Milton Keynes gambler counselling cut "looks like a cover up"

MK Council
MK Council

A Milton Keynes Council scrutiny committee has called for a review of a decision to cut funding meant to help vulnerable gamblers in the city amid fears of a “cover-up”.

The committee chairman told the health and adult social care scrutiny committee on Tuesday (Feb 19) that a report from officials was so vague, and people had to work so hard to extract information from MK Council, that it “looks like a cover-up”.

Every year the council receives around £675,000 from Casino MK as part of an agreement made in 2012.

Since 2014, some £175,000 of the payment has been used to pay mental health charity MIND to provide a counselling service, which includes support for vulnerable gamblers. The payment rises each year in line with inflation.

But that support to MIND ends in April and the council will be using the money to boost its own under-pressure mental health services. The council will no longer commission free counselling services, which were last year used by 1,200 people.

MIND is trying to raise funds to replace the lost income, which amounted to more than £200,000 last year after being topped up by funds from the NHS. The Health and Adult Social Care Scrutiny Committee heard on Tuesday (Feb 19) that the new service would be able to help just 200 people.

Cllr Catriona Morris chairs the council’s licensing committee and believes the decision could lead to more problems in the future. She doesn’t blame the casino for gambling problems in the city, instead pointing to the use of mobile phones to access gambling websites.

“Fifty per cent of the population is affected by gambling in one form or another, which has an impact on housing and health, and children not attending school,” she said. She called for research into the scale of the issue in Milton Keynes, and the committee agreed.

Victoria Collins, the council’s acting director of social services, told the committee that redirecting the money from MIND to in-house mental health services would support other vulnerable people. At the same time, staff could be trained to recognise the signs of gambling addiction.

But Cllr Paul Williams said the decision to help problem gamblers addressed concerns from Central Milton Keynes at the time the casino was allowed. “I worry that the concerns of CMK when the casino opened are now being ignored.”

And Jaime Tamagnini, a former councillor and member of the licensing committee at the time, said the intention of the committee was to use the money to help vulnerable gamblers.

“What has been done is probably legal but was not the intention of the committee at the time,” he said.

And although council officers say the move was supported by a budget decision last year, Cllr Morris said the budget papers supported keeping specific support for vulnerable gamblers.

Cllr Alice Jenkins, who chairs the committee, said: “This is a vague report, which leaves more questions than answers. It’s only as a result of a lot of hard work to bring information together that we have anything to scrutinise.

“It has been quite frustrating and makes it look like a cover-up. The fact that officers did not know of any potential ring-fencing of the money also raises alarm bells.”