In this episode of Political Agenda, Chris Lomas speaks to Matt Zarb-Cousin, a reformed gambling addict, whose campaigning on the topic is helping to shape a landmark review on changing the UK’s gambling laws.
At 16, Matt became addicted to fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBT) and ran up gambling debts of around £20,000.
Zarb-Cousin admits gambling addiction “does completely take over your life.
“Your brain is effectively telling you need to gamble to live… you don’t derive pleasure from anything else.”
As a recovered gambling addict, Matt set up and is director of Clean Up Gambling, a campaign group to lobby the government to reform the UK’s gambling laws, and was recently featured on ‘Paul Merson: Football, Gambling and Me.’
For Zarb-Cousin, viewing gambling as a potential health risk is crucial.
“That’s one of the things we want to shift, is that understanding, that framework to a public health framework, and that’s how we should regulate it.”
Since the 2005 Gambling Act, the digital revolution of the 21st century has changed the gambling landscape. According to Zarb-Cousin, the UK’s current gambling laws are poorly equipped to deal with the challenges presented by the gambling industry.
“I think we know so much more about gambling harm and how it’s caused now compared to the 2005 Gambling Act before we had smartphones and before internet gambling really took off.
“That legislation now needs to be brought into 2022.
Creating a gambling ombudsman, more money to treat gambling addiction, and changing the laws on advertising are just some of the changes advocated by Zarb-Cousin.
“All of these things I think aren’t radical,” he said.
The sheer volume of gambling advertising in society is another key aspect Zarb-Cousin is adamant needs changing.
“I think there’s an argument to end all advertising.
“Advertising around football and the impact it’s having on children… the evidence is overwhelming.”
According to Zarb-Cousin, fundamental change can only occur if the gambling business model is changed for the long term.
“Unfortunately, it’s a business model that derives the vast majority of its revenue from people losing more than they can afford.
“I believe that can change, and it might cost them… but it would make for a much more sustainable industry if they’re not constantly having to invest more and more into marketing to acquire new gamblers.”
The gambling industry has an active lobbying operation in Westminster, with several MPs having been accused of taking hospitality gifts from gambling firms and allegedly lobbying on their behalf.
Last month, the all-party parliamentary group on betting and gaming produced a report criticising the Gambling Commission for trying to reduce to reduce addiction.
Zarb-Cousin says “there are a few dozen MPs that have taken a huge amount of gifts in hospitality from the gambling industry”, and have been “reading off their script.” He adds the “overwhelming majority” of MPs support the government’s proposed reforms.
A long-awaited Gambling Act review is not expected until May. Minister for gambling Chris Philp told the House of Commons in February the findings of the review will be published “in the near future.”
Zarb-Cousin is no stranger to working in political circles. He spent 2016-17 as Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesperson when the MP for Islington North was the leader of the opposition.
“I actually applied for it because it [the job description] was mocked on Have I Got News for You?”
Zarb-Cousin says the experience “does take over your life, whether you like it or not.
“Everything that happens, it’s difficult to not take it personally and it’s difficult for it not to affect you, you know, your mental health and affect you in different ways.
“I don’t think that you will ever have a stronger bond with the people that you work with than the people you work with in politics.”
“Mistakes were made after that election.
“It’s easy to say that in hindsight, but you know, if we had allowed the deal to pass that May brought back… actually the government would have fallen if the deal passed.”
Over two years on from Labour’s 2019 general election defeat, and the party finds itself in a very different place under the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer.
“It’s pretty clear what he’s done is the path of least resistance.
“‘We’ll kick the left as publicly and in a very kind of obvious way to signal to the right-wing press that we’re a safe pair of hands for capital.’”
For Zarb-Cousin, the ostracising of Corbyn is a sign that the party is more divided than ever.
“The political opponents within and outside of the party did a job on Jeremy after 2017.
“The idea that Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party from 2015 to 2019 has been kicked out by the leader that succeeded him. I mean it just really does illustrate just how polarised the Labour party is”.
Zarb-Cousin is looking to the future, and the potential of considerable and meaningful change to the UK’s gambling laws.
When the Gambling Act review does finally arrive, Zarb-Cousin believes the package of reforms will “surprise a lot of people.
“I’m optimistic that given the scope of the review and given where the public conversations got to, and the level of support in parliament, that we’ll get quite a bit changed.”