 people are affected. In some cases children have to go without food or clothing just because a parent needs the buzz."

Gamcare describes itself as "neutral" on the subject of gambling. Cox explains: "Thank God we live in a society where, if people want to gamble, they can, and we don't want to change that. But there should be a duty of care on the industry to ensure that age restrictions are enforced, that people aren't enticed to spend money they haven't got, and that gambling is advertised in a realistic way. I believe the industry has an unquestionable duty in that respect."

Cox is not a betting man himself. "Gambling has never appealed to me," he says. "But the fact that I didn't really know anything about gambling has helped because I can be more objective."

With a career spent almost exclusively in the private sector, Cox might seem an unlikely candidate for the role at Gamcare. But he has been volunteering since the mid-1980s. Over the years, he has helped set up a homeless shelter at his local church in Croydon and improved disabled access there. Then, 10 years ago, he became involved with the Croydon and Wimbledon branch of Relate and eventually became its chairman. He explains: "I soon realised that I enjoyed my voluntary work more than my paid job, so I set about looking for a job in the charity sector."

While it may be true that most problem gamblers are men, Cox insists there is no such thing as the typical gambler. The emergence of internet gambling has also led to a rise in the number of female gamblers because women are much more likely to place a bet online than walk into a betting shop. In fact, 64 per cent of online punters are women and, last year, Britons bet £3.5bn online.

But what makes a person change from a recreational gambler to a problem gambler? Cox says there is no simple answer: "For some it can be that they are very competitive, for others it might be that they are escaping a frustrating job or that they are simply lonely. It is hard to say what comes first, though - do people turn to gambling because they have a difficult job or relationship, or is it the other way round? We also live in a time where gambling and credit card debt has become more acceptable."

The last notable shake-up of the gambling industry took place after the publication of a government report in 2000 which concluded that the industry should donate £10 for each gambling addict. The Responsibility In Gambling Trust was set up to collect and distribute this money, and it is from this organisation that Gamcare gets its funding. The trust collects about £3m a year, around £750,000 of which goes to Gamcare.

The Bill proposes the creation of the Gambling Commission in 2006 to ensure the industry demonstrates real responsibility. One of Gamcare's proposals to help addicts is that contracts of self-exclusion be drawn up between customers who want to stop gambling and their betting shop.

This would then be circulated to other betting shops. Cox says: "It is in the betting shop's interests to have regular punters who can afford to pay, not someone with a serious problem who has maybe turned to drink as a result and causes a scene in the shop."

He concludes: "The Government realises it has made mistakes with alcohol and drugs, as have previous governments, in that the NHS has had to pick up the tab. With gambling, the thinking is that the polluter should pay.

"The real test now is how these principles are applied in practice."

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