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.