Hawke’s Bay’s gambling watchdog says pokie venues turning ‘blind eye’ to harm

Up to 10 per cent of Hawke’s Bay’s population are now problem gamblers, and venues in the region are being accused of “turning a blind eye” to its harm.

Vicki Berkahn, Te Rangihaeata Oranga Trust and Hawke’s Bay Gambling Services’ general manager, is demanding Department of Internal Affairs changes to enable prosecutions.

HBGS provides free counselling and health promotion services to Hawke’s Bay including Wairoa, Napier, Hastings and Central Hawke’s Bay.

It is funded by the Ministry of Health and aims to prevent and minimise gambling harm.

“Every gambling venue in Hawke’s Bay has a known problem gambler coming in. These venues know who they are, and they are simply turning a blind eye,” Berkahn told Hawke’s Bay Today this week.

In response, the DIA says it is the regulator of gambling, but it also expects venues to do “more than the minimum required by law”.

The Gambling (Harm Prevention and Minimisation) Regulations 2004 require gaming machine operators to provide problem gambling awareness training to the venue manager and any other staff, so as to ensure there is always a trained person at the venue whenever the pokies are available.

The training must at least enable them to approach a player they have reasonable grounds to believe may be experiencing difficulties related to gambling, and provide information about the characteristics of problem gambling.

The Department of Internal Affairs recently agreed to prosecute a publican in Canterbury for failing to take all reasonable steps to identify a problem gambler.

It was the first such case, and the DIA issued a press release in which then-gambling director Chris Thornborough said it “signals our strong focus on protecting people from gambling harm”.

But it took three years to get to court and two days into the trial at the Christchurch District Court the case collapsed. It was thrown out by Judge Tom Gilbert, who said the DIA’s problem gambling policies were too inadequate to sustain a conviction.

Berkahn says the ruling means it will be near-impossible for any publican to be prosecuted for the offence of ignoring patrons showing signs of problem gambling.

“It has been a shocking revelation to our staff that even when a strong case for venue prosecution is pursued it is not successful.”

Berkahn said there were more than 40 gambling venues in Hawke’s Bay and each had different policies and often had frequent staff turnover.

“Often staff are unaware of host responsibilities or are not confident enough to implement them.

“Gamblers are sitting at machines for hours on end, spending money they cannot afford. It’s going unnoticed.”

She said an example had occurred in just the past few days in Hawke’s Bay of a man using his daughter’s entire savings for university on a day at the pokies.

Berkahn said she wanted the DIA to be more direct and draft new rules for venues to follow.

“Until there is a law change, our gamblers will continue to tell us they can spend several hours over weeks and years of repeated behaviour without ever being tapped on the shoulder or having a venue staff member intervene.”

A DIA spokesperson said the department’s goal as the gambling regulator was to ensure iwi, hapū and communities were safe, resilient and thriving by minimising gambling harm.

“We work hard with venues, societies and communities to tackle this problem and our role in improving the situation is not one we take lightly,” they said.

“We expect venues and societies to do more than the minimum required by law, as they have a social responsibility to the communities they are in.”

Under legislation, councils are unable to police the operation of gambling venues; that is the role of the DIA.

Hastings District Council deputy mayor Tania Kerr said her council fully supported Berkahn’s call for change.

“We would also like to see greater enforcement of the rules that are already in place,” Kerr said.

“As it stands, under legislation the only tool councils have is to tighten their policies, which Hastings District Council did in its last review in December 2020.

“We moved from a cap on gaming venues to a ‘sinking lid’ policy. That means no further venues can be opened, even if another closes. Strict rules on the relocation of existing venues were also put in place.”

AT A GLANCE:

Hawke’s Bay Gambling Services

– Funded by the Ministry of Health
– Provides free counselling for problem gamblers
– Used by 1200 people a year
– 75 people excluded from gambling venues in HB this year
– Two-thirds of the problem gamblers it has identified are women

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