With a new gambling addiction clinic due to open in Leeds, two Yorkshire families open up about the devastation the dependency causes to those in its grip. Chris Burn reports.
On the surface, David Bradford had an enviable life with a good job, nice home and a loving family. But the financial controller from Sheffield was hiding a secret that he struggled to admit even to himself; a crippling gambling addiction that plunged him into such a dire financial situation he stole more than £50,000 from the company he was working for.
His double life finally caught up with him in April 2014, when he was jailed for two years for fraud. Bradford, now 62 and working 70 hours a week as a self-employed courier, says it was only when the sentence was passed and that he accepted he had a problem.
“Throughout the time I was gambling, if I did ever see a warning like ‘if the fun stops, stop’, I thought it didn’t apply to me, it was for somebody else,” he says. “The time I realised I had got a problem was when I was sent to prison. The mind has a box in it where all this bad stuff has gone but you put a lid on it. To me I could never get a grasp on the person who was the addict. It was like somebody else I knew.”
His sentence came as a gigantic shock to his family after he had hidden both his problem and the court case from them. David’s son Adam, who was 21 at the time, says it was only when the family got a call from a solicitor to say his father was on his way to prison that the devastating truth started to come out.
David started to receive counselling while in jail and penned an emotional public letter from his prison cell warning others falling into a similar situation to seek help and avoid his fate.
“This is my truth. I am a fraudster. I am a gambler, maybe a compulsive gambler,” he wrote. “I was swallowed down this tunnel to a point where I could only borrow money to finance the repayments of earlier borrowing, a self-perpetuating and self-defeating spiral of debt. I never shared the state of my debt-ridden life – not with my family, not even with myself. Along this journey of deceit I took to gambling – firstly as a way of making a quick win to kill this mountain of debt and then, as it failed to live up to those expectations, it became an escape with potential to cure my money ailments.
“If anyone sees a little piece of themselves in my story may I offer them this advice – never lie. Seek help and support at the first sign of trouble.”
David says the letter, which made national news, was his attempt to start to “try and put things right”. Adam and David now campaign for better regulation of the gambling industry but David says it has been a struggle to rebuild his life.
“What I have experienced is the hell for families that go through this. I have got a fantastic family that stayed behind me – they are the people who have probably been hurt the most. It is approaching four years since I came out and I have never been able to get a proper job. My life and my family’s life has been almost ruined. But Adam and I want to try and effect some kind of change for the better.”
Adam says: “It is a mental health problem and people don’t realise the impact it has on a family. It was really important for us to say, he is not a bad person, he just got caught up in something terrible and poisonous.”
Adam adds says awareness has greatly improved in the past few years and British-based gambling companies such as Sky Bet have been particularly proactive to reducing risk to customers. But he adds there are many challenges – especially with foreign betting companies who don’t abide by Gambling Commission rules. “There could be lots of different terms and conditions to entice people in, things like ‘Join now and get a £50 free bet’. But when you read the small print, you might have to spend £350 before you can withdraw any winnings. My dad’s case is quite extreme. But there are many families that have had similar stories.”
Adam says the recent Government U-turn over the timing of a cut to maximum stakes on fixed-odds betting terminals following the resignation of sports minister Tracey Crouch on the issue shows the tide is turning.
“We are really pleased the Government has seen sense and decided to prioritise minimising harm over their own income and the profits of the industry,” he says. “It is a shame it took a good minister like Tracey Crouch to resign and a rebellion in order to make this happen, but thankfully common sense has prevailed. Now, many suicides will be prevented and we can get on with making High Street betting safer for people, as well as speeding up the implementation of other measures like player protection for online gambling and a review into advertising. This is a start of a long journey of reform for the industry but one which is much required.”
In a further sign of changing attitudes, it was also announced this month that a new NHS clinic for gambling addiction is to open next year in Leeds, the first outside London. It will be funded by funded by an annual £1.2m grant from the GambleAware charity, which is funded by money from the gambling industry.
One of those who had campaigned for such a facility is Anne Evans, from Doncaster, whose 40-year-old son Alan Lockhart killed himself in 2010 after his gambling spiralled out of control. Following her son’s death, she joined others affected by the addiction in setting up the Young Gamblers Education Trust, which provides training in schools to help children and young people steer clear of the potential dangers.
It is estimated that in the UK there are around 340,000 people with a gambling problem and another 1.75m ‘at risk’ of developing one but currently only two per cent are currently getting the support they need.
She says trying to get support to deal with Alan’s situation when he was alive “was like looking for a needle in a haystack”.
Anne says Alan’s problems started when he was a teenager but only became apparent to her and her husband when he started his working life and had “endless” problems with money, despite earning a good living as a car salesman.
“It is the family that is affected. Everyone deals with it in a different way. How Alan’s dad and I dealt with was to keep it to ourselves and not tell anyone because we were ashamed,” she explains.
“We didn’t want to cause friction between him and his brother and his sister. We did what we could and got lots and lots of promises he was going to give up. But it was impossible for him to stop.
“It started as a teenager by his own admission on slot machines and fruit machines.
“It was only when he started work and no matter how much he was earning, he never had enough money. His dad was always bailing him out in exchange for promises and promises this would be the last time. Unfortunately, the problem just escalated until it was huge amounts of money he owed.
“Alan was absolutely brilliant at schools, brilliant at maths, which I think made him feel he could beat the system. He was a big sportsman, a junior champion at the golf club and a good snooker player who would bet someone £1,000 he would beat them and he would beat them.
“He was very competitive and a very likeable young lad. We really couldn’t fault him.
“It got to the point where he owed a massive amount of money, he was overdrawn on six credit cards. It was a frightening amount of money and really shocked us. We extracted absolutely sincere promises from him that he would never do it again. But I’m afraid it didn’t last.
“My husband had fallen ill and was in and out of hospital. Alan was asking for money for this and that and I could no longer keep it a secret from his brother and sister. There was a big family upset. That was when Alan took himself off and his dad died six weeks later. For the next two years, I heard stories about his gambling and spending time in the bookies from other people. I knew that he had lost his house, his job and everything. Then I was told he had hung himself in his bedroom of his rented accommodation and his landlord had found him. That was a time of absolute devastation.”
Like Adam and David, she feels that despite the many challenges posed by gambling – such as the constant adverts during televised sport and the easy availability of online sites that appeal to young people – considerable progress has been made thanks to the work of organisations like YGAM, where she is a trustee along with her new husband Keith.
“We have gone from a blank canvas to the issue rarely being out of the news. We feel it is so important to work with the industry otherwise you are banging on a shut door.”
Anne says she hopes the new Leeds facility will be a “lifeline” to stop other families going through the pain hers have suffered. “Anybody who needs it should be able to get help. I know from experience how you feel when you ask for help and you are told, ‘I don’t know anything about it’ – it is devastating.
“The gambling industry have a responsibility to customers. If you are in any kind of business, you need to run it without endangering your customers.”
Identifying the signs of problem gambling
Sessions to educate youth workers and teachers about spotting problem gambling warning signs among young people have been taking place in Yorkshire.
Charity GamCare arranged talks in Leeds and Hull to tie in with Responsible Gambling Week.
Megan Pengelly, Youth Outreach Coordinator at GamCare, says there are three key impacts to look out for which show someone might be developing a problem.
They are financial – someone spending more than they can afford on betting; psychological – going through mood swings connected to gambling successes and failures and social – spending more time with a fruit machine than friends on a night out, for example. The talks also involved highlighting available help.