Campaigners calling for tougher gambling rules claim that “inexcusable” government delays in moving ahead with promised reforms to the UK gaming industry, worth £7bn, is causing more suicides among punters.
The industry has become impatient with the ongoing delay in publishing a long overdue White Paper setting out ministers’ proposals because the uncertainty is disrupting companies’ investment plans. The White Paper has been delayed four times, mainly because of the rapid turnover of ministers in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) caused by having three prime ministers in 2022.
In their manifesto for the 2019 general election, Conservatives promised to review the 2005 Gambling Act. The review was launched in 2020 and took two years to complete. It examined, among other areas, online spend and stake limits, gambling advertising and the Charity Commission’s roles and powers.
‘Predatory gambling industry’
Gambling With Lives, a charity set up by parents whose children took their own lives after a gambling addiction, said the continuing holdup meant that “tens of thousands more people will be harmed and some will die as a result of this inexcusable delay.”
The chair Liz Ritchie said: “Someone takes their life every day in the UK because of gambling. How many more families need to be shattered by highly addictive gambling products and predatory gambling industry practices before the government acts?”
Labour MP Carolyn Harris, who chairs a cross-party group of MPs examining gambling harm, said: “This is a low, senseless and cruel blow for campaigners for reform.”
Industry needs clarity for investment
Industry leaders also criticised the delay. Michael Dugher chair of the Betting and Gaming Council, said: “We urge the Government to work with the industry to make progress on a gambling White Paper soon so that our members have the regulatory clarity they need to invest in the future.”
He said that the British gaming and betting industry was a “British success story”, supporting 119,000 jobs, contributing £7.7bn annually to the economy and £4.5bn to the Treasury. A further 15,000 extra jobs were expected to be created by 2027.
Sean Trivass chair of the Horseracing Bettors Forum, said: “We want confirmation of what is going to be in this review sooner rather than later as what’s happening has put us all into limbo. We need to know what we’re up against.
“This delay is having an impact on business and on the man or woman on the street who doesn’t know whether they’ll be able to keep their account open, how much they might be allowed to bet and whether they’ll have to pass on any sensitive information to do so.”
As they wait for the White Paper, both sides continue their war of words.
Beware of ‘black market’
In the industry’s view, problem gambling is “low by international standards and has fallen in recent times, thanks to the many initiatives we have to further strengthen standards.”
The BGC wants policymakers to focus on ensuring that bettors are not pushed towards ‘black market’ operators that do not offer the same social responsibility standards as the regulated industry. It says ministers should also consider the difference between problem gambling and gambling addiction because the two are “often conflated, but they are entirely different, with the latter requiring a ‘clinical assessment’.”
Dugher accused “anti-gambling prohibitionists who like to vastly overstate the issues to suit their efforts to treat gambling like tobacco, not like alcohol.”
However, Gambling With Lives claims there are 400 gambling-related suicides a year, with 55,000 children are addicted to gambling in the UK. The gambling industry spends £1.5bn annually on advertising.
Stringent rules demanded
Campaigners are calling for:
- Gambling to be enshrined in law as a public health issue, with government legislating accordingly
- Dangerous products to be made safer, including slowing down speeds of play and stake limits
- Stringent affordability checks enforced across operators
- A statutory levy on gambling operators to pay for independent research, education, and treatment
- An end to all gambling advertising, including sponsorship of sports
- Classifications and licensing conditions for gambling products based on the harm they cause.
Interestingly, Andrew Rhodes the Gambling Commission chair, said in a recent speech that “we are not seeing inexorable growth in the UK gambling market. Overall participation in gambling is stable and has not been growing and gambling participation has not exploded.”
He added: “A number of the largest operators are stating revenues are down due to safer gambling measures they are introducing in terms of stake limits and affordability measures being enacted.
“They’re also suggesting the proportion of their revenue coming from high spending customers may be reducing, with a pivot towards lower spending customers.
“One of these has seen income from higher spending customers fall from 19% of income three years ago, to 5% now. Another operator has introduced automated affordability checks where they are rejecting 7% of customers at the point of application due to financial risk.”
There are concerns that the White Paper will be delayed indefinitely or even dropped altogether. But in view of Rishi Sunak’s commitment to delivering the pledges in the 2019 Tory manifesto, the government is expected to publish the White Paper at some point.
Campaigners are also worried that the promised reforms will fall far short of their demands. They are also braced for a bruising Parliamentary battle with the gaming industry. It could be quiet a wait before changes are enacted.