Michael Dugher: Ministers deserve credit for their evidence-led review of betting and championship of safer gambling

19 Nov

Michael Dugher is the CEO of the Betting and Gaming Council. This is a sponsored post by the Betting and Gaming Council.

Almost exactly one year ago to the day, the Conservatives launched their manifesto ahead of the 2019 general election. Amid growing all-party concerns that it was time to make our gambling laws fit for purpose, it contained within it an important commitment to review the Gambling Act. So it’s appropriate and welcome that within a year ministers are marking “Safer Gambling Week” and preparing to launch this major review.

A year ago also saw the creation of the Betting and Gaming Council, the standards body representing most of the regulated industry. It was about uniting the industry, but also about the industry getting its act together ahead of the review.

In the year that’s followed, I think the Government and the sector deserve more than a little credit for also getting on with making important changes and not simply waiting for the review.

Given the manifesto talked about “a particular focus on tackling issues around loot boxes and credit card misuse”, it is right that ministers are already looking at changes by consulting over loot boxes and that the Government banned gambling online with a credit card. You’ve never been able to gamble with a credit card in a betting shop so, given ministers have rightly signalled their intention to stop under-18s from betting on the Lottery, I hope they also extend the credit card ban to gambling with the National Lottery. Let’s have one rule for all.

Equally, whilst the BGC wholeheartedly supports the review, we’ve not been standing idly by waiting for ministers to fire the starting gun on it. Since being established a year ago, we have introduced a number of measures aimed at improving standards in our industry.

These have included cooling off periods on gaming machines, actively encouraging deposit limits and introducing new ID and age verification checks, which have led to the closing down of thousands of accounts.

According to Enders Analysis, the “whistle to whistle” ban on TV betting commercials during live sports programmes – introduced by BGC members last year – has led to a 97 per cent reduction in the number of betting adverts seen by children at those times.

We responded to the first Covid lockdown by drawing up a 10-pledge action plan, setting out the standards expected of our members during the crisis. I’m delighted that BGC has re-affirmed its commitment to it during the latest round of Government-imposed restrictions. These include increasing safer gambling messages and stepping up interventions to customers. We also now ensure that at least 20 per cent of all advertising on broadcast from a BGC member will be safer gambling messages in future.

During the first lockdown, with live sport cancelled, we did our bit to lift the nation’s spirits – and raise millions for charity – by organising betting on the “virtual Grand National”, a unique event watched by five million people live on ITV and millions of people enjoying a flutter. BGC members agreed to donate all of their profits from the day to good causes, raising an incredible £2.9 million for NHS Charities Together in recognition of health service workers’ extraordinary efforts during the pandemic.

Our venues also stepped up to the plate by doing their bit for the national effort. Our member companies like Rank, which owns Grosvenor casinos and Mecca Bingo, donated food to the homeless and free meals to key workers. GVC (now Entain, which owns Ladbrokes and Coral) allowed a greyhound track to be used for NHC Covid testing, as did Bet365 at Stoke FC’s stadium.

In May, we announced that £10 million would be made available for a national education programme, delivered by YGAM and GamCare, to teach every 11 to 19-year-old in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to help them understand the potential risks associated with betting. The following month, the five largest BGC members confirmed that they would provide an additional £100 million for research, education and treatment of problem gambling, a move which was welcomed by Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, and Nigel Huddleston, the Minister for Sports.

Tough new measures to further prevent under-18s from viewing betting ads online have also been introduced by the BGC – yet more evidence of our zero tolerance approach to gambling by children.

A new code of conduct on game design will lead to slower spin speeds, the banning of several features which have caused concern and better access to safer gambling information. And working with the Gambling Commission, we have introduced stricter rules on the use of VIP schemes which have already seen the numbers enrolled in them reduced by 70 per cent.

The past year has brought extraordinary challenges for everyone – not least our betting shop and casino members who have been sadly forced to close their doors – but we have never lost sight of our top priority, which is to raise standards. When we regularly meet ministers like Oliver Dowden and Huddleston, they rightly press upon the industry the need to keep stepping up our work on safer gambling.

That’s why Safer Gambling Week is so important. This is a cross-industry initiative to highlight the issue and showcase the wide range of support and advice that is out there to help people.

I see the Government’s review of gambling as a welcome opportunity to drive further change in our industry, ensuring a safe and enjoyable environment for the 30 million people who enjoy an occasional flutter, while also targeting help for what is estimated to be the 0.7 per cent of people who are problem gamblers. One problem gambler is one too many, so I hope the review will really focus in on how we target help for the vulnerable and those most at risk.

Conservatives, perhaps more than most (and I say that as an ex-Labour politician), are aware of the dangers of “over-regulation”, whereby governments intervene in markets with well-meaning changes that end up damaging business, employment and indeed the customer experience.

That’s why it is right that ministers will have a “call for evidence”. We must have an evidence-led approach so that changes, for example, don’t drive customers to the unregulated black market online where there are no standards or protections. And we don’t want to pull the rug from under sports like racing, rugby league and football that rely on support from the betting industry for their very survival.

