Andrew Woodman: Prohibition measures for gambling will merely empower the underground market

22 Nov

Andrew Woodman is a Cabinet Member on North West Leicestershire District Council.

They say what goes around comes around, and the current movement in the debate around gambling suggests that we’re potentially going backwards by a 100 years if some of those in the Gambling Harm APPG get their wish.

Now I do not doubt the good intentions of this group, however the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and some of the proposals coming from MPs associated with the APPG risk damaging not only the gambling companies, but also secondary industries such as horse racing and greyhound racing which employ tens of thousands and rely on betting to fund the sport.

For the benefit of transparency, I am a punter and have been for over 20 years. My interest in the industry has led me to read a book by Jamie Ward about a well-known bookmaker Victor Chandler, and a passage in it strikes me as highly relevant to the debate today. It recalls the world the bookmaker’s grandfather operated in when ‘hundreds of off course betting shops were closed in 1853 on the order of the Government, supposedly to protect innocent punters from dishonest bookies, but really to placate anti-gambling sentiment and control the behaviour of the lower orders.’ It goes on to point out that all prohibition actually achieved was to create a vast illicit off course industry which continued until the shops were legalised again in 1961.

At a recent party conference fringe meeting, one MP floated the idea of a maximum loss of £100 a month, and another stated he felt people were staking too much, and should therefore by subject to affordability checks. Apart from the fact that the 99 per cent plus of punters (thought to be 30 million people) who do not have an issue would be subject to intrusive checks on enjoying a perfectly legal pastime spending their own money, all this will serve to do is empower a black unregulated market, with Whatsapp replacing bookies runners, and a huge loss to revenue to sport and the exchequer. I know for a fact this is already happening and like all prohibition measures (for that is what these are), it will empower the underground market.

Then we have the latest idea to deal with problem gambling from the Gambling Commission and that’s the invidious ‘Single Customer View’. Notionally a plan to observe all the accounts held by punters to monitor those who are out of control, but more likely to be used by bookmakers to identify potentially unprofitable customers and ban or restrict their business. Although the Gambling Commission deny this, there are no details forthcoming from them on how this will be managed and by whom. Again, all this risks doing is driving punters to the unregulated black market.

It must be noted that according to the regulator, the rate of problem gambling is now 0.3 per cent, compared to 0.6 per cent at the end of September last year, that’s equivalent to a fall from 340,000 problem gamblers to 170,000 problem gamblers. What’s more, those classed as being at moderate risk of harm also fell significantly, from 1.2 per cent to 0.7 per cent, over the same period.

We Conservatives are seen as being pragmatic. Whether you are pro, anti or ambivalent about gambling, please do take a step back and look at this issue in a rounded way. There are many who would like to see gambling banned, but prohibition is like socialism, it’s been tried and it simply fails, you cannot control people in this way.

Far better to have a functioning betting industry which helps assist those prone to addiction and which contributes to the exchequer and the sports it relies on. The Gambling Commission would be far better served looking at the software bookmakers already used to identify winners (which has closed virtually all my accounts), to spot those at risk of harm, rather than investing in anti-punter big brother solutions. It’s clear the main problems are the unskilled slots and casinos rather than sports betting and it there that the main effort in identifying those at risk of harm should be pursued.

Richard Holden: The age at which National Lottery games can be played should be raised to 18

9 Nov

Castleside Old Church Yard, Consett, County Durham

For me as a new Member of Parliament, my first Remembrance Sunday is certainly not a day that I’ll ever forget.

The knowledge that there’s a strong possibility that, at some point, I may be called upon to vote about sending British troops into conflict becomes very real when you see names carved in stone or cast in bronze above where you lay your wreath to remember the fallen on behalf of your constituents.

War or no war is clearly the biggest decision that a state can make. For MPs though, decisions and votes in Parliament extend to everything between these momentous calls to voting on much more every-day matters – and everything between. It is a responsibility that no MP I know, from any party, takes lightly.

The Conservative Manifesto I was elected on touched on many areas, but one of those somewhere between war and the mundane was a pledge that, if elected, we would launch a review of the regulation of gambling laws.

Back in July, James Wild and I led the Public Accounts Committee investigation into the role of the Gambling Commission, the industry regulator and did a joint piece for ConservativeHome on our thoughts then.

