Brigid Simmonds: As the Government’s gambling review continues, ministers should listen to what voters really think about betting

15 Mar

Brigid Simmonds OBE is chairman of the Betting and Gaming Council. This is a sponsored post by the Betting and Gaming Council.

What voters think is vital to any Government or political party – quite simply, they won’t get elected, or win public support for a policy position, if they turn a deaf ear to ordinary people’s views.

So, as ministers continue their review of the Gambling Act 2005, it’s important for them to get a handle on what the British public actually thinks about betting. That’s why we at the Betting and Gaming Council commissioned 20 focus groups, plus a YouGov poll, to explore this important area. Those focus groups were mainly held in so-called “Red Wall” areas, parts of the North and Midlands which were formerly Labour heartlands but which largely fell to the Conservatives in 2019.

The call for evidence for the gambling review closes at the end of this month, and the Government has been clear that it wants the process to be evidence-led. What better way to ensure it is than by finding out what the general public thinks?

I am well aware that betting can divide opinion. For the 30 million people who enjoy a flutter, it is a leisure activity which is integral to British culture and society just as going to the pub is important too. This message really came across in the focus groups. As someone with a background in running the British Beer & Pub Association, sports governance and a keen sports fan, I could fully understand the woman in Birmingham who said: “All the women in my family we always go to Ladies Day. It’s a great day. People go for serious money. We put like £5 each on each race. We go with our bottles of Prosecco – all the girls. All our nans, aunties, cousins.”

As we begin to emerge from lockdown, it’s also important to remember the huge economic contribution our industry makes. Hopefully, betting shops will be able to safely re-open along with other non-essential retail on April 12. This won’t just be a boost for their employees and customers, but also for the wider economy, as research shows that 89 per cent of betting shop customers go on to visit other high street shops. Casinos are due to re-open on May 17 and they will over time play their part in the recovery of the tourism sector – something of real importance to me as a Director of the Tourism Alliance. 

A Gambling Commission consultation underway at the moment could result in all punters having to provide payslips and bank statements if they are deemed to be spending too much on betting. When this was explained to our focus groups, the response was one of shock and disbelief. This view was backed up by our YouGov poll, which found that 51 per cent of voters do not believe that politicians should set limits on how much they can bet, with only 27 per cent believing they should.

Affordability checks are good, but modern technology means that they can be targeted at customers displaying signs of harm, allowing interventions to be made. Our members also encourage their customers to set their own deposit limits, something which I fully support.

In the Red Wall, this whole issue tied in with their view that a culture war is being waged against their way of life, and that the Government is embarking on a post-Covid “mission creep”. There was clearly a belief that politicians are attempting to move further into deciding what they can and cannot do with their lives. The Conservative Party should bear in mind that there is something, well, un-Conservative about the state trying to play an ever larger role in people’s activities.

YouGov also found that 59 per cent of voters believe that if too many limits are placed on their ability to bet, people will shift to the unlicensed and growing black market. Given that these illegal operators have none of the safer gambling measures which are commonplace in the regulated sector – and also pay no tax – this is something the Government needs to be aware of.

There were lessons for our industry in the focus groups as well, with many of those who took part believing it is completely unregulated, particularly the online sector. This is, of course, untrue. Betting and gaming in the UK is among the most highly-regulated in the world.

That is not to say that more change isn’t needed – I would personally support that – but ministers need to make sure they get them right. Yes, there is much more that the industry can and will do, but at the end of the day, we want customers to bet in a UK regulated market which abides by the rules, with a clear emphasis on safer gambling.

The gambling review continue after the call for evidence ends on March 31, giving ministers – and the industry – plenty of opportunity to reflect on what our focus groups and polling found. We must all grasp it with both hands.

Miles Briggs: The pandemic has hit betting shops hard. The Gambling Review must do nothing to hamper their recovery.

11 Feb

Miles Briggs is a Conservative MSP for Lothian and Chair of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Horse Racing and Bloodstock Industry. This is a sponsored post by the Betting & Gaming Council.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns on our high streets is already obvious. Shuttered premises are commonplace in town centres across the UK, and the recovery of the economy will be long and hard.

It is vital, therefore, that governments in London and Edinburgh do nothing to make things more difficult than they already are.

As the Chair of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Horse Racing and Bloodstock Industry, I am acutely aware of what the pandemic has meant for our betting shops – and the knock-on effect for horseracing, which relies so heavily on the funding they generate for the sport.

With shops closed for large parts of 2020 and no immediate prospect of them reopening, bookmakers – particularly the independent sector – are understandably worried about what the future holds for them and their loyal staff.

The additional £40 million funding from the UK government to help the industry through the pandemic was very welcome. However, the impact of Covid-19 on the sector is significant and the future is uncertain.

All of this is taking place at the same time as the UK government’s review of the 2005 Gambling Act. I very much welcome the review and, with all the pressures and upheaval we have witnessed over the last year, it was encouraging to hear ministers say that the review must strike the right balance between protecting the vulnerable and not spoiling the enjoyment of the overwhelming majority who enjoy a flutter perfectly safely.

As a report last week by PwC showed, the unlicensed and unsafe black market will be the main beneficiaries if ministers get changes to regulation wrong and inadvertently drive ordinary punters in their direction.

Bluntly, the financial viability of sports like racing, darts, rugby league, snooker and much of football – which rely heavily on the support they receive from the regulated industry – is on the line.

