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.