Interesting comments on future RET funding from former YGAM CEO Lee Willows

We have previously reported (on 7 June 2022) on a Westminster Hall debate on the question of a Statutory Gambling Levy to fund problem gambling research, education and treatment.

It is interesting therefore to read comments on this same subject-matter made by Lee Willows (Founder and former CEO of Young Gamers & Gamblers Education Trust (YGAM) and now Founder and Executive Chair of ESG Gaming), reported in the current edition of ‘Casino International’.

Warning that the UK risks losing its status as a leader in Social Responsibility, Willows is quoted as saying:

I firmly believe the UK is a global leader in Social Responsibility, but I worry that flame might be dimming as the funding debate becomes more about a desire to break-up the very eco-system that supported me and today supports many others. It is this Third Sector-led eco-system that to my mind, makes us world-class.

Adding remarks that are likely to strike a chord with many concerned with the current direction of travel following the announcement in February of this year by NHS England national mental health director Claire Murdoch that the NHS is rejecting any further funding from GambleAware and instead fund its own gambling services, he has said:

Why have we allowed it to come down to narrow choices between the NHS or the Third Sector to deliver a national programme of treatment – why can’t both co-exist? I have often said we need a choir of voices and organisations in this space. Why is it so difficult for start-up organisations – often led by individuals with Lived Experience – to access funding? Why is the funding debate consistently tarnished by some who feel there is a lack of independence as opposed to recognising the impact of that funding, which in my experience is completely independent. Finally, why are we not humbled that addiction levels are coming down and education and awareness is now at an all-time high, being led by superb charities in a considered, well-thought and evidenced manner?

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. 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 dilute their level of involvement in reducing harms.

Whilst there is much more to be achieved, we should be humbled by this progress. Do we really think that big state (NHS only) programmes, funded by a statutory levy can do any better? Will big state programmes enable agility and innovation? Will big state programmes deliver better value for money? Will big state programmes really provide the funding for very local services or take a risk on start-up organisations or ideas, particularly from those with Lived-Experience, often starting out as sole-traders? Will big state, one size fits all programmes, be able to deal with the complexities around gambling addictions?

Several years ago, I led the work of a national reducing re-offending charity at the time when the Probation Services were being privatised. A slightly different scenario, but a similar outcome in that the PLC companies and the state won many of the contracts, forcing many charities to close. Wind the clock forward and re-offending rates today remain broadly where they were prior to privatisation. The tragedy is that re-offending rates were beginning to drop, prior to privatisation. Beneficiaries of services often would say that they had a personal connection with the staff member supporting them from charities, whereas they were more like a number when being supported by the larger companies. It has also been proven consistently that charity-run services almost always deliver better value for money.

Explaining his suggested alternative to a statutory RET levy, he has said:

It will not surprise you that I do not support a statutory levy. There is much comfort to take from the current eco-system 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.

Firstly the new strategy to reduce gambling-harms should be fully costed (so we actually know how much funding we need as opposed to a blanket 1%); secondly some mandated guidance should be given to operators when making donations, based on percentages for treatment, prevention and research; finally larger businesses should in my opinion, be mandated to commit 50% of their LCCP RET donations to fund three-year funding commitments in order to ensure sustainability. Operators need certainty, so they can budget donations; charities and non-profit organisations need certainly so they can plan services.

He has also cast doubt on the notion that the Gambling Commission should continue to administer the application of regulatory settlement funds, itself the focus of the regulator’s recently published guidance around submitting a proposal for Regulatory Settlement funding (as reported by us here), stating as follows:

The notion of a Gambling Commission held RET list is something I continue to support, but I would also question if it is appropriate that the Gambling Commission administer Regulatory Settlements. Perhaps having another body or organisation to oversee these would bring about some of the reflections I am proposing, particularly where prevention is concerned. This would enable the Commission to focus on its regulatory responsibilities.