Equally, Conservatives have also tried to strike a balance between protecting individuals, whilst at the same time allowing individuals to spend the money they’ve earned in ways that they choose.

Whatever our different political perspectives or our views on gambling, we all agree that change is necessary. It’s now about getting it right. A year after that manifesto commitment to review gambling was launched, it’s good that ministers are preparing to get on with it and for that they have our full support.

Michael Dugher: Covid-19 is a lesson in the three Rs for the government

7 Aug

Michael Dugher is CEO of the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC). This is a sponsored post by the BGC.

Regular readers of ConservativeHome may be surprised, even aghast, to see a former Labour MP, Shadow Secretary of State and adviser to Gordon Brown, writing in this forum. Corbynites, or the dregs of what is left of that calamitous project, will be less surprised, but certainly some of my former comrades on the Labour benches might raise an eyebrow too. But these are not normal times.

The Covid pandemic represents an unprecedented challenge for governments across the world. The human cost has been staggering, tragic and truly heartbreaking, with more than 18 million infected and 700,000 deaths worldwide.

The financial cost is still being calculated, but will likely have a bearing on the world’s economies for years to come.

To give the Government credit, its initial response to the economic challenges posed by Covid-19 was sure footed. The rescue package – from the furlough scheme to business rates support – was commensurate to the scale of the challenge. Not since the creation of the welfare state have we seen such an interventionist government – and a Conservative one at that. As I say, these are not normal times.

More recently, though, the Government has made a series of missteps that have begun to raise concerns in business circles like the one I represent now.

The latest example was the decision last week, announced at the last minute by the Prime Minister, to delay the piloting of certain live sport with attendances, plus reopening of some indoor entertainment venues such as casinos, bowling alleys and skating rinks that were due to open on August 1.

As someone who has worked at the heart of government, I know all too well that governing is a delicate balancing act, not least during a global pandemic that none of us have ever experienced. But there are certain core principles that should always inform government action – clarity and consistency. Both are in short supply.

Messages like “go on holiday”, “get back to work” and “eat out” have tangoed clumsily with parallel appeals to “avoid unnecessary travel”, “stay at home” and even “lose weight”.

The u-turn on casinos reopening is the latest example. The decision was all the more perplexing given that they had gone to extraordinary lengths and invested millions of pounds to ensure their venues were Covid-secure, with strict social distancing measures, hygiene protocols and sophisticated track and trace systems in place at venues across England.

The Government’s most senior health officials gave just over 100 casinos the green light, long after bingo halls and amusement arcades, never mind restaurants and 47,000 pubs, after their visit to a casino in London. The decision to reopen was announced by the Prime Minister on July 17.

The sense of relief was palpable across the industry. Staff, fearful of redundancy, were looking forward to returning to work for the first time in over four months and managers readied to give their businesses a go, even in the toughest of circumstances. Then, less than 12 hours before they were due to open their doors, England’s casinos were told they must remain shuttered in order to keep the virus under control.

We fully understand the Government’s determination to control the “R” infection rate, which is rising in parts of England. But public health officials and the Government’s scientific advisers have already confirmed that casinos pose what they described as a “negligible” risk to health, given their substantial investment in Covid safety protocols, and their relatively small number. What happened to “following the scientific advice?”

And a reminder again: there are 110 casinos in England, compared to 47,600 pubs. There are nearly nine times as many Wetherspoons alone as there are casinos.

In recent weeks, we have seen localised Covid spikes in parts of the North West of England and before that in Leicester. The right response was a localised lockdown, not a national shutdown. If there is a spike in Greater Manchester, why is it ok for pubs and restaurants to remain open in Greater Manchester but a casino in Bristol, where levels of Covid are low, must close?

In his July 17 statement, the Prime Minister ruled out the need for such a blanket national lockdown. Instead, the Government would control outbreaks of the virus through “targeted, local action.” By denying casinos the right to reopen, not for the first time, the Government is at odds with its own policy.

This illogical and inconsistent ruling will have a damaging – perhaps permanent – impact on casinos and the thousands of staff they employ. It couldn’t come at a worse time for an industry that is grappling with mounting and unsustainable costs.

A sector that contributes £140 million to the tourist economy and £300 million in taxes now stands on a cliff edge because of the Government’s decision to taper furlough payments and force employers to pay National Insurance and pension contributions, even though they remain closed. Some businesses may not survive. Around 6,000 workers – half of all casino industry jobs in England – are facing the dole.

While ministers are rightly focused on the health of the nation, no government can lose sight of the health economy. Remember when David Cameron and George Osborne used to say “a strong NHS depends on a strong economy?” The R infection rate has to be balanced against the two other Rs – recovery versus recession.

The consequences of getting this wrong are being felt in businesses across the country – stuck in a Covid no man’s land, forced to remain shuttered while bearing the everyday costs of business. What’s worse, it’s costing the Treasury around £5 million a week to keep casinos closed and their workers at home, when they could be raking in £5 million in much needed tax revenues.

Earlier this week, the decision to keep casinos closed was criticised by both Ed Miliband in the Guardian and Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail. I know these are not normal times, but seemingly uniting Miliband and Littlejohn in one common purpose is taking things too far.