Lord Austin: Before ministers publish the Gambling White Paper, they need to consider a few home truths
Every month, some 22.5m adults, almost half the adult population, buys a lottery ticket, visits a casino or bingo hall, plays online or enjoys a flutter on any number of sports. British people like a bet.
Whether some people like it or not, that’s a fact. It’s a harmless hobby for millions and it is part of the tradition and culture of this country. You only need look as far as the Grand National, live through a general election, or watch the Cup Final, to see that.
And for the vast majority of people who do like to bet, they do so safely. They are able to because the UK boasts one of the best regulated betting and gaming sectors in the world. According to the latest figures from the Gambling Commission, the rates of problem gambling in the UK population are now at 0.2 per cent, down from 0.4 per cent the year previous.
By comparison, Italy has a problem gambling rate of 2.4 per cent, Norway has a problem gambling rate of 1.4 per cent, while a survey by Public Health France last year estimated the rate there was 1.6 per cent – up from 0.8 per cent in 2014.
It is also a great British business success story, a genuine world beater. Nationally, the regulated sector supports 119,000 jobs, generates £4.5bn in taxes and contributes £7.7bn to the economy. Locally, it is the beating heart of many hard-pressed high streets. A recent study showed 89 per cent of visitors to betting shops combined that visit with a trip to another shop on the high street.
Because for a huge number, particularly older men, a betting shop isn’t somewhere simply to place a bet. It’s their antidote to loneliness
Shops are closing in high streets across the country, leaving scores of empty premises, hollowing out the economic centres of entire communities. Against that backdrop, it doesn’t make sense to make life harder for those businesses that are investing in shops and providing jobs in places like Dudley while supporting the wider local economy. But this goes beyond simple economics and goes to the heart of community life.
Because for a huge number, particularly older men, a betting shop isn’t somewhere simply to place a bet. It’s their antidote to loneliness. It’s where they can see a friendly face, get a free mug of hot coffee from a member of staff who knows their first name, where they can idle away an hour or two chatting with friends.
In many ways, it’s very similar to a pub. A safe place, a place where you are welcome, where you can be at ease. However, the parallels with a pub don’t stop there. Because we know, just like having an alcoholic drink, betting is not risk free.
But unlike alcohol, which leaves the bill for the harm it causes with the taxpayer, the regulated betting and gaming industry contributes to charities that care for the small minority of people for whom betting does become a problem. It has been that way for 20 years and will always be that way. In fact, the industry is contributing an additional £100m over the next four years, voluntarily, to fund excellent charities like Gordon Moody, which is based in Dudley.
Gordon Moody’s brilliant work is just one part of a vast ecosystem of care providers in the UK, funded predominantly through voluntary contributions from the industry. Right now, the third sector provides over 90 per cent of the treatment and prevention work in the UK which is why I’m concerned by calls from some quarters to replace this successful system, which is working, with a Statutory Levy, effectively a new tax on the industry.
Campaigners want this money to go to the NHS, but they can’t replicate an independent, nationwide network of expertise, already well-funded. With problem gambling rates so low, it makes no sense to tamper with a system that is clearly working, and which could risk the future funding of outstanding charities like Gordon Moody.
The rules and regulations governing regulated betting and gaming are due to be renewed. The industry welcomes that, they know regulations must be updated to keep pace with technology and consumer trends. But before ministers publish their White Paper they would do well to pause and consider a few home truths.
They should consider the financial contribution of this legitimate and popular industry. They should consider the UK’s hard-pressed high streets and the impact their decisions will have on places like Dudley. But most of all they should consider the millions of punters who enjoy a flutter harmlessly. The millions of Britons who like to bet. Because right now, they are betting on the government to deliver for them. I hope they do.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.