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Gambling levy to be forced on gaming firms 6/01/2009
Andrew Sparrow

Gambling companies may have to pay a compulsory £5m-a-year levy because of their "very disappointing" failure to fully fund treatment for gambling addicts, the government said today.

Publishing a consultation paper, sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe said the money would be used to fund helplines and treatment centres for gambling addicts, as well as to pay for research.

Sutcliffe said the government was resorting to a compulsory levy because gaming firms were failing to fund this sort of treatment on a voluntary basis. The industry has three months to draft an acceptable voluntary scheme or the government will quickly impose its alternative.

"We have put the protection of vulnerable people at the heart of the Gambling Act and that remains our priority," he said.

"We must ensure that organisations working to prevent and treat problem gambling are given the financial security they need to carry out the important work they do."

Gaming operators have been contributing to treatment programmes voluntarily since 2002 under an arrangement administered by the Responsibility in Gambling Trust.

The Gambling Commission said in 2007 that a compulsory levy should be imposed in 2009 if the industry failed to meet set funding targets. For the past two years the money has been provided only very late in the financial year, and for 2008-09 the fund is still about £1.2m short of its current £4.5m target. In 2009-10 the funding target will rise to £5m.

"Gambling operators have a responsibility to help fund [research, education and treatment] and it is very disappointing that the industry has so far failed to agree improved voluntary arrangements to do this," said Sutcliffe. He was still willing to accept a voluntary arrangement, provided the gambling industry proposed an acceptable scheme. Otherwise, following the end of the consultation in March, the government will impose a statutory levy. The terms of the Gambling Act mean ministers can do this simply, using secondary legislation.

Under the draft proposals, firms running betting shops, casinos, bingo halls and other gambling outlets would pay an annual flat fee, depending on the type of premises run and the volume of gambling offered. The smallest bookmakers and family entertainment centres would not have to contribute.

The Liberal Democrats said the government should have acted sooner. Don Foster, the party's culture spokesman, said the government first threatened to impose a statutory levy in 2003. "The delay in providing proper gambling addiction services in this country has been a disgrace. Ministers have repeatedly turned a blind eye to the problems their reforms have caused while continuing their hell-bent pursuit of the gambling tax bonanza," he said.

"While some parts of the industry have paid up, the vast majority have shown a complete disregard for their responsibility to fund problem gambling services. Today's announcement is only a small step forward. We now need the government to recognise that gambling addiction is a health problem and ensure all local health authorities develop strategies to deal with it."