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.

Michael Dugher: Ministers deserve credit for their evidence-led review of betting and championship of safer gambling

19 Nov

Michael Dugher is the CEO of the Betting and Gaming Council. This is a sponsored post by the Betting and Gaming Council.

Almost exactly one year ago to the day, the Conservatives launched their manifesto ahead of the 2019 general election. Amid growing all-party concerns that it was time to make our gambling laws fit for purpose, it contained within it an important commitment to review the Gambling Act. So it’s appropriate and welcome that within a year ministers are marking “Safer Gambling Week” and preparing to launch this major review.

A year ago also saw the creation of the Betting and Gaming Council, the standards body representing most of the regulated industry. It was about uniting the industry, but also about the industry getting its act together ahead of the review.

In the year that’s followed, I think the Government and the sector deserve more than a little credit for also getting on with making important changes and not simply waiting for the review.

Given the manifesto talked about “a particular focus on tackling issues around loot boxes and credit card misuse”, it is right that ministers are already looking at changes by consulting over loot boxes and that the Government banned gambling online with a credit card. You’ve never been able to gamble with a credit card in a betting shop so, given ministers have rightly signalled their intention to stop under-18s from betting on the Lottery, I hope they also extend the credit card ban to gambling with the National Lottery. Let’s have one rule for all.

Equally, whilst the BGC wholeheartedly supports the review, we’ve not been standing idly by waiting for ministers to fire the starting gun on it. Since being established a year ago, we have introduced a number of measures aimed at improving standards in our industry.

These have included cooling off periods on gaming machines, actively encouraging deposit limits and introducing new ID and age verification checks, which have led to the closing down of thousands of accounts.

According to Enders Analysis, the “whistle to whistle” ban on TV betting commercials during live sports programmes – introduced by BGC members last year – has led to a 97 per cent reduction in the number of betting adverts seen by children at those times.

We responded to the first Covid lockdown by drawing up a 10-pledge action plan, setting out the standards expected of our members during the crisis. I’m delighted that BGC has re-affirmed its commitment to it during the latest round of Government-imposed restrictions. These include increasing safer gambling messages and stepping up interventions to customers. We also now ensure that at least 20 per cent of all advertising on broadcast from a BGC member will be safer gambling messages in future.

During the first lockdown, with live sport cancelled, we did our bit to lift the nation’s spirits – and raise millions for charity – by organising betting on the “virtual Grand National”, a unique event watched by five million people live on ITV and millions of people enjoying a flutter. BGC members agreed to donate all of their profits from the day to good causes, raising an incredible £2.9 million for NHS Charities Together in recognition of health service workers’ extraordinary efforts during the pandemic.

Our venues also stepped up to the plate by doing their bit for the national effort. Our member companies like Rank, which owns Grosvenor casinos and Mecca Bingo, donated food to the homeless and free meals to key workers. GVC (now Entain, which owns Ladbrokes and Coral) allowed a greyhound track to be used for NHC Covid testing, as did Bet365 at Stoke FC’s stadium.

In May, we announced that £10 million would be made available for a national education programme, delivered by YGAM and GamCare, to teach every 11 to 19-year-old in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to help them understand the potential risks associated with betting. The following month, the five largest BGC members confirmed that they would provide an additional £100 million for research, education and treatment of problem gambling, a move which was welcomed by Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, and Nigel Huddleston, the Minister for Sports.

Tough new measures to further prevent under-18s from viewing betting ads online have also been introduced by the BGC – yet more evidence of our zero tolerance approach to gambling by children.

A new code of conduct on game design will lead to slower spin speeds, the banning of several features which have caused concern and better access to safer gambling information. And working with the Gambling Commission, we have introduced stricter rules on the use of VIP schemes which have already seen the numbers enrolled in them reduced by 70 per cent.

The past year has brought extraordinary challenges for everyone – not least our betting shop and casino members who have been sadly forced to close their doors – but we have never lost sight of our top priority, which is to raise standards. When we regularly meet ministers like Oliver Dowden and Huddleston, they rightly press upon the industry the need to keep stepping up our work on safer gambling.

That’s why Safer Gambling Week is so important. This is a cross-industry initiative to highlight the issue and showcase the wide range of support and advice that is out there to help people.

I see the Government’s review of gambling as a welcome opportunity to drive further change in our industry, ensuring a safe and enjoyable environment for the 30 million people who enjoy an occasional flutter, while also targeting help for what is estimated to be the 0.7 per cent of people who are problem gamblers. One problem gambler is one too many, so I hope the review will really focus in on how we target help for the vulnerable and those most at risk.

Conservatives, perhaps more than most (and I say that as an ex-Labour politician), are aware of the dangers of “over-regulation”, whereby governments intervene in markets with well-meaning changes that end up damaging business, employment and indeed the customer experience.

