We need big changes and a race to the top on standards in gambling, writes new standards body chief Michael Dugher
This week I start as chief executive at the new standards body, the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) after three years as CEO at UK Music. The BGC brings together betting shops, casinos and online operators to drive improvements in standards across the regulated industry.
If I’m being honest, a typical reaction to my appointment came from a mate who said: “Why on earth would you want to do that? Have you had enough of going to the BRIT Awards?!” One cabinet minister texted me to say they thought I was “brave”. Sadly I could tell they meant it in the same way Sir Humphrey, in ‘Yes Minister’, famously described a potentially stupid or reckless decision as “very brave and courageous”.
The role will certainly be challenging. But when I took on this job it was based on the clear understanding that this was an industry committed to making big changes. And I am determined it will be a race to the top on industry standards.
Already the members have introduced a ‘whistle to whistle’ ban on advertising; substantially increased funding for research, education and treatment (RET); introduced new ID and age-verification checks; ended exclusive rights to screen FA Cup games and will ban betting with credit cards from April.
One of the things you hear all the time, especially from fellow parents and sports fans, is that gambling advertising can be too much in your face. The good news is the recent ‘whistle to whistle’ ban is working. But there is more to do. Sports Minister Nigel Adams has rightly called for further changes. That’s why I will be making it a priority to widely consult on a new advertising and sponsorship code of practice as part of five new core ‘Safer Gambling Commitments’.
I recognise the concerns people have when around 0.6 per cent of those who bet are classed as ’problem gamblers’. Of those problem gamblers, a smaller but still significant number are ‘disordered’ or addicted gamblers. That might be a tiny fraction – and we shouldn’t forget of course that millions of people gamble safely – but the effect of addiction on these individuals and their families can be devastating.
There was a story in the press recently that there were 321 gambling related hospital admissions. Whilst that may be a small number compared with the hundreds of thousands of people who are admitted every year because of alcohol it is still really concerning. I am therefore pleased to see that health secretary, Matt Hancock, is taking the issue so seriously. He is right to introduce, for the first time ever, NHS treatment clinics for gambling-related harm. Similarly, DCMS Minister Helen Whately has also demanded that more must be done.
Whereas the NHS has always had to pick up the bill for Britain’s alcohol problems, for more than 20 years the betting and gaming industry has been the sole funders of treatment in the UK. Importantly, the largest BGC members are committing an additional £100 million to research, education and treatment (RET) over the next four years.
I’m also pleased to see that new age-verification and ID checks have resulted in literally hundreds of thousands of accounts being closed recently, where the customer was unable or unwilling to meet the new strict criteria.
So, if industry is prepared to step up and do much, much more, what do we ask from the Government?
The first is to work with the industry. The review of the Gambling Act is something we fully support and we are determined to deliver big changes quickly. Whilst a detailed long-term approach to regulation is crucial, it’s also critical that we follow through on the current agenda of voluntary reform like new affordability checks and a new code of conduct for high value customers.
The second thing we need is an evidence-led and consistent approach. If we are really going to tackle problem gambling, we need to understand the different types of gambling that are used by most problem gamblers and that there is inconsistency in regulation as it stands.
At the moment, you can gamble at 16 or use your credit card to bet on the National Lottery in a high street shop like WH Smith’s or your local Tesco. Yet BGC members have a zero tolerance approach that stops under-18s gambling and you have never been able to bet with your credit card in a licensed retail betting shop.
There is also the issue of the growing presence of unlicensed companies overseas looking to exploit UK consumers online. The estimated size of the ‘active’ black market is already a staggering £1.4bn or 1.2 per cent of all stakes. The Government recently committed to introducing an Online Harms Bill to protect people, especially children, online. Could the big platforms do more to tackle black market betting? Absolutely. And as we discuss new regulation we should be mindful to preserve the high standards that comes with a UK licence, lest we open the door to the online equivalent of back street bookies once again.
The truth is nearly half, or 46 per cent, of the UK population bet at least once a month. I grew up in a traditional working class community in Doncaster in South Yorkshire. This is a racing town and having a flutter on the horses or on the football on a Saturday afternoon was a perfectly normal, safe and enjoyable thing to do. Millions of people today enjoy an occasional bet, but equally I recognise that millions more choose not to do so.
As I start my role at the BGC, I am determined to drive big changes across the industry and to help the Government deliver the most far-reaching package of reforms as part of their Review of the Gambling Act. Going to the BGC might not be quite as much fun as going to the BRIT Awards, and I might be swapping the Glastonbury Festival for the Cheltenham Festival this year, but I think we can make a real difference for people’s lives and I’m looking forward to help lead important changes right across the industry.