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.