Rishi is a racing fan. When it comes to protecting racing in the Gambling White Paper, it’s vital he doesn’t fall at the first.
Rishi Sunak’s message to guests at the recent Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards ceremony provided a welcome and timely acknowledgement of the hugely significant contribution horse racing makes to the UK economy. Speaking via video message, the Prime Minister hailed British racing as “an industry which does so much for communities across our country, generates over £4 billion for our economy, and showcases Britain on the global stage.”
At the BGC, we could not agree more. Betting has always had a symbiotic relationship with horseracing. These two world-beating industries exist hand in hand and always have done. The PM already knows this too. He has Middleham racing centre and Catterick racecourse in his North Yorkshire constituency, where he has seen first-hand what he eloquently called the “grit and dedication of all in British racing”.
But if horse racing is to stay at the “front of this global race in the years ahead,” as he points out, the Government must back his welcome statements by taking the right action in the imminent-for-two-years Gambling White Paper. Because the decisions contained in these reforms have the power to either secure horse racing’s future for generations to come, or to cause irrevocable, existential harm.
That is because the contribution made to racing by the regulated betting industry is nothing short of mission critical. Every year, through sponsorship, media rights and the levy, our sector contributes £350m direct to horse racing. Or to bring it closer to home, without the sponsorship and adverting from betting, there simply would not be the regular, high quality coverage of racing on terrestrial ITV.
All of this is part of a wider economic contribution our members make to UK plc, supporting 110,000 jobs, generating £7.1bn to the economy while raising £4.2bn in taxes. But that contribution is already under threat because of the pervasive uncertainty caused by delays to the White Paper and the lingering questions about so-called affordability checks.
We support big changes in the White Paper, including using technology to support enhanced spending checks online. But we think these need to be background financial risk checks and that they need to be carefully targeted towards problem gamblers and those at risk.
The millions of punters who enjoy a bet perfectly safely and responsibly are rightly hostile to the introduction of blanket, intrusive, low level so-called ‘affordability checks’ - such as those demanded by anti-gambling prohibitionists. These checks compel customers to hand over private, personal financial documents like pay slips and bank statements, before somebody else determines whether or not they think the customer can afford to bet. A glut of survey’s has exposed the growing groundswell of anger from punters who don’t think it’s the job of government or anyone else to tell them what they can and cannot do with their own money.
And perversely, a check designed to protect the tiny percentage of problem gamblers is in fact driving large numbers of responsible players into the clutches of unsafe, unregulated black market online.
A recent survey of punters by RacingTV found 15 per cent said they bet, or knew someone who bets with an unregulated bookmaker. In addition, another 80 per cent said they would not like to see mandatory limits imposed by bookmakers, while an eye watering 92 per cent said they would consider a different bookmaker which did not require personal information before customers were allowed to bet.
These punters are either refusing to engage in checks, or opting for the black market.
Considerable research shows the unsafe, unregulated black market is on the rise. One recent study found that the numbers using these sites has doubled in recent years, from 210,000 to over 450,000, while the money staked on them is in the billions.
Since the rise of affordability checks, Martin Cruddace, CEO of Arena Racing, the group which owns many British Racecourses and accounts for 40 per cent of horse racing fixtures, claims there has been a 20 per cent collapse in betting on the horses, leaving an £800 million black hole.
No industry can survive such a mortal wound for long, especially in the face of rising costs and falling crowds due to the economic headwinds including a cost-of-living crisis. Already struggling to recover post-covid, the same will be said for racing.
Around 22.5 million adults in the UK have a bet each month, meanwhile, problem gambling rates in the UK are low by international standards according to the independent regulator at 0.3 per cent, down from 0.4 per cent the year previous. Reforms must be targeted on the minority who are vulnerable, not the millions who are not.
That is why those civil servants and ministers putting the final touches to the White Paper must properly consider the impacts of these measures. We want the White paper published as soon as possible. Further delays and uncertainty is no good for anyone.
But the Government must listen to racing. That’s why we have backed RacingTV’s MP letter writing campaign, which allows punters to raise a host of concerns about the future of horse racing direct with their local MP.
So it’s great that Rishi is a racing fan. We wholeheartedly share the Prime Minister’s desire to see horse racing thrive as a global leader. But for that to become reality, he and his ministers must will the means. The Gambling White Paper is the first real test to see if his Government really understands racing and takes the necessary action to protect it. It’s vital that Mr Sunak doesn’t fall at the first fence.
Michael Dugher is the CEO of the Betting and Gaming Council and a former Shadow Secretary of State for DCMS