UK Gambling Review: Don’t Kill the Golden Goose

While most sides have expressed early support for the British government’s just-launched Review of the 2005 Gambling Act, a battle royal is shaping up between UK parliamentary bodies and the gaming industry’s Betting and Gaming Council (BGC).

At its heart is the emotive issue of problem gambling — and differing views on the viability of the BGC as a watchdog to self-police the nation’s betting business.

In July this year, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Social and Economic Impact of the Gambling Industry filed 66 recommendations for the government to make betting safer.

These included: stake limits, reform of VIP schemes, testing new games for harm, a prohibition of gambling sponsorship in sport, banning direct marketing, a levy to fund research, education and treatment for problem gamblers.

In a clear swipe at the BGC, the committee argued for the creation of an independent gambling ombudsman to settle disputes and redress perceived wrongs.

“I welcome this timely review from the Government,” said Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top, a Vice-Chair of the (House of Lords) Peers for Gambling Reform group.

“Far too many people are drawn in to spending money on gambling they often don’t have, with sometimes tragic consequences. I look forward to working with the government to tackle the problems we are seeing within the industry.”

Without providing conclusive evidence, the group claims that in the last year alone there’s been an increase from 55,000 to 62,000 problem gamblers aged between 11- to 16-years-old.

Another Vice-chair of the group, the Lord Bishop of St. Albans, said: “The suffering caused by gambling is very well documented and the problem is only getting worse. There is a moral duty to act now.”

Lord Smith of Hindhead, a member of the group, said their aim was not to ban gambling but only to make it safer.

“As someone who likes a flutter, I understand that for the vast majority gambling is an enjoyable pastime,” said Lord Smith.

“I am not a prohibitionist. I recognise however that for a minority gambling can be a serious problem. And the problem is reaching ever younger and more vulnerable people thanks to blurred lines of terms, and some outdated aspects of the 2005 Act.

“I commend the government for getting on with this important review,” the peer concluded.

The UK Gambling Commission (UKGC), the government body that oversees the betting industry, has also faced widespread criticism from what can only be described as anti-gambling bodies, in particular the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Gambling-Related Harm, which has labelled the UKGC as “not fit for purpose”.

Neutral observers may be surprised at the level of animosity directed against the UKGC.

In 2018 the Commission, with full support from the industry’s BGC, radically reduced the permitted stake on fixed-odds betting terminals to £2 from £100.

It has brought in much tougher age and ID protocols, reigned-in VIP schemes, banned the use of credit cards to gamble and is poised to end autoplay and quick spin features; among many other initiatives.

The UKGC has also been a prime driver in the move to set up 14 new clinics for people with gambling addiction problems, including specialist treatment for underage gamblers.

But with the advent of the Review, the APPG has only intensified its criticism of the industry.

“We need bold and significant change,” charged APPG Chair Carolyn Harris (Labour). “Too many families are impacted by gambling related harm and we must protect those most at risk through legislation and policy change.

“Gamblers need an ombudsman to support redress and the regulator must also be overhauled.”

Few argue with the need for modernisation and reform. But the government must be careful not to kill the proverbial golden goose.

The UK’s betting and gaming industry, lest we forget, employs over 100,000 people, generates almost £9bn (US$12bn/€10bn) a year in gross value added, pays over £3bn (US$4bn/€3.3bn) in taxes and contributes more than £500m (US$665m/€550m) in sponsorship a year to a wide range of sports.

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