Brigid Simmonds: The Gambling Review must avoid driving young people towards the unsafe, unregulated black market

10 Dec

Brigid Simmonds OBE is chairman of the Betting and Gaming Council.

When the Government launched its ‘call for evidence’ and kicked off the Review of the 2005 Gambling Act a year ago, it rightly made child protection an explicit part of its scope. Ministers at the time also announced that the ban on under-18s gambling would now rightly apply to the National Lottery.

As Nigel Huddleston, the then minister with responsibility for gambling, said in his foreword to the review: “We need to ensure our regulatory and legislative systems continue to deliver on the original aims of the 2005 Act, which remain the government’s priorities: the protection of children and vulnerable people in a fair and open gambling economy which is also crime free.” I couldn’t agree more.

In the year that has followed, of course there has been a big debate about what sort of changes we want to see as a result of the Government’s review. But we hope we can all agree that nothing is more important than protecting our young people.

As the Gambling Review’s terms of reference rightly pointed out, the rate of gambling among 11 to 16-year-olds fell from 23 per cent in 2011 to 11 per cent in 2019. What’s more, the main forms of betting they take part in are playing cards, on fruit machines, scratch cards and private bets among friends – not with BGC members, who have a zero tolerance approach to gambling by under-18s.

Nevertheless, there is still more to do and at the BGC we are committed to doing it. Earlier this week, we launched our ‘Betting – It’s not child’s play’ campaign highlighting the work that has already been done to protect young people, as well as some of the things we have in the pipeline for the months ahead.

This includes the whistle-to-whistle ban on TV betting commercials during live sport before the 9pm watershed, an initiative which has reduced the number of such ads seen by children at that time by 97 per cent.

Earlier this year, BGC members drew up a code of conduct aimed at ensuring children cannot view gambling ads on football clubs’ official social media accounts, while new age gating rules on advertising on social platforms restrict the ads to those aged 25 and over for most sites.

The BGC also funds the £10 million Young People’s Gambling Harm Prevention Programme, which is delivered to children, teachers and youth workers across the UK by leading safer gambling charities YGAM and GamCare. I firmly believe that the best way to protect children is to better educate them on the potential harm that gambling can cause.

Our betting shop members are also doing their bit for child protection by once again coming top of the league when it comes to preventing under-18s from buying their products – beating convenience stores, supermarkets and petrol forecourts.

Far from resting on our laurels, we are also working on other ways to protect young people, including working with social media platforms and search companies to look at ways of allowing individuals to unsubscribe from betting adverts.

It’s worth emphasising that none of our child protection measures are present in the unsafe, unregulated black market online, which has absolutely no interest in the age of those who use their websites. While we have made clear our strong support for the Gambling Review – and the need for changes in the way our industry is regulated – nothing should be done that forces people towards the black market. It is essential, as Huddleston also said, to ensure “we have the balance of regulation right” so that it protects the vulnerable – including young people – and also ensures that the millions who enjoy a flutter safely and responsibly continue to do so.

There will always be people who for a variety of reasons have always had sincerely-held views which are anti-gambling. We can and should respect their point of view, even if it is not one shared by the majority of the public, or indeed by a majority of parliamentarians in the governing party and the official opposition. This was demonstrated earlier this week in a joint-article by the Conservative peer Baroness McIntosh and her Labour colleague, Baron Watts, in which they praised the regulated industry’s efforts on child protection and safer gambling.

But I repeat that the one thing we hope that we can all agree on is that nothing is more important that the protection of our children and young people.

Whether you like them or you don’t, the truth is the regulated industry actually has a good story to tell when it comes to protecting young people. There is undoubtedly more that can be done and the Government is right to seek to drive further changes in its forthcoming white paper.

But the aim by some campaigners to see the regulated industry shrink in size, perhaps in the well-meaning but naive hope that there will consequently be less gambling and fewer gamblers, can only see a weakening of those vital child protections.

If we really care about protecting our young people and indeed others who may be at risk from problem gambling, a boom in the black market should be avoided at all costs. A year after launching its review, this is the crossroads the Government faces on the eve of its white paper.