Lee Willows, YGAM's former CEO

UK risks losing social responsibility leadership if mandatory gambling levy to fund treatment introduced, YGAM founder says

Lee Willows, Founder & Executive Chair of ESG Gaming.
Reading time 3:12 min

Lee Willows, founder and former CEO of responsible gambling charity Young Gamers & Gamblers Education Trust (YGAM), has said the UK risks losing its status as “a world-class leader in social responsibility” should the government introduce a mandatory levy to fund treatment and prevention.

The long-standing lived-experience leader —who has recently launched ESG Gaming & Esports Community, a new non-profit venture with a focus on esports, iGaming careers and safer-gambling research— shared reflections on the debate around research, education and treatment (RET) programs in a new speech. “We should be humbled that addiction levels are coming down: do we really think that big state programmes, funded by a statutory levy and controlled by the NHS could do any better?,” he stated.

“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,” warned Willows. “It is this third sector-led eco-system that, to my mind, makes us world-class.”

Speaking after the Westminster Media Forum on gambling regulation, Willows, who founded YGAM after his own battle with gambling addiction, asked: “Why have we allowed the debate 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?”

The third sector currently provides over 90% of treatment and prevention work in the United Kingdom, reaching all four nations. Its approach is defended by many as being evidence-led and independently evaluated.

Willows has called for “a choir of voices and organizations” in this space, and warned that funding access for start-up organizations -often led by individuals with lived experience- can be “difficult.” Additionally, he said the funding debate is “consistently tarnished” by some who feel there is a lack of independence as opposed to recognizing the impact of that funding.

Why are we not humbled that addiction levels are coming down and education and awareness are now at an all-time high, being led by superb charities in a considered, well-thought and evidenced manner?,” YGAM’s founder said.

According to the expert, divisions and the potential introduction of a statutory levy “carry significant risks” and undermine “a lot of the good work that’s been undertaken.” He defended the current ecosystem to deliver treatment, support and prevention, stating it didn’t happen overnight, being the result of “a huge collective effort.”

“A statutory levy risks being seen by operators as another tax and as a result dilutes their level of involvement in reducing harms,” Willows said. “Will big state programmes really provide the funding for very local services or take a risk on start-up organizations or ideas? [...] Will big state, one size fits all programmes, be able to deal with the complexities around gambling addictions?”

Willows was direct in stating he does not support a statutory levy, and said it has been proven “consistently” that charity-run services “almost always deliver better value for money.” Additionally, he commented that beneficiaries of services often say that they have “a personal connection” with staff members supporting them from charities.

There is much comfort to take from the current ecosystem and the many charities and non-profit organizations working hard in this space and in collaboration with the NHS and it would be a big mistake to risk this,” Willows said.

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

Looking to the short/medium-term, YGAM’s founder identified a strategy to reduce gambling harm and encourage agility in this regard. “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%),” he explained.

Secondly, Willows suggested “some mandated guidance should be given to operators when making donations,” based on percentages for treatment, prevention and research; and finally, he proposed larger businesses “should 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 organizations need certainty so they can plan services,” the lived-experience leader noted. 

While the expert said the notion of a Gambling Commission-held RET list is something he “continues to support,” Willows questioned if it is appropriate that the Gambling Commission administer Regulatory Settlements

Perhaps having another body or organization to oversee these would bring about some of the reflections I am proposing, particularly where prevention is concerned,” he concluded his speech. “This would enable the Commission to focus on its regulatory responsibilities.”

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