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Big Brother style policies won't win the next election

Michael Dugher, CEO | Betting And Gaming Council

6 min read Partner content

People think politicians live on a different planet as it is - telling voters what they can and cannot do with their own money won’t help, writes Michael Dugher

With both the Tories and Labour attempting to spin up the recent local elections, the truth is results were probably mixed for both parties. Labour were able to demonstrate good progress, but not yet a decisive breakthrough. For the Conservatives, results showed predictable mid-term blues and whilst there were warning signs of trouble ahead, results were not entirely catastrophic.

Following the local elections, much of the focus on this month’s Queen’s Speech was on which policies had been quietly dropped in an effort by the Government to have a more strategic, more focused and frankly more popular policy platform - one which better reflects political priorities and practical concerns, especially in light of economic pressures.

Some commentators have referenced the influence of David Canzini, a Deputy Chief of Staff to the PM, hired along with several others to help Boris Johnson ‘reset’ his Downing Street operation after criticisms from Conservative MPs during the recent partygate furore. In an effort to navigate politically choppy waters and with dark, foreboding economic clouds on the horizon, Canzini reportedly told colleagues in No 10 that he believes that “Conservative governments don’t legislate their way to economic growth”.

Andrew Griffith, No 10’s Head of Policy, recently told the Daily Telegraph that the key themes for the Government were rebuilding, re-growing and levelling up the economy after the pandemic. He also said that what unites voters across the country is that “they understand that the State does not always know best”.

This reminded me of what the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Steve Barclay similarly wrote for the same newspaper: “Now it is a priority to restore a smaller state and in taking a step back from people’s lives…to trust the people…and free up business to deliver”.

All of this provides food for thought for the betting and gaming industry as we await the conclusion of the Government’s review into gambling. We are clear on our arguments, which are backed by evidence.

The regulated betting industry supports 119,000 U.K. jobs, generates £4.5bn in tax and contributes £7.7bn to the economy. It provides a lifeline to the nation’s favourite sports, many of which were dealt a hammer blow by the pandemic.

The regulated industry is so huge because it is so popular.  Some 22.5 million adults have a wager each month, whether that’s on horse racing, playing the lottery, bingo or casino games, or having a bet on the football and other sports. Contrary to siren voices from the anti-gambling lobby, the number of problem gamblers in the UK is encouragingly low and is falling. According to official figures, the rates are now at 0.2 per cent.

But anti-gambling prohibitionists, who’s default position is just to ban stuff, are determined to use a pseudo public health approach as a Trojan horse to deliver draconian state regulations over how millions of individuals choose to spend their time and their own money. They want to see the introduction of so-called ‘affordability’ checks - proposals which have included compelling every customer to produce bank statements and other private financial records to prove they could afford to spend £100 a month, something that will only drive punters to the unsafe, unregulated black market online.

Campaigners want to see a complete ban on all advertising and sports sponsorship. They want a new tax on the betting industry in the form of a ‘statutory levy’ which will barely increase funding for research, education and treatment of problem gamblers, but which could make land-based casinos, struggling to recover from the pandemic, go bust. They want maximum stakes for online gambling, not limited to the vulnerable or those at risk, but for everyone and with no option to spend a bit more, even if you can prove you are a responsible gambler who has the means. And they want to outlaw promotions, like free bets, the sort that exist in every other competitive consumer market.

But what do the voters actually think? We went away and asked people across the country what they thought of these ‘proposals’ by commissioning focus group research by respected pollsters Public First. The results are a sobering wake up call for Government. 

When asked what she made of affordability checks one female council worker, in her 40s, from Wolverhampton, raged, “who’s idea is this - is it the Conservatives? I’m shocked to be honest, it sounds like something from a big brother style country. We can’t seriously be doing this sort of stuff in a free country. What are we going to have left?”

In Stoke, one young man in his 30s, said: “Can you actually imagine one of those lot in Cabinet sitting down the pub waiting for Oldham to score the last goal on their accumulator? They’re so far removed from what we do for a laugh and for fun - it’s a joke.”

He was backed up by a female shop assistant, from Blackpool, who said: “All this stuff they’re doing on fatty foods or supermarket deals is just absurd. Then you add in all this stuff about gambling. It’s making a mockery of people and their ability to just be grown-ups. We don’t need telling how to live our lives – it’s completely too far for me.”

Polling backs up much of this anger. A YouGov poll for the BGC found almost 60 per cent of punters thought the Government should not be allowed to set limits on how much money they could bet.

No one is arguing the Government should abandon big changes to gambling. The industry itself made changes to advertising and we favour continued improvements in sports sponsorship. We favour enhanced spending checks for online, but think these should be carefully targeted to vulnerable customers and those at risk. We understand the concerns around stakes limits on slots and are open to a proportional and tiered system which seeks to identify and reduce harms. Last year we also called for an ombudsman to strengthen consumer redress. And we are committed to greater funding for research, education and treatment of problem gamblers.

But the Government needs to tread carefully. Ministers might not like a bet themselves. But millions of people do. Gambling regulation won’t decide the next election. But people think politicians in Westminster live on a different planet as it is. Telling the good voters what they can and cannot do with their own money won’t help.

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