Scott Benton: We are right to reform the UK’s gambling laws – but we must not drive punters into the arms of the black market

29 Dec

Scott Benton is the MP for for Blackpool South. This is a sponsored post by the Betting and Gaming Council.

A year ago, I was proud to stand for election on a Conservative Party manifesto which pledged to review the UK’s gambling laws.

The 2005 Gambling Act, the manifesto said, was “increasingly becoming an analogue law in a digital age”. I agreed with that sentiment then, and I continue to do so today. And judging by the fact I managed to win my Blackpool South seat by defeating the sitting Labour MP, plenty of voters must share my opinion.

As the UK’s premier seaside holiday destination, my constituents know all about the importance of betting as a leisure industry, while our casino also attracts plenty of much-needed tourists to the area.

But they also know that the gambling laws must be fit for the 21st century – protecting the vulnerable while not spoiling the enjoyment of the millions of Brits who enjoy a flutter, and ensuring the industry continues to thrive and make a vital contribution to the economy.

So it was a great day when, earlier this month, my Tory colleague Nigel Huddleston kicked off the gambling review with a 16-week call for evidence, thereby honouring our manifesto commitment.

I took part in the Commons debate which followed, and used my contribution to make an important point. While reform is essential, the Government must be wary of doing anything which drives punters towards the illegal, online black market.

A report by the highly-respected PwC revealed that 200,000 customers used an unlicensed gambling operator last year, resulting in an estimated £1.4 billion in turnover. Those are people who will have received none of the protections or safer gambling messages prevalent in the regulated industry. And none of that money is returned to the UK Treasury through taxation.

PwC also found that unlicensed operators accounted for 2.5 per cent of gambling website visits, which amounts to an incredible 27 million visits. In addition, nine per cent – nearly one in 10 – of all gambling search results were for black market sites. And worryingly, 47 per cent of punters are aware of at least one black market operator. When you consider that 30 million Brits enjoy a flutter, that gives you an idea of how many people could potentially fall into the clutches of the unscrupulous black market if the Government gets the gambling review wrong.

In my opinion, a successful review will strike the right balance between protecting the vulnerable and not spoiling the enjoyment of the vast majority of people who enjoy a bet perfectly safely. It’s important to remember that, according to the Government’s own data, the rate of problem gambling is 0.5 per cent and has been stable for the past 20 years.

Conservative ministers are right to identify this as an issue which must be tackled, but it must not be at the expense of damaging a regulated industry which is – in my opinion – doing great work on safer gambling while also making a valuable contribution to the UK economy.