Brigid Simmonds: The Gambling White Paper has been delayed – but the BGC’s work on raising standards goes on

29 Jul

Brigid Simmonds OBE is the Chairman of the Betting and Gaming Council

Another hectic political season has come to a close, and MPs have left Westminster, returning home for summer recess. Like many of us, their thoughts will turn to holidays, and the chance to recharge their batteries – no doubt with a very close eye on who wins the race to be the next PM. It is regrettable that they leave with the Gambling White Paper still unfinished. But that does not stop the BGC’s important work to raise standards, which goes on undeterred despite the delays.

The BGC was established to drive the kind of meaningful change that delivers on behalf of businesses and their customers, protecting the vulnerable and those at risk while not unfairly impacting on the enjoyment of the majority who bet safely. We want Britain to carry on boasting a truly world class betting and gaming industry. One that plays an important part in the communities in which it operates, creating jobs, investment and prosperity.

At the heart of this work is our determination to keep building a culture of safer gambling. Since the BGC was founded in 2019, together with our members, we have introduced scores of new safer betting and gaming measures, with more planned.

All of this work combined, is an investment in improved standards which is delivering safer gambling dividends. While the Gambling White paper will bring further changes, much of which we strongly support and have long campaigned for, these changes need to be proportionate, well thought through, and targeted on those who are vulnerable and on the 0.2 per cent of the population who are problem gamblers.

We don’t want to do anything that inadvertently drives any of the 22.5 million adults who enjoy a bet each month away from the regulated industry and into the arms of the unsafe, unregulated, and growing black market online.

That’s why we support enhanced spending checks online, but don’t want to see the Government enforce intrusive checks that compel punters to share private financial details. That risks driving punters to the illegal black market, threatening funding for sports such as horse racing which currently receives about £350 million in funding from our industry.

We also support changes to modernise casino regulation. However, there is a danger that the current draft White Paper will mean over half of the UK’s casinos will be disqualified from modernisation plans because they are deemed too small. If reports are to be believed, 70 of the UK’s 121 casinos will get no benefit from the relaxation of regulations, making them less, not more competitive.

These are issues that still need to be tackled, but that has not stopped the BGC forging ahead with our own work to maintain world beating standards, especially on safer gambling. Our members have committed to ensuring 20 per cent of all TV advertising is safer gambling messaging – backed by our ground-breaking Take Time to Think campaign. Now players are encouraged to take up options like deposit limits and time-outs. It’s encouraging to note the number of customers setting deposit limits has now increased by 20 per cent. Consistency of information on safer gambling tools across all our members has been achieved through a new Code worked on with the charity GamCare.

Meanwhile, BGC members introduced new guidelines on advertising on the biggest social media platforms, restricting paid for ads to those aged 25 and over for most sites. It was a significant step. Results from operators showed a 96 per cent drop in views of social media advertisements by those aged 18 to 24 in the final three months of 2020, compared to the same period the year before.

The BGC is also working with social media platforms and search companies to find ways of allowing individuals to unsubscribe from betting adverts, a further measure that will continue this important work by our members. Meanwhile on TV, the whistle-to-whistle ban on betting commercials during live sport before the watershed has led to a 97% reduction in the number of young people viewing betting ads and a 47 per cent reduction in ads between the World Cup and Euros 2020. We also introduced a Code to stop football clubs displaying ads on their websites showing betting odds.

Away from advertisements, our biggest members have voluntarily committed to contribute an additional £100m to Research, Education and Treatment programmes to tackle problem gambling. This contribution makes a real difference, giving excellent charities the funding security they need to plan ahead.

In addition, our members have provided £10m in funding for a Young People’s Gambling Harm Prevention Programme, delivered to children, teachers and youth workers across the UK by leading charities YGAM and GamCare.

Our members have also enforced a credit card ban on products and new codes on VIP schemes which have seen thousands of these accounts closed. They have also introduced changes to games design for slot machines to make it easier for customers to understand game characteristics and remove features which encouraged problematic play.

When Parliament returns in the September, they will have plenty of work to do. The White Paper must be delivered swiftly to ensure the industry, which supports almost 120,000 jobs and raises £4.5bn for the Treasury, is placed on a sure footing for a sustainable future. But whatever happens in Westminster, and whoever is PM, you can be assured, the goal and purpose of the BGC will not change. We know what we need to achieve, and that work to raise standards goes on

The post Brigid Simmonds: The Gambling White Paper has been delayed – but the BGC’s work on raising standards goes on appeared first on Conservative Home.