I recently visited Midlothian-based bookmaker Scotbet’s Slateford Road shop in Edinburgh and met with management and staff to hear first-hand about the impact the Covid restrictions have had on the company and the wider industry.

In recent years we have seen the decline in the number of independent betting shops. The pandemic has sadly hit them especially hard, given their limited opportunities to adapt and develop online services. Scotbet is a good example of what has happened to high street bookmakers, with its shop numbers falling from a peak of 75 to just 30 today.

Across the UK, there are now 6,750 betting shops, a fall of around 1,600 in the past two years – denying local authorities around £15 million in lost business rates. Over the same period, the number of people they employ has also reduced by nearly 10,000, taking with them the income tax and national insurance they paid to the Treasury.

When you consider that the entire regulated industry – covering betting shops, casinos, bingo and online – contributes some £3.2 billion in taxes to the Treasury, it’s clear that anything that further impacts negatively on this should be avoided at all costs – especially as the Chancellor tries to repair the damage done to the public finances by Covid-19.

Local betting shops are also vital community hubs and are at the vanguard of attempts to promote safer gambling. Staff are trained to spot the signs of someone getting into trouble, and are able to direct customers towards the help they need.

The business challenges arising from the pandemic are significant and will take time to recover from – for all those, like me, who value horse racing across the UK, it is vital that we look to the future sustainability of the sector.

More recently, the Jockey Club has warned of a £60 million shortfall in its revenue if strict new affordability checks being considered by the Gambling Commission are introduced. These proposed changes have the potential to prevent millions of regular punters from placing a bet if the stake is deemed to be unaffordable.

Increased checks can be a good thing if they are targeted at vulnerable customers – but we should be wary of anything that risks driving mainstream customers to the unregulated black market, where there are none of the protections and safer gambling measures which are put in place by licensed operators.

The betting industry contributes around £350 million a year to racing through the levy, media rights and sponsorship, so any measures that affect the viability of betting will inevitably have a negative impact on the entire sport.

I sincerely hope that racing in Scotland – and across the UK – can bounce back stronger in the months and years ahead. A healthy racing industry is not just important for many local jobs, but also the supply chains it supports in places like Ayr, Hamilton, Kelso, Musselburgh, and Perth.

Thanks to the wonders of modern science and our amazing NHS, we are finally turning the corner on the pandemic. It would be a tragedy if well-meaning politicians inadvertently introduced changes which compounded the economic damage already done by Covid-19.

Laurence Robertson: The gambling review is essential. But MPs must be wary of the law of unintended consequences.

11 Dec

Laurence Robertson is the MP for Tewkesbury. This is a sponsored post by the Betting and Gaming Council.

After months of speculation, I was pleased that my Conservative colleague Oliver Dowden finally kicked off the Government’s gambling review this week with a 16-week call for evidence from interested parties. My constituency neighbour Nigel Huddleston made the statement in the House of Commons in his usual competent, balanced way.

I was proud to stand on an election manifesto a year ago which pledged to reform the UK’s gambling laws, which date back to the 2005 Gambling Act brought in by the last Labour Government. I firmly believe that the time for change has arrived and I fully support the review.

It is important that this is an evidence-led process which strives to achieve consistency in the regulation of gambling. To this end, although it was not part of this review, I was pleased to see the Government announce that all players of the National Lottery will have to be over the age of 18 from next April.

Curiously, there is very little interest from constituents on this issue, but quite a bit of noise in Westminster on the subject! Ministers must therefore cut through the pressures and assess the various arguments from all sides on their merits. It is a time for cool heads, because this is an important opportunity to introduce reforms which must be able to stand the test of time.

The technological advances which have taken place since 2005, and the resulting increase in online betting, mean that change is necessary. However, the Government must also be mindful of the law of unintended consequences.

At a time of unprecedented peacetime economic crisis, ushered in by the Covid-19 pandemic, ministers simply cannot do anything that damages the huge contribution that the betting and gaming industry makes to the nation’s coffers. Rishi Sunak’s Treasury – under pressure to pay for the vast sums which have been spent dealing with the Coronavirus – receives £3.2 billion a year in tax from the industry, which also contributes £8.7 billion in Gross Value Added.

The industry also makes a huge financial contribution to sports, which have all suffered massively as a result of the ban on spectators over the past nine months.

In normal times, horse racing receives £350 million through the betting levy, media rights and sponsorship, while gambling firms spend over £40 million a year on the English Football League. Other sports like rugby league, darts and snooker also depend on the millions of pounds in sponsorship they receive from the industry – a vital income stream which would be stopped if the review results in an outright ban on sports sponsorship.

Another reason why I support the review is the Government’s commitment to tackling problem gambling. Although the rate of problem gambling is stable at around 0.7 per cent, and has been for many years, one problem gambler is one too many. I believe the industry has made great strides in addressing this issue since the Betting and Gaming Council was established a year ago – from increasing safer gambling advertising to pledging up to £100 million for treatment services – there is always more that can be done.

As it has pledged to do, the Government must be wary of introducing measures which, though well intentioned, end up unfairly penalising the vast majority of the 30 million people in this country who enjoy a harmless bet, and potentially driving them into the arms of the illegal, online black market, where there are none of the necessary safeguards which are in place in the regulated industry.

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.