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.

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.

The Conservative Party Conference programme – and which ministers are up and down

30 Sep

With only two days to go, the itinerary for this year’s Conservative Party Conference is upon us. Much has changed, thanks to Covid-19, not least the way events have been formatted. 

Without further ado, ConservativeHome takes a look at who’s doing what, and how events have been categorised – as well as what this could imply for ministers.

The first thing to note is that every MP in the Cabinet is making at least one appearance, albeit in different formats. The MPs taking part in two events are Amanda Milling, Elizabeth Truss and Matt Hancock. The Prime Minister will also be delivering a speech and being interviewed by Lord Sharpe of Epsom.

The events have been categorised broadly into keynote speeches, fireside chats, interactive interviews, panel discussions and training sessions. 

Clearly the most important is the keynote speech, which the following Cabinet ministers will be giving:

  • Dominic Raab (15:00 on Saturday)
  • Priti Patel (15:00 on Sunday)
  • Rishi Sunak (11:50 on Monday)
  • The Prime Minister (11:30 on Tuesday)

Milling will also be opening the conference at 11:30 on the first day.

Next up there’s the fireside chat. There are two versions of this, one involving being asked questions by an interviewer, the other by party members. The latter is arguably a more complex task; ministers are out on their own dealing with questions. The ministers doing this are:

  • Michael Gove (11:45 on Saturday)
  • Alok Sharma (14:30 on Monday)

Fireside chats involving an interviewer include:

  • Robert Buckland (16:00 on Sunday) – interviewed by Ken Clarke.
  • Gavin Williamson (11:00 on Monday) – interviewed by Peter Ashton, a headteacher and his former politics teacher.
  • Matt Hancock (16:30 on Monday) – interviewed by Patrick Stephenson, Director of Innovation and Healthcare at Fujitsu.

There’s also the “interactive interview”. It’s not obvious what makes this different from the “fireside chat”, but the ministers taking part in these are:

  • Liz Truss (14:30 on Saturday) – interviewed by Robert Colville, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies.
  • Matt Hancock (14:00 on Sunday) – interviewed by Nimco Ali OBE, CEO and Founder of the Five Foundation.
  • Grant Shapps (15:00 on Monday) – although it does not say who will interview him yet.
  • Oliver Dowden (15:30 on Monday) – interviewed by Joy Morrissey, MP for Beaconsfield (this is labelled as simply an “interview”).

Then there are the panel discussions. More sceptical Conservative members may notice that a number of fairly high profile Cabinet ministers are taking part in these. They may ask why they have not been put forward for the fireside chat or an interview – instead being accompanied by ministerial teams.

These include:

  • Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence, who’s partaking in the Ministry of Defence Panel Discussion (12:15 on Saturday) with other ministers from the department.
  • Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who’s chairing a discussion (13:30 on Sunday) with party members and other ministers from the department.
  • Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions, who’s chairing the The Department for Work & Pensions Panel Discussion (11:30 on Monday) with other ministers from the department.
  • George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who’s holding a panel discussion (14:00 on Monday) with other ministers from the department.

It looks as though Downing Street has taken a decision to downgrade their profile.

Last up on the agenda are events focussed around increasing participation in Conservative campaigning. It’s clear, in particular, that CCHQ is keen to push for more female participation, with events on Female Entrepreneurs and Training, and Women and the 2021 Elections, alongside training support for young people.

The arts bailout: a reminder not to underestimate Dowden

6 Jul

In recent weeks, it’s fair to say that Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, hasn’t been particularly popular with the arts sector. After the industry was badly affected by the Coronavirus crisis and the mass closures of theatres, cinemas and the rest, many accused him of not doing enough.

Indeed, when he announced a five-stage roadmap to help businesses recover, people took this as evidence of a man who’s all talk and no action. “If you and your government have no desire to invest in and save theatre, then you should at least announce that decision as soon as possible”, posted one individual on Twitter, very much encompassing the general attitude.

With that being said, yesterday the culture secretary forced everyone to reconsider their perceptions of him after he managed to negotiate £1.57 million in funding for the industry. As The Times put it: “The phrase ‘from zero to hero’ may be overused, but what better words describe Oliver Dowden today?” It was an achievement that will not only transform the future of the arts sector, but that of Dowden within the political sphere, who is experiencing his first real arrival on the public stage – the same way Rishi Sunak did when appointed Chancellor.

Dowden’s announcement speaks, first, of his ability as a PR man. Despite the fact that Sunak is announcing a series of measures on Wednesday – including stamp duty scrapped for first-time buyers and an investment in green jobs – the culture secretary managed to get his own statement a centre stage slot over the weekend.

The announcement is not only impressive in its pledges – which includes £120 million capital infrastructure and for heritage construction projects in England, among others – but the list of illustrious names who’ve added their support to it, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sir Simon Rattle and Alex Beard, the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House.

