A leading councillor has spoken out about her past gambling problem, writes Local Democracy Reporter Alex Metcalfe.

NORMA STEPHENSON cuts an imposing figure on Teesside’s political scene. Her gravelly tones hold Stockton planning meetings in check and she is known for her plain speaking. But there was a time when gambling held a grip on her life.

The member for Hardwick and Salters Lane revealed her personal battle with slot machines while sitting in on a review into problem gambling at Stockton Council last year.

And the 63-year-old has revealed how engrained the problem became when she was bringing up her young family in 1970s Stockton.

“It started off passing time and then it slowly progressed to something I had to do every day," says Cllr Stephenson.

“And then it got worse and worse – the problem I had was a I could afford to gamble but that slowly got to the stage where I was hiding how much I was spending.”

The grandmother-of-seven has carved out a career in politics.

She was the national president of UNISON in 2007/8 and national chairman of the Labour Party in 2010/11.

But back in the 1970s she worked as a barmaid at the Hardwick Hotel before becoming a healthcare worker at North Tees Hospital.

It was then the bright lights of the one-arm bandits on Stockton High Street caught her attention.

“It never bothered me in the pubs – I used to live off the town when I was first married with the kids,” says Cllr Stephenson.

“It started off passing time – it was the arcade that’s still there. It’s when you start sneaking in – you realise you are doing something wrong.

“At one point I would just walk in and put in a pound. But this was the 1970s when a couple of pound was quite a bit of money.

“I could afford it then but then it gets to the stage where you are stopping things you should be doing in order to gamble.”

The mother-of-two found the habit crept up on her daily routine – getting to the point where she couldn’t go to town and walk past the arcade without having a punt.

“At one point I was in tears over it – I couldn’t walk past it without spending money,” she adds.

The losses mounted up as time went on and the nadir came when she lost a month’s rent in one go. “It was £20 – but bearing in mind it was the 70s and my rent was £5-a-week – it was a lot of money,” says Cllr Stephenson.

“They just wanted you in and there were people worse than me. In them days I got to the stage where if I was going to town to shop, I only took enough money to shop.

“If there was a couple of pound left, I might go in. It was a long journey and I was hiding it because I knew my husband would have hit the roof if he knew.”

She said it was the endorphin rush of bells and whistles and the sound of coins dropping kept her firing in the cash – rather than the wins themselves.

“Within an hour the winnings would have gone back in again. The more I won, the longer I stayed. I never came out winning. It was a good day if I came out not losing.”

The “penny dropped” for Cllr Stephenson when she confided in her colleagues when working part-time at a mental health unit.

Approaches of “opening-up” and talking over behaviours are commonplace in managing a range of addictions nowadays.

But help for gambling addiction was not widely available 40 years ago.

Her work colleagues kept an eye on how much she was spending and helped keep her on the right track.

She added: “I worked nights so we used to talk a lot through the night. I was with one of the girls and I said I was in the arcade and I had lost £20.

“She said it was absolutely ridiculous – but I couldn’t help it. Slowly, within a group of us we all got talking about it.

“There was no saying ‘you shouldn’t be doing that’ – it was more ‘do you realise the consequences’ – and they told me it wouldn’t get any better.”

She slowly weaned herself off the bandits – only taking as much money as she needed into town and dropping in the odd pound in here and there.

Cllr Stephenson adds: “I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere near one any more.

“I’ve got an addictive personality – now I play solitaire an awful lot. And I feel good because it’s not cost me anything.”

Stockton Council shone a light on gambling in the borough last year.

Its review estimated Stockton had a minimum of 1,000-1,200 people aged over 16 who are “problem gamblers” – with a further 5,600-6,100 classed as “at-risk”.

It urged council partners and staff do more to “screen” people for gambling problems and encouraged “resilience training” for youngsters.

Concerns were also raised about levels of gambling advertising during sports fixtures and ease of access to gambling via smartphones.

“It’s the ease of it," says Cllr Stephenson. "I sit and watch the telly and I see these adverts saying are you going to bingo?

“But I know, if I downloaded that app, it would slowly drain all my money.”

Given her experiences, Cllr Stephenson believes dealing with problem gambling is everyone’s responsibility – from online gambling giants to health authorities and councils. “It’s about working together,” she says.

“Especially now with the financial situation and austerity, I think people will be chasing their demons – trying to get that one big win that’s going to put everything right and it never is.”

The National Gambling Helpline provides confidential advice, information and emotional support to anyone experiencing problems with gambling. Call free on 0808 8020 133, 8am to midnight, seven days a week.