The return of betting shops and casinos is good news for the economy – but we must keep up progress on safer gambling
This week the UK took another step towards post-Covid normality when high street shops in Scotland – including betting shops – safely opened their doors again for the first time this year.
The easing of restrictions by the Scottish Government came two weeks after the same relaxations were introduced in England and Wales. In all, around 6,750 British betting shops, supporting the jobs of 46,000 men and women and paying nearly £1 billion in tax to the Treasury, have gone back to business this month.
The next milestone on the road to recovery for mine and many other sectors is on May 17 when casinos and bingo halls in England and Wales will also be allowed to re-open. Sadly, just as with betting shops, it looks as though casino workers in Scotland will have to wait longer to pull up their shutters.
As I said in a letter to Nicola Sturgeon last month, the decision to keep Scottish casinos closed when other venues like pubs and restaurants are open is baffling, especially when they have spent millions of pounds making themselves Covid-secure. Indeed, an independent report by Dr Lisa Ackerley, a chartered environmental health practitioner, said casinos were “as safe, if not safer” than other Scottish hospitality venues.
There are, of course, strong economic reasons for getting our industry back up and running as soon as possible. A report by Ernst and Young last month revealed the huge contribution the regulated industry makes to the Exchequer. It showed that betting shops, casinos and the online betting sector support 119,000 jobs in the UK and generate £4.5bn in tax. In addition, our members also contributed £7.7bn for the economy in gross value added in 2019.
With the Treasury taking on record-breaking levels of debt to pay for the emergency measures forced on the Government by the pandemic, these are vital revenues as they now attempt to get the country back on its feet.
Meanwhile, our members also help to fund some of the nation’s most popular sports, which have also been devastated by the effects of the pandemic. Horseracing benefits to the tune of £350m thanks to sponsorship, media rights and the betting levy, while our members contribute at least £40m a year to the English Football League and its clubs, more than £10m for darts and snooker and over £2.5m for rugby league.
Thanks to the excellent anti-Covid measures they have installed – like Perspex screens, hand sanitisation stations and strict social distancing rules - betting shops and casinos provide safe spaces for those who enjoy a bet. It’s also worth pointing out that the number of betting shops passing spot checks for underage customers has risen from 67 per cent to 91 per cent in the past 10 years – the highest score for any high street retailer selling age-restricted products.
Of course, like every other industry, the various lockdowns have led to a change in the way our customers consume the products our members provide. Although it is deeply inconvenient to the anti-gambling lobby, the fact is overall betting revenues (‘gross gambling yield’ in the industry jargon) fell by £1.7bn between 2019 and 2020. But with betting shops and casinos closed for so much of the past year, inevitably this has led to an increase in the online betting.
Now only a fool would be surprised that online betting has increased during the lockdown and only anti-gambling prohibitionists would express faux outrage about it. With all the shops being shut, who hasn’t ordered more stuff from Amazon? With pubs being closed, who hasn’t bought more booze from Tesco? 30 million people in Britain - nearly half the population - enjoy a flutter. If you want a bet on the Grand National and the betting shop is closed, you are going to do it online this time.
The key for me is how our industry responded to the spike in online during Covid. And right from the start of the pandemic, the regulated industry responded by drawing up a 10-pledge Covid action plan setting out higher standards. Thankfully this has led to the number of safer gambling messages on betting websites more than doubling, and the number of direct interventions where a customer has been spending more time or money betting than before Covid increasing by 25 per cent.
This is in addition to the other steps we have taken in the past year to promote safer gambling – things like ensuring 20 per cent of all TV and radio betting ads are now safer gambling messages, more money for research, education and treatment, tougher rules to further prevent under-18s seeing betting ads, a new code of conduct for the design of online games to improve player safety and a ban on football clubs using their official social media accounts to promote betting offers.
The good news is there is no evidence that the lockdowns of the last 13 months have led to an increase in problem gambling. Launching the Gambling Review last year, the Government said the rate of problem gambling is 0.5 per cent and has been stable for the past 20 years. A report by the Gambling Commission in February also suggested that rates of at-risk and problem gambling actually fell in 2020.
The usual suspects in the anti-gambling lobby may look down their noses at people who enjoy a bet, but betting shops, bingo halls and casinos reopening is good news - and much-needed for the economy. What’s important now going forward is that our commitment to continued progress on safer gambling remains as strong as ever.
Michael Dugher is CEO of the standards body the BGC (Betting and Gaming Council) and is a former Shadow Secretary of State for DCMS.