The Gambling Act Review Is a Chance to Stand up to the Bookies

The government's review into the outdated 2005 Gambling Act offers a chance to challenge the predatory gambling industry – but first, Labour must tackle its own pro-bookie lobby.

In an increasingly polarised country, one issue managing to cut across political lines is the need for gambling reform. The 2005 Gambling Act, seen at the time as a liberalising piece of legislation, was conceived of before the release of the first iPhone — and before gambling disorder was given a parity of esteem with substance addiction. The government’s Gambling Act Review, announced this month, is a long overdue opportunity to recalibrate our laws so they take into account advances in both technology and our understanding of gambling harm.

There’s no better illustration of how far the paradigm has shifted already than the reduction in the maximum stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs). Prior to the change in 2018, the bookmakers were able to hang on to roulette machines that permitted stakes of up to £100 every 20 seconds for 17 years. This was largely because they had convinced policymakers that gambling addiction resulted from a person’s predisposition to it, rather than anything to do with the product or the environment. The result was that the betting industry managed to absolve itself of the responsibility to offer safe products, despite 45% of FOBT users being classed as either problem or at-risk gamblers.

The government’s reduction of the stake to £2 a spin two years ago was an acknowledgement that the product, its accessibility, and the structural characteristics – such as how much you can bet and how frequently – all have an impact on associated levels of harm. This harm was compounded by the bookmakers locating twice as many shops, each with four FOBTs, in deprived boroughs compared to more affluent ones.

Thankfully, the Gambling Act Review has been contextualised by this shift away from the ‘responsible gambling’ agenda, which sought to lay blame for gambling harm with the individual, and onto a public health approach that takes into account corporate determinants. The commitment in the government’s call for evidence to look into affordability controls, limits to the stakes and speed online, the impact of advertising, and the provisions for consumer redress are all marks of significant progress since Blair-era liberalisation.

But it’s progress that the gambling industry continues to resist. Despite styling itself as a ‘standards body’, the Betting and Gaming Council’s response to a report published ahead of the Gambling Act Review sought to minimise the issue of gambling harm by claiming that population level rates of problem gambling are ‘stable’ at around 0.7%, despite a YouGov assessment placing the figure at 2.7% – the equivalent of 1.4 million people. The prevalence rate also doesn’t include those at risk, which more conservative estimates place at two million people, nor the depth of harm experienced by those who do become addicted, and by affected others.

Former Labour MP Michael Dugher’s response as CEO of the Betting and Gaming Council sought to orientate the focus of any policy interventions on ‘problem gamblers’ – as though this is somehow a static group – rather than on the practices of online gambling companies that peddle products like slots, which offer unlimited stakes and have a similar rate of addiction to FOBTs. Last year, online slots alone generated £2.2 billion for the sector – money which, just like with FOBTs, is more likely to come from deprived households. Worse, it’s money that very often ends up in the tax havens where gambling operators are based.

The promotion of this system amounts not only to economic illiteracy, but to economic stupidity. We export billions to online gambling operators based offshore, while importing the harm and associated social and economic costs.

In these circumstances, it’s troubling that the Labour Right appears to have such an affinity with online gambling firms: among others, Labour MPs Conor McGinn and Kevin Brennan – who, like Dugher, are allies of former deputy Labour leader Tom Watson – have spoken up for the industry, Brennan doing so when the review was announced. These supporters are largely and rather conspicuously confined to a New Labour tribute act.

That small group aside, the growing cross-party consensus is evident. Even among the vast majority of Conservative MPs, there is an acknowledgement that the gambling industry cannot be left to self-regulate, and that significant controls are needed to prevent harm. In July, Survation found those who voted Tory and support Brexit more likely to back substantive gambling reform: precisely the voters that Labour is pushing to win back in the former ‘Red Wall’. So despite accepting a £25,000 donation from one of the founders of Bet365 in his leadership campaign, Keir Starmer should take note of the public sentiment around gambling, and ignore the lobbyists whose continued defence of vested interests is well past its sell-by date.

Correction: This article originally stated that Conor McGinn MP ‘spoke up for the [gambling] industry in Parliament when the review was announced’. This was inaccurate and the article has been amended.

About the Author

Matt Zarb-Cousin is a former spokesman for Jeremy Corbyn and campaigner against the abuses of the gambling industry.