Laurence Robertson: Horseracing relies on support from bookmakers, but the industry’s work on safer gambling is just as important

28 Dec

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

For horseracing fans like myself, Christmas isn’t just about exchanging gifts and filling up on turkey before the Queen’s Christmas Day broadcast – it also ushers in a National Hunt bonanza.

On Boxing Day alone there were no fewer than eight race meetings, with the highlight being the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park.

As we cope with the latest Covid wave, I believe that sport takes on an even greater significance, providing a welcome distraction from the pandemic, at least for a few hours.

As the MP for Tewkesbury, with Cheltenham Racecourse in my constituency, I am also well aware of the huge economic contribution that racing makes to the local area. And across the UK, it supports 85,000 jobs and contributes £3.5 billion to the economy, as well as being a source of great pleasure to millions of fans.

But like other sports, racing has suffered as a result of the pandemic, lockdown and the absence of fans, depriving it of much-needed revenue. That’s why the support provided by the regulated betting and gaming industry is so important. Horseracing receives around £350 million in sponsorship, media rights and the betting levy from bookmakers, which has proved to be vital during the pandemic.

The close relationship between betting and horseracing is well known, with having a flutter being an intrinsic part of the racing experience for many people. That’s why I’m pleased that every racecourse in the country is committed to promoting safer gambling and signposting the wide range of help and advice that is available. As the Racecourse Association says: “Bookmakers are longstanding and key commercial partners of the sport and provide the opportunity for further promotion of safer gambling to a large audience.”

It’s not just the sport of horse racing that benefits from the betting and gaming industry’s financial support, of course. The English Football League and its 72 clubs receive around £40 million from the regulated industry, while snooker, rugby league and darts receive millions more from the same source.

But it’s not just a case of signing a cheque once a year, welcome though that is. The industry is also keenly aware of its responsibilities when it comes to promoting safer gambling.

Take SkyBet’s sponsorship of the EFL, for example. As part of that arrangement, the operator has put in place a £1 million five-year safer gambling education programme for all 72 clubs, delivered by EPIC Risk Management. As well as that, players’ sleeve badges also promote responsible betting, while digital perimeter boards promote TalkBanStop for one minute every match.

It was also great to see perimeter advertising at a recent West Ham v Spurs match given over to the Betting and Gaming Council’s new Take Time To Think campaign, which promotes the use of safer gambling tools.

In addition, BGC members ensure that at least 20 per cent of their TV and radio adverts are safer gambling messages, meaning the millions of armchair fans enjoying live sport over the festive period are made aware of the help and tools that are available.

The most recent data from the Gambling Commission – which showed problem gambling rates falling from 0.6 per cent to 0.3 per cent in the 12 months to September – suggest that the work the regulated industry is doing to promote safer gambling is having an effect. I’m very pleased to see this.

Nevertheless, there is always more to do, and I look forward to the publication in the New Year of the White Paper as part of the Government’s Gambling Review. While a review is undoubtedly needed, I hope that nothing is introduced which puts at risk the vital financial support the industry provides to our much-loved sports, or indeed damages the equally important safer gambling work which runs alongside it.

Jack Brereton: The regulated betting and gaming industry is crucial to the UK’s post-pandemic recovery

9 Nov

Jack Brereton MP is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent South. This is a sponsored post by the Betting and Gaming Council.

A few weeks ago, my fellow Stoke-on-Trent MPs and I were pleased to visit bet365’s headquarters in the city. It was an enjoyable occasion and a useful reminder of the huge economic contribution that the betting giant makes to our constituencies.

In all, the family-owned company employs over 4,500 staff in Stoke-on-Trent. These are high-skilled, good quality – jobs – providing excellent long-term career opportunities for families across the area.

In turn, they spend money in shops and other businesses, helping to boost the local economy to the tune of £390 million a year. In a city where the average wage level is over £80 a week less than the national average, the skilled jobs and the investment it attracts is unmatched. And as an example of the Government’s levelling up agenda in action, it’s pretty hard to beat.

But it’s not just about jobs, important as they are. bet365 has also donated £531 million to the Denise Coates Foundation, enabling it to support local, national and international UK-registered charities.

The company’s ownership of Stoke City has seen season tickets frozen for several years and free away travel provided for the club’s supporters. Meanwhile, the Stoke City Community Trust carries out a range of programmes, many of which I’ve seen first-hand. This includes a college community education football scheme, support to schools encourage participation of young people in sport and the Every Player Counts disability initiative.

