Michael Dugher: It’s important that the Gambling Review tackles betting by under-18s – but let’s deal in facts, not fiction
Rules are simply ignored by the illegal, unsafe online black market, where there are none of the strict ID and age verification checks which are a requirement in the regulated sector, says Michael Dughar | Credit: Unsplash
As the Gambling Review gathers pace, we will continue our critical work to protect young people.
When the Government announced before Christmas that it was kicking off the Review of Gambling, they did so with a “call for evidence” and they rightly said their determination to drive big changes will be “evidence-led”. This is something I strongly support.
Ministers made it clear that the percentage of problem gamblers in Britain stands at approximately 0.5 per cent of the adult population - comparatively low by many international standards - and that “this rate has remained broadly steady around or below one per cent for the past 20 years”.
Unfortunately, in the same way that it is true that regulated betting employs 100,000 people and pays around £3 billion in tax, none of this evidence suits the anti-gambling lobby.
The hysteria they seek to generate is predicated on their assertion that there has been an “explosion” of problem gambling.
Most recently, prohibitionists sadly chose to spread images on social media of children wearing football kits with imitation betting firm logos on them answering the door to their favourite players. The kids are then able to have a bet on a football game. This may be emotive, but it’s also mendacious and irresponsible.
At the heart of the Government’s Review is the determination that the process should ensure “the protection of children and vulnerable people in a fair and open gambling economy which is also crime free”. Exactly right.
So let’s get a few facts straight.
The Government’s Review will undoubtedly focus on betting advertising in sport - betting has been part of sports like horse racing and football for time immemorial - but it’s worth pointing out that our Industry Code for Socially Responsible Advertising includes a requirement that no betting operators’ logos can appear on children’s merchandise including replica football kits.
Far from trying to entice children to gamble, regulated members of the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) have a zero tolerance approach to betting by under-18s, which is why we welcomed the announcement that they will no longer be able to buy National Lottery products.
Personally, I have long argued that under-18s should not be allowed to gamble on National Lottery products and the Government’s recent move sends out a very clear signal about how society views underage gambling.
Sadly, however, these rules are simply ignored by the illegal, unsafe online black market, where there are none of the strict ID and age verification checks which are a requirement in the regulated sector.
As a report by PWC showed, these sites were used by 200,000 British punters over the course of a 12-month period between 2018 and 2019, demonstrating the extent of the danger they pose to youngsters in this country.
So what are we doing to protect young people?
Last year, the Industry Code for Socially Responsible Advertising was updated to further prevent under-18s from seeing betting adverts online.
That means BGC members must ensure that all sponsored or paid for social media adverts are targeted at over-25s, unless the website can prove that their ads can be accurately targeted at those aged over 18.
In addition, the new-look code also makes clear that gambling adverts appearing on search engines must show that they are for those aged 18 and over, while our members will also have to post regular safer gambling messages on their social media accounts.
The BGC is also working directly with social media and search platforms to reduce under-18 exposure to advertisements.
We welcome the fact that Google has recently started allowing people to opt out of most gambling advertising on its platform. These changes are clearly making a difference as the Advertising Standards Authority recently announced that, following its latest advertisement review, the number of betting ads appearing on inappropriate sites was down by 93 per cent.
A survey of school pupils by the regulator, the Gambling Commission, revealed that the number of under-18s gambling in the previous week has fallen by more than half over the past decade – from 23 per cent in 2011 to 11 per cent in 2019. And of those who do bet, according to the Gambling Commission, they are most likely to have done so in private bets with friends, buying scratchcards, playing fruit machines in pubs or arcades, or playing cards, rather than with BGC members.
Nevertheless, as the recently created standards body for the regulated industry, we at the BGC are determined to do more.
In 2019, our members introduced the ‘whistle to whistle ban’, which prohibits the broadcasting of TV betting adverts during live sport, from five minutes before a match starts until five minutes after, before the 9pm watershed.
A study by Enders Analysis showed it had reduced the number of such ads seen by children during that time by 97 per cent.
Strict advertising rules also rightly prevent children being targeted by betting adverts. But again, these do not apply to the illegal, online black market, another reason why we have warned that the Gambling Review must not inadvertently drive customers into the arms of these unscrupulous operators.
Education about the potential dangers of gambling is also vitally important, which is why the BGC is investing an unprecedented £10 million in the Young People’s Gambling Harm Prevention Programme, which is being delivered to school pupils across the UK, and those who work with them, by the brilliant teams at YGAM and GamCare.
Between January and September 2020, YGAM and Gamcare has trained over 3,800 education professionals, who in turn have educated over 65,000 under-18s about the risks of gambling.
So we have already done a lot and we are ready to go even further to prevent underage gambling.
As we look ahead to 2021, and as the Gambling Review gathers pace, we will continue this critical work.
Ministers have said that they will seek to get the balance right in future changes - protecting the enjoyment of millions of people who enjoy a flutter - whether that’s on sports or on bingo or the Lottery - but at the same time what more can be done to protect the vulnerable.
This is the right approach. So let’s have “evidence-led” decisions that are based on facts, not the fiction that can too often swirl around this debate.
Michael Dugher is CEO of the standards body BGC and is a former Shadow Secretary of State for DCMS