There’s also the fact, of course, that Dowden negotiated such an enormous bailout in the first place. It indicates that he has great influence in Downing Street, which he’s been developing for years, having started out as a specialist adviser and as David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff. Now the political networking is paying off.

Although the package is not perfect – there have been complaints about whether it can support smaller venues and freelancers – it has received an overwhelmingly positive response. It is a real vindication that we have been listened to“, Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, told Times Radio; Sir Nicholas Hytner, once Artistic Director of the National Theatre, said it was a better plan than anyone expected.

Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, Dowden has pledged to sort out an investment for the arts – even if no one believed him – so the fact that he has not so much succeeded, but exceeded all expectations, bodes well for his future in the party – though not perhaps for the BBC, which he has previously argued needs an ideological shake-up. And, as Sunday’s news shows, Dowden is a man who means business. 

Angela Richardson: Recovery cannot come a moment too soon for the performing arts

3 Jul

Angela Richardson is the Conservative MP for Guilford.

The performing arts has had the most profound impact on my life. Music dominated the landscape of my early years with a piano beautifully played by my mother, cornet and trumpet by my father and the sound of his lovely tenor voice.

We gathered, often with extended family around the piano to sing and I would have my afternoon nap as a toddler on a pile of cushions with classical music on the record player. My siblings would cringe as they heard me trying to learn how to sing harmony with the headphones on, the relevant melody silenced, but hours in childhood were devoted to learning how to express everything I could hear, even if it took time to make the mechanical side of producing it work.

There were many reasons to start attending my local Baptist Church in West Auckland, New Zealand as a twelve year old, including social ones. But in my most straightforward of ways, I went up to the pianist after the first service and started singing while he played, was given a microphone the following week and spent the rest of my teenage years up the front, with the band, as well as rehearsing several times a week. My dearest friendships were formed through music.

My parents were not devotees of the performing arts. It was an anathema to them and I had to audition for school plays without their permission, being cast at thirteen in productions that were the preserve of the senior students.

The frustration of being handed a choice between studying music and drama at fifteen was unbearable. My parents strongly lobbied for music and I acquiesced, though luckily enough for me, my state school offered Dance in sixth form and I countered with studying that for a year at sixteen. I’m sure many families have been through this tussle with their teenagers.

Through working life and early parenthood, opportunities to perform were few and far between. Life is about seasons and this period was particularly dry on the musical and theatre front until I moved with my husband and children to the small and lovely village of Ewhurst in Surrey, which is blessed to have the most astonishingly wonderful Ewhurst Players. Multiple NODA award-winning productions and a genuine centre of our village life.

It’s easy to lose your confidence when you have been at home looking after small children with a significant narrowing of horizons and I give huge credit to the Ewhurst Players with helping me rediscover mine and ultimately stand for public office.

In 2012, I plucked up the courage to audition for their Diamond Jubilee Review and they welcomed me with open arms. The bug hit hard and I auditioned and was successfully cast in almost every production over the next six years and turned my hand to directing a pantomime for five to nine year olds and a short adult play, having a go at ever including vocal coaching an adult pantomime and prompting from the wings.

This new family was full of the most wonderful characters, bringing joy, laughter and moments of profound understanding of the human condition to our audiences drawn from near and far.

It’s this most important facet of connection between us all that has been sorely missed over these many weeks of lockdown. While many innovative and dynamic production companies in Guildford have moved elements of performance online, the understandable frustration of being one of the last cultural gems to come out of lockdown is taking an enormous toll on the industry, professional and amateur.

So, too, is the genuine financial concern of these companies and their players. We have the brilliant Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford Shakespeare Company, The Guildford Fringe, The Electric Theatre and the renowned Guildford School of Acting to name but a few.

The heroic endeavours of the Treasury to mitigate the economic impact of Coronavirus have been rightly hailed as extraordinary. The DCMS Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden, has signalled a roadmap for the recovery of the performing arts and pockets of funding have been received through generous grant schemes.

But I fundamentally agree that solid detail which I know is being worked on a speed needs to come sooner rather than later. Recovery cannot come a moment too soon.

I try to take the personal out of the political and look at the overall cost/benefit analysis to society and the unintended consequences in all we do. I do have a personal stake in this, but I know and I am sure that many will agree with me, that their lives are richer for the Christmas pantomimes they have attended, their own chance to shine in their primary school nativity play or the musical festivals or rock concerts that mark a summer on the cusp of adulthood, never forgotten.

Nor will many forget the first time they ever saw ballet, opera, Shakespeare or attended a Proms Concert and sang Land of Hope and Glory at the top of their lungs while conducting the orchestra with a Union Jack in hand.