It should also not be forgotten that bet365 and its founders are the highest taxpayers in the UK, paying some £614.6 million to the Treasury in 2019/20 – money which will have helped fund vital public services like health and education, not just in Stoke-on-Trent but across the whole country.

bet365 is a great example of how a well-regulated betting and gaming industry can play a vital role in the economic health of the nation. According to a report by EY, in 2019 members of the Betting and Gaming Council supported 119,000 jobs, generated £4.5 billion in tax and contributed £7.7 billion to the economy in gross value added. And just last month, BGC members pledged to create 5,000 apprenticeships by 2025.

As the Government’s Gambling Review continues – something which I strongly support as an opportunity to raise standards – it’s important for Ministers to bear in mind this economic contribution and do nothing to put the industry’s competitiveness at risk.

It’s not all about pounds, shillings and pence, of course. I am acutely aware of the importance of safer gambling, and believe the regulated industry has taken great strides in recent years to address this issue. bet365 has been at the forefront of this work in raising the bar for high standards within the sector. There is still of course more to do, but compare the approach of licensed operators to that of the illegal, online black market.

The ‘Take Time To Think’ campaign recently launched by the BGC highlights the range of safer gambling tools which are offered by their members, such as the ability to set deposit limits, take time outs and self-exclude. None of these are provided in the black market.

Evidence from abroad shows that unlicensed gambling sites stand to benefit when the regulated sector is uncompetitive, using their unscrupulous means to target the most vulnerable.In Norway, where there is a state monopoly, the black marketaccounts for 66 per cent of all money staked; in Bulgaria,which has a higher effective tax rate, the black market accounts for 47 cent of all money staked; and in Italy, where betting advertising is banned, the black market accounts for 23 per cent of all money staked.

And we can’t afford to be complacent in this country. According to a report by PwC, the amount of money staked with unlicensed operators in the UK doubled from £1.4 billion in 2018 to £2.8 billion in 2020, while the number of customers using unlicensed websites increased from 210,000 to 460,000.

If you’ll pardon the pun, there’s a lot at stake when the Government publishes its White Paper in the coming months. While change is necessary to further the work already started by those leading the sector, nothing should be done which puts at risk the continued success of the regulated industry – and the vital revenues it provides to the Exchequer.

Mark Jenkinson: Freedom day should mean personal responsibility replacing state control of our lives

13 Jul

Mark Jenkinson is the Conservative MP for Workington. This is a sponsored post by the Betting and Gaming Council.

This time next week, the UK is going to look very different. As Boris Johnson has confirmed, July 19 will be “Freedom Day”, when the remaining Covid-19 restrictions will finally be lifted.

After 18 months in which the Government has exerted unprecedented control over our day-to-day lives, we will finally be free to meet as many people as we want to indoors, attend mass gatherings and even use public transport without wearing a face mask, if we so choose.

Of course, with the virus still circulating – and cases are continuing to rise – we will still be expected to act sensibly and cautiously, which is as it should be. We Conservatives firmly believe in personal responsibility, after all. But thanks to the UK’s tremendous vaccination programme, the link between case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths appears to have been broken. It’s impossible to remove all risk from every facet of our lives, so now it’s time for us all to learn to live with the virus, not live in fear of it.

Having our freedoms restricted by politicians – even ones we voted for – is not a long-term solution to any problem. Put simply, I firmly believe people should be trusted to get on with their lives and act in a sensible way that does no harm to themselves or pose a danger to others.

That is why I have grave concerns about calls by some anti-gambling campaigners that limits should be placed on how much individuals should be allowed to bet. As the MP for Workington, I know for a fact that working class voters do not like being told what to do by Westminster. This was borne out by recent YouGov polling, which found that a majority of British voters believe politicians should not set arbitrary limits on how much they are able to bet.

Furthermore, focus groups mainly carried out in Red Wall seats like mine found that voters are wary of post-Covid mission creep, with the threat of the state seeking to impose more control on people’s lives. They thought things like so-called “affordability checks” on betting were part of a culture war on their way of life, with having the occasional flutter viewed as a normal leisure pastime. I consider myself an irregular, responsible gambler – with many of my constituents the same, whether it’s the football, racing or the dogs.

If you think that such opinions are over-the-top, just consider the fact that the Government is ploughing ahead with plans to ban TV junk food adverts before 9pm. To my mind, this is an example of the nanny state gone mad. Reports suggest that advisors are recommending the introduction of a “salt tax”, and environmental campaigners are looking for a “meat tax” – I fear that civil servants are listening to them.

