Our new Prime Minister must get gambling reform right
This piece from Michael Dugher originally appeared on PoliticsHome
Within a matter of days, we will have a new PM and a new Government. Any celebrations will be short lived. Because whoever wins the keys to Number 10 will face a tsunami of trouble. A mounting cost-of-living crisis, inflation and energy bills soaring to stratospheric levels, war in Europe and a recession just around the corner. With that in their in-tray on Day One, it’s fair to say reforms to gambling will be pretty low on the Government’s agenda.
That’s not to say it isn’t important. It is. We want to see progress made on further changes, building on improvements we have already made on safer gambling. But whilst we know that there are a handful of anti-gambling parliamentarians - you can tell who they are because they always begin every sentence with “I’m not anti-gambling but” - the overwhelming majority of MPs, like their constituents, don’t spend their time obsessing about people having a bet.
In fact, the Government’s review into the issue has actually revealed just how many MPs harbour significant concerns about the threat ill-thought through changes to betting and gaming legislation could have on jobs, businesses and sports like racing. And that’s before we get into powerful arguments about the threat to individual freedom of choice or working-class culture posed by the moral crusade of so-called public health campaigners. A slew of opinion pieces in The Sun, a favourite paper with punters, has taken aim at this very issue, calling out Government overreach into their reader’s harmless hobbies.
This has led many to rightly conclude the Government’s review of gambling, launched back in 2020, and the forthcoming white paper feels like a barnacle that needs to be scraped off the bottom of the Government’s boat.
A recent report in the Lancet, funded by tax-payers and lauded by anti-gambling prohibitionists who just want to ban stuff, spelled out the dividing lines of the current debate with incredible clarity. This ‘study’ called for no less than 103 proposals, including a complete ban on all gambling adverts, creating a state-owned gambling monopoly, banning the sale of alcohol in casinos, a ban on in-play and spread betting (that’s your accumulator or ACCA gone for the weekend), the introduction of ‘plain packaging’ on gaming products (you work that one out) and a ban on gambling in venues where young people are present - to you and me that’s closing the seaside arcade and banning kids from going to the races.
Mercifully, ministers seem to have rejected most of these calls, including a ban on all sports sponsorship and the kind of ‘affordability checks’ that demand punters produce pay slips or bank statements once they’ve spent more than £100 on betting. Most people know that you don’t need a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The Government recognises that around 22.5m adults enjoy a regular flutter in the UK. This is an industry which supports 119,000 jobs, contributes £7.7bn to the economy and generates £4.5bn for the Treasury each year - important things to consider given the precarious state of the British economy. And meanwhile rates of problem gambling have fallen and remain some of the lowest in Europe, at 0.2 per cent according to the independent regulator.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for big changes, and the BGC are committed to delivering that change. On standards, we have repeatedly called for an ombudsman to improve customer redress. On advertising, safer gambling messaging now makes up at least 20 per cent of all our member’s adverts, and we launched a new industry code ensured paid for advertising on social media platforms could only be targeted at over 25s unless platforms can prove age accuracy – resulting in social media impressions decreasing by 100 million. Plus our members voluntarily dropped TV commercials during the breaks in live football matches before the watershed, leading to a drop of 97 per cent of youngsters seeing those ads. We are also working with sporting bodies to see how we can do more to further to drive up standards
We took tough action on VIP schemes which has seen around 70 per cent close down. Pledged tens of millions more to Research, Education and Treatment for problem gambling and we implemented a ban credit card use for betting products (although you can still gamble with a credit card on the National Lottery).
Most importantly, we do want to see enhanced spending checks (‘affordability’ checks). Indeed, many operators are already doing this. But these need to be carefully targeted at the most financially vulnerable and those showing any signs of what we call ‘markers of harm’, of problem gambling, not the overwhelming majority of punters who gamble safely and responsibly.
The good news is that the vast majority of this can be done quickly without the need for fresh primary legislation. It does not need a whole new Bill, that will take forever to get through Parliament, but these reforms can be achieved quickly and introduced almost immediately through a combination of voluntary, regulatory and secondary legislative changes.
Team Liz, are the favourites to win the Conservative leadership race according to our friends at the bookmakers. We’ve seen in recent weeks Liz Truss present herself very strongly as a low tax, pro-business, anti-woke, anti-Nanny State libertarian. Her advisers will be nervous of anything that goes against that. In the comings weeks her ministers can quickly put together a package of reforms to gambling that cumulatively will be genuinely radical and transformative, and they can do so without wasting time getting bogged down in endless statutory procedures, or embarking on policies that will wreck jobs, threaten sport and broadcasting, or trample all over people’s legitimate right to spend their own hard-earned money on things they like to do like having a bet.
We want to see big changes and we want to see the new Government get on with it. But we also want to see them get it right. There’s too much at stake and too many other things to do.