21 Mar 2014

Anti-gambling body loses funding

10:21 pm on 21 March 2014

The largest problem gambling service in New Zealand has had most of its funding cut and the contract for three-quarters of its services will end mid-year.

The foundation said the Ministry of Health has told it there is a better offer for the clinical and public health services it provides, and will not be contracting the bulk of the current services after 30 June.

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Photo: 123RF

Foundation chief executive Graeme Ramsey told Radio New Zealand's Nine to Noon programme on Friday that most of its 63 staff will lose their jobs.

Mr Ramsey said the organisation had provided half the problem gambling help in the country and focused on vulnerable communities. "Pasifika communities, Maori communities, low socio-economic communities - that's where the bulk of "harm from gambling is felt, and consequently that's where we work probably the hardest."

The foundation has criticised various forms of gambling, has often spoken out about the dangers of pokies and has criticised the Government's SkyCity national convention centre deal.

Mr Ramsey said it was not for him to say whether the funding cut was connected and he would let people draw their own conclusions. "But I will say that I think there will be celebrations in some pokie trusts and at SkyCity tonight." He said the only foundation services to retain funding are those for Asian communities.

Associate Minister of Health Peter Dunne on Friday said that the Salvation Army is the proposed new provider.

The Ministry of Health said the tender process was contestable and an independent review by PricewaterhouseCoopers has confirmed it followed good practice. The ministry said there would be a significant increase in frontline staff and, as at present, a national contract supported by regional contracts.

Mr Dunne Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme on Friday that people will still be able to get quality services for gambling issues and the change is not about reducing the help on offer.

"The overall intention is that the level of funding being provided will be in the ballpark of what it was previously. This is all about making sure that those people who have gambling related problems get the best possible access to the service."

Meanwhile, the Salvation Army said on Friday it hasn't been told officially if it's won the gambling service contract.

Head of addiction services Captain Gerry Walker said he has only been told it has a contract. He said the organisation did put in a tender for more work, which would require more staff. He refused to go into any more detail, saying the tender is confidential until a contract has been signed.

Decision not political, says minister

Peter Dunne.

Peter Dunne. Photo: RNZ

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne on Friday flatly rejected claims that the decision to cut funding to the Problem Gambling Foundation was political.

The Labour and Green parties claim funding was cut because the foundation spoke out against the SkyCity convention centre deal.

The deal allows SkyCity to expand its gaming operations in return for building the $402 million complex in Auckland. SkyCity will have its Auckland casino licence extended until 2048 and can operate 230 extra gaming machines and 52 more gaming tables.

Labour Party Internal Affairs spokesperson Trevor Mallard said he thinks the decision to cut the funding was political, as the foundation criticised the SkyCity deal and quantified harm it said occurred when more pokies are provided.

But Mr Dunne said the Ministry of Health has been very careful to keep the process clearly separate from any perception of political interference.

"There's just not one shred of truth in this allegation. It's shameful, it reflects on the integrity of the people making these allegations and it detracts from a process which has been robust, independent, it's been peer reviewed and it's probably one of the better processes that has been undertaken in this area for a very long time."

Mr Dunne said the Salvation Army has been critical of the Government in certain areas over the years, including about the SkyCity deal, and there is no reason why that would prevent the organisation from getting the contract.

Inexplicable move, says union

The Public Service Association says problem gamblers could slip through the cracks without a specialised service.

The funding cut means the Problem Gambling Foundation is now only able to carry out specialist services for Asian communities. PSA national secretary Brenda Pilott says this does not make sense.

"We believe the Problem Gambling Foundation is the one specialist agency in the country ... One of the most reputable, professional organisations in this area across Australasia - so the decision of the Ministry of Health to cut their funding is inexplicable, quite frankly."

Ms Pilott said casino and pokie numbers are growing, so problem gambling is not going away.

The co-director of the Gambling Research Centre at the Auckland University of Technology said the foundation's coverage across New Zealand has been the envy of the rest of the world.

Professor Max Abbott said he would be very concerned if the ministry had not taken this into account when picking a new provider and it should be looking at providing similar, if not better, coverage.