As a father of young children, I of course don’t want them to be eating a non-stop diet of unhealthy food. But it should be my responsibility as a parent to ensure that they enjoy a varied and healthy diet – it shouldn’t require Government intervention to make sure they eat well. People have looked to the state for permission for everything for the last 16 months, and that is going to be difficult enough for Conservatives to roll back, if we put ourselves in loco parentis by default it will only end badly.

I fully support the Gambling Review currently being carried out by the Government. It’s 16 years since the passing of the 2005 Gambling Act, so a fresh look at how the regulated betting and gaming industry has evolved since then is long overdue.

However, it’s vital that ministers get the balance right between protecting the vulnerable while ensuring that the millions who enjoy a flutter safely and responsibly are able to do so without being forced into the hands of the unregulated and unsafe black market, which has none of the safer gambling measures found in the regulated industry.

As the country finally emerges from the pandemic, and the Treasury sets about repairing the financial damage done by Covid, it’s also vitally important the economic contribution made by the regulated betting and gaming should not be put at risk. According to a report by Ernst and Young, in 2019 that amounted to supporting 119,000 jobs, generating £4.5 billion in tax and contributing £7.7 billion in gross value added.

The post-pandemic world will, in many ways, look very different to what we knew before. But the importance of politicians giving people the freedom to behave as they see fit, within the parameters of the law – and doing nothing to stifle economic growth – should remain.

Greg Smith: Betting shops are helping the high street get back on its feet

16 Jun

Greg Smith is the Conservative MP for Buckingham. This is a sponsored post by the Betting and Gaming Council.

I suspect that for many people, the most noticeable way in which their lives were affected by the pandemic came when they walked down their local high street during lockdown.

Once bustling thoroughfares were reduced to silent, empty ghost towns where shops were closed, customers non-existent and traffic nowhere to be seen.

Thankfully, the easing of Covid restrictions since April means that normality is finally returning to towns and villages across the country. I regularly visit high streets and retailers in my constituency to see how the pandemic has affected them and how re-opening is going. Recently on a visit to Princes Risborough high street, it was brilliant to see the vibrant high street buzzing, with shops opening their doors and finally being able to trade again.

Along with Michael Dugher, Chief Executive of the Betting and Gaming Council, I visited the local Coral betting shop to chat with staff about what it was like being back at work for the first time this year. It was great to see customers having a flutter and enjoying some banter with friends, and also reassuring to witness the anti-Covid measures they had put in place, like hand sanitisers and Perspex screens, to ensure the safety of staff and punters alike. For so many of my constituents, going to the bookies is part of their social life and part of having fun, and I’m delighted that they can do so once again with the draconian measures now lifted.

And while the vast majority of people who enjoy a bet do so perfectly safely, I was also impressed by the responsible gambling initiatives the Coral shop had put in place to provide help to those who need it.

I have no doubt that the mention of betting shops has raised one or two eyebrows. But the reality is they are part of a healthy high street mix. The re-opening of betting shops is good news for the wider high street. Research carried out before the pandemic by ESA Retail (on behalf of the Association of British Bookmakers – one of the forerunners of the BGC) found that 82 per cent of their customers visited at least once a week, with 89 per cent of them going on to visit other shops in the area. That’s real money being ploughed into local businesses at a time when they are trying to repair the economic damage done over the past 12 months.

A report earlier this year by Ernst and Young, commissioned by the BGC, found that the UK’s 6,750 betting shops support 46,000 jobs and pay nearly £1 billion a year to the Treasury in tax. As the Treasury tries to repair the nation’s finances, that money will be more important than ever.

It was great to see businesses open again but as I have previously said in the Commons, the continued support announced by the Chancellor in the budget for hospitality and retail in the form of additional grants, extension to the Job Retention Scheme, five per cent VAT rate continuation and business rates holiday are still very much needed.

I know how difficult it has been for businesses on our high streets over the last year, and I am determined to secure them all the help they need to recover. The introduction of the Government’s new Welcome Back Fund alongside the steps above will help our high streets to reopen safely and successfully this summer as restrictions lift. This will ensure that our high streets have the support they need as we move into recovery, and build back better from the pandemic.

As we look forward to a fantastic British summer, I would encourage as many people as possible to get out and support all of the fabulous local businesses that make up their local high street – including betting shops – as we embark on a national effort to get the country back on its feet.

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.