Our rich cultural heritage and ground-breaking performances are as much of the beating heart of this country as is our economic prosperity. It is part of our global soft power and the sooner we can have both running successfully in tandem, the sooner we will thrive once again.

Caroline Nokes: Spare a thought for women. Male ministers have forgotten we exist in their lockdown easing plans.

30 Jun

Caroline Nokes is Member of Parliament for Romsey and Southampton North. 

Covid-19 has taught us many things about the importance of physical and mental wellbeing. We discovered (if we actually needed to be told) that your chances of recovery were greatly improved by being physically fit and in the normal weight range for your height.

We found out that mental resilience was important to cope with long periods of relative isolation, and social contact carried out mainly by Zoom. We were told very firmly that an hour of exercise should be part of our daily routine, and pretty much the only way to escape the house legitimately.

But for women in particular the importance of wellbeing seems to have gone well and truly out of the window as lockdown is relaxed.

Why oh why have we seen the urge to get football back, support for golf and fishing, but a lack of recognition that individual pilates studios can operate in a safe socially-distanced way, rigorously cleaned between clients?

Barbers have been allowed to return from July 4 because guess what – men with hair need it cut. They tend not to think of a pedicure before they brave a pair of sandals, although perhaps the world would be a better place if they did. Dare I say the great gender divide is writ large through all this?

Before anyone gets excited that women enjoy football and men do pilates can we please just look at the stats? Football audiences are (according to 2016 statistics) 67 per cent male and don’t even get me started on the failure of the leading proponents of restarting football to mention the women’s game.

Pilates and yoga (yes I know they are not the same thing) have a client base that is predominantly women and in the region of 80 per cent of yoga instructors are women. These are female-led businesses, employing women, supporting the physical and mental wellbeing of women, and still they are given no clue as to when the end of lockdown will be in sight.

Could it be that the decisions are still being driven by men, for men, ignoring the voices of women round the Cabinet table, precious few of them though there are? I have hassled ministers on this subject, and they tell me they have been pressing the point that relaxation has looked more pro-men than women, but it looks like the message isn’t getting through.

I will declare an interest. Since I first adopted Grapefruit Sparkle as a suitably inoffensive nail colour for an election campaign in 2015, I have been a Shellac addict. The three weekly trip to Unique Nails is one of life’s little pleasures, an hour out, sitting with constituents, chatting, laughing, drinking tea.

It is good for the soul, a chance to recharge and chill out. And for many of the customers it is their chance to not have to bend to get their toenails trimmed, it is a boost to their mood, that can last for a full three weeks until it is time for a change.

And it is a fairly harmless change to go from Waterpark to Tartan Punk in an hour. Natural nails have done very little for my mood since a nice chap from Goldman Sachs told me: “you could go far if only you opted for a neutral nail, perhaps a nice peach.”

At school I was described as a “non-participant” in sport – I hated it, and it has taken decades to find the activities I can tolerate to keep my weight partially under control. Walking the dog is a great way, but nothing is as effective as the individual work-out rooms in a personal training studio – where it is perfectly possible for those of us who do not like to be seen in lycra to exercise in isolation and then have the place cleaned for the next victim.

I am not suggesting it is only women who do not like to exercise in vast gyms, there are men with similar phobias, but what I cannot get over is the lack of recognition that a one-to-one session in a studio is not the same as toddling off to your local treadmill factory.

The Pilates studio owners of Romsey and Southampton North are deeply frustrated at the apparent inability to draw the distinction between their carefully controlled environments and much larger facilities where, to be blunt, there is a lot of sweat in the atmosphere.

I know I get criticised for being obsessed about women – it goes hand in hand with the job description – but I cannot help but feel this relaxation has forgotten we exist. Or just assumed that women will be happy to stay home and do the childcare and home schooling, because the sectors they work in are last to be let out of lockdown, while their husbands go back to work, resume their lives and celebrate by having a pint with their mates.

(And yes I do know women drink beer too, but there is a gender pint gap, with only one in six women drinking beer each week compared to half of men.)

Crucially, women want their careers back and they want their children in school or nursery. Of course home working has been great for some, but much harder if you are also juggling childcare and impossible if your work requires you to be physically present, like in retail, hairdressing, hospitality.

These are sectors where employees are largely women, and which are now opening up while childcare providers are still struggling to open fully – with reduced numbers due to social distancing requirements. It is a massive problem, which I worry has still not been fully recognised or addressed.

Perhaps if the PM needed to sort the childcare, get his nails done and his legs waxed it might be different. But it does seem that the Health Secretary, the Chancellor, the Business Secretary and the Secretary of State for Sport and Culture, who all have a very obvious thing in common, have overlooked the need to help their female constituents get out of lockdown on a par with their male ones.

Am I going to have to turn up to work with hairy legs to persuade them that women’s wellbeing matters?