Since that point, things have moved at pace. The House of Lords has done a superb and wide-ranging report into all aspects of gambling – and has now signed up 150 peers to champion it from across the House.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Gambling Related Harm has launched its own report hitting at many areas of concern, including advertising and sport.

And our Public Accounts Committee report has been published and been responded to (generally favourably) by the Government. These moves, alongside increasing interest from the media and, rumour has it, a will from inside Government point to a review into the regulation of gambling, which, when it comes, will be wide-ranging, which is very welcome.

Like many readers, my desire to go out and about and meet friends has been dramatically curtailed by the latest national restrictions and I have found myself, late of an evening in front of the TV much more than I normally would.

The preponderance of gambling adverts has really struck me and, as I’ve flicked between channels and, ahead of the wide-ranging review, I have become more convinced that swift action is necessary, and think there is one move that the Government should make before others. This is to tackle under-18 gambling.

One of the biggest loopholes – and easiest to close – it appears to me is the ‘Lottery Loophole’. This was re-enforced to me this week in an APPG evidence session from the National Lottery.

Currently, lotteries are regulated differently to other aspects of the gambling market because, traditionally, they’ve been very different beasts. Small stakes, long-odds, and a time delay of days between the bet and the result. However, I’m afraid things have changed a lot since the launch of the weekly draw in 1994.

It could be you! was the lottery’s slogan then. Most people remember paying £1 for a pink piece of paper that got put in a wallet, purse, drawer or pocket and then was madly searched for when it was headline news that someone hadn’t claimed the jackpot.

And back in 1994, the weekly draw lottery had an age limit of 16. It has clearly raised vast fortunes for various good causes, and ensured a healthy profit for its operator throughout, Camelot. Since then, however, things have changed dramatically.

The advent of instant win games has not just turned up the dial, it has flipped the lottery into becoming a different beast altogether. First, scratchcards and now instant win online games have moved the dial far from the ‘bit of fun’ to more than a bit of a problem. Together, scratchcards and online instant win now make up almost as much in revenue terms as the four weekly (two lottery and two Euromillions) draws combined.

The Lottery tried to skirt around the subject, but scratchcards and online instant win are fixed odds gambling. And for clarity, the term instant win is clearly a misnomer as, with returns of c.50 per cent, even if you do win, keep playing and it’s essentially instant loss.

The Lottery says that it has very small numbers of 16 and 17-year-old players, but the truth is that they really don’t know, because there is no real age breakdown from retail sales of scratchcards. More important still is that all Lottery players, of whatever age, are able to spend £350 a week online.

It seems clear to me that allowing 16 and 17-year-olds (who we now require to be in education at least part time until they’re 18) to lose £350/week in fixed odds online gambling – and obviously unlimited sums in retailers – is madness. We’ve raised the age at which you do everything from buy cigarettes to the age at which you can serve on the front line to 18, and therefore it appears perverse that we allow the spending of such large amounts by 16 and 17-year-olds.

Given that the Lottery doesn’t seem to understand that continuing to allow this is seriously tarnishing its brand and its reputation as “a bit of fun that raises cash for good causes”, and is unwilling to call for it’s licence to be changed itself, it’s time for MPs to act to save the good from the bad.

The Government has already had a call for evidence on under-18 gambling and we’re awaiting it to publish its plans. Without needing to be part of the broader review of gambling, I believe that the case is clear for raising the age at which you can play National Lottery games to 18. Ahead of launching the review, it’s time for the Government to crack-on with measures that crack-down on this sort of instant-loss gambling which exposes young people to the potential of losing hundreds of pounds a week.

“When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do?” – as has been said. Well, facts about the Lottery have changed substantially since it came into being more than a quarter of a century ago. Instant win and online has replaced the sedate once-weekly draw.

The Lottery’s defence is that this all means more cash for good causes but where – or more specifically who – you’re getting that cash from really does matter. I don’t think it should be from the pockets of 16 and 17-year-olds gambling up to £350 a week on instant win games.

This quick and relatively easy change to the licence of the Lottery could happen within a matter of weeks. It has already got plans in place if it does. All it needs now is for the Government to act to protect under-18s from potentially serious gambling harm. This is one decision I think the Government can be guaranteed overwhelming support for and one I’m very happy to help them make.