That’s why it is right that ministers will have a “call for evidence”. We must have an evidence-led approach so that changes, for example, don’t drive customers to the unregulated black market online where there are no standards or protections. And we don’t want to pull the rug from under sports like racing, rugby league and football that rely on support from the betting industry for their very survival.

Equally, Conservatives have also tried to strike a balance between protecting individuals, whilst at the same time allowing individuals to spend the money they’ve earned in ways that they choose.

Whatever our different political perspectives or our views on gambling, we all agree that change is necessary. It’s now about getting it right. A year after that manifesto commitment to review gambling was launched, it’s good that ministers are preparing to get on with it and for that they have our full support.

Richard Holden and James Wild: Ministers must bring gambling regulation into the 21st Century

2 Jul

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham. James Wild is MP for North West Norfolk. Both were elected in the 2019 General Election and are members of the Public Accounts Committee.

A day at the races. A night out at the dogs or the bingo. A flutter on the Grand National at the bookies.

Most common of all, checking that pink ticket you got from the corner shop and maybe, just maybe you’ll become a multi-millionaire – and if not at least you are helping support good causes.

For most people, our interaction with the gambling industry is part of destination or event-based gambling. We only do it when it’s part of a social activity or its based on a specific event at a specific time – like the Friday night Euromillions draw.

But, behind the façade of a flutter, Labour’s mass liberalisation of gambling in the 2005 Gambling Act transformed the industry into something else. The Act opened-up “casinos in the High Street” with the £100-a-spin Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, four per bookies office, that took years to be reigned back down to a £2 stake (as part of the consultation the Gambling Commission recommended the stake be lowered to £30 or less), and opened the door to online casino gambling.

At the same time the Gambling Commission, which the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report at the weekend is largely about, was formed.

During the passage of the 2005 Act those opposed to gambling harm became side-tracked in a totemic focus on the wrong target – the possibility of so called ‘Super-Casino’ – an easily understood enemy.  But Parliamentarians didn’t focus on the much more dangerous parts of the Act, which allowed FOBTs on every high street and casinos on every mobile phone. Opponents went for the wrong target: a destination casino has more benefits and fewer downsides than what was allowed by the rest of the Gambling Act.

More money is now staked online that in all the physical bookies, casinos, and on-course bookmakers combined. The gambling industry has adapted much faster than almost any other business to the changing world. With net income (staked monies minus winnings) of £11.3 billion in the UK, it’s big business.

Together, we led the questioning of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Commission as part of the hearing into gambling harm being held by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), to which we were both elected as newbie MPs. As we dug around this matter, with constituency cases that had helped focus our minds on specific issues, what we found shocked us.

There are 395,000 problem gamblers in the UK. The effects can be devastating: damaging mental health, causing family break-ups, and even contributing to suicide. As MPs we’ve heard personal accounts of the impact of problem gambling on constituents and their families. A problem gambler will likely cause problems for their immediate family, extended family, and friendship group as debts accumulate, money is borrowed, and promises broken.

It shouldn’t be like this. It doesn’t have to be like this.  We can have sensible regulations that reflect the reality of modern gambling and that protect the vulnerable.

But the Gambling Commission isn’t doing that job effectively or efficiently. It is behind the curve. Too slow to deal with FOBTS or making sure people could withdraw funds from online accounts. Too slow on gambling on credit. It doesn’t measure the impact of the action it takes and has no target to cut levels of problem gambling.

Too often the industry, with public, media and political pressure ends up leading on so-called ‘responsible gambling’ measures before the regulator has even got out of bed.

Some of this is down to how the Commission is funded.  Bizarrely, it gets less funding if there are fewer but larger gambling companies – and we’ve seen massive mergers recently. So the Commission gets £19m a year to regulate a sector clearing the thick end of 1,000 times that in gross profit. We’ve got analogue regulation for an industry that’s undergone a digital revolution.

PAC recommended several key steps, the most important of which is to get the review of the Gambling Act, promised in the Conservative Party manifesto, underway as soon as possible.

Online fixed-odds betting urgently needs reviewing too – controls need to be at least as clear as those in betting shops. Loot boxes, gambling advertising on children’s computer games, 16- and 17-year-olds being able to gamble hundreds a week via a loophole for lotteries, unlimited roulette available in the isolation of your bedroom but no-where else… all raise questions.

The Gambling Commission needs to prove, and sharpish, that it’s up to the job. It needs proper research into problem gambling, targets to reduce it, and to measure the effects of the actions it does take. All we really know at present is that since the regulator was formed, public confidence that gambling is fair has fallen from about 50 per cent to around a third of the population.

Finally, individuals must be able to get redress through the regulatory regime when companies fail to meet social responsibility obligations. A proper Ombudsman for gambling is required. The fact that the most vulnerable only really have legal recourse (not much use if you’ve got no money) is absurd.

The deck is stacked against problem gamblers and in favour of the gambling companies, many of which have clearly used the lockdown to further cash in on coronavirus. It’s time for sensible, conservative action to protect the vulnerable and allow the majority a safe flutter.