Why we need to get the balance right on gambling reform
Targeted intervention is the best way for the government to uphold freedom and protect the most vulnerable when it comes to gambling.
When it comes to taking the tough decisions on behalf of the people who voted you into Parliament, finding the right balance will always be the trickiest, most enduring of challenges. Get the balance right, most people are happy, but get it wrong and the trouble is endless. This is the case for any decision impacting voter’s lives - including when grappling with the thorny issue of gambling reform.
There are so many competing pressures to balance, it’s no wonder Government is still working to find consensus. Take one glance at the noisy debate around betting and you quickly realise there are extreme views at both ends of the spectrum. But what is not disputed by anyone is how popular having a flutter is. In the UK 22.5 adults have a bet each month, whether that’s on the lottery, in a bingo hall, in bookmakers on the sports we love, online or in a casino – and I’m one of them, alongside a large proportion of my constituents.
Despite these vast numbers, according to the independent regulator, the Gambling Commission, rates of problem gambling among UK adults are low by international standards at 0.3 per cent. While this is encouraging, everyone recognises that betting is enjoyed by the overwhelming majority safely and responsibly, but that it can be a problem for a tiny minority. That’s why we have sensible regulations in place, just as we do with the consumption of alcohol.
But how do you allow adults the freedom to bet, while protecting the vulnerable? One such measure being pushed by the anti-gambling lobby is blanket affordability checks at a very low level, the kind of checks that would compel punters to prove they could afford to have a flutter.
But compare that to drinking, what would voters say if Government, in a move to protect alcoholics, decided to set a limit on how much the rest of us could spend on drink across a set timeframe? There would be outrage, and rightly so. A ‘one size fits all’ approach rarely fits anyone.
Surely better to use technology and the tools already available and devise a targeted approach? An approach that identifies those at risk and puts in additional protections, while allowing the rest of the public to carry on doing what they love without Nanny State intrusion. That would be the balanced approach.
It is the same when balancing the economic contribution regulated betting and gaming makes to the UK, and the need for the safest playing environment. Currently, the betting and gaming sector contributes billions to the economy and billions in tax, while supporting over one hundred thousand jobs – including in my constituency of Workington. All that investment, on hard-pressed high streets, in the leisure and tourism sector and online, comes from generating profits. If we tax too hard, if we over-regulate, if we fall for a hard-left narrative that profit is bad, we lose all of those things and much more.
But it can never be uncontrolled profits over people. That’s why I have welcomed industry moves to commit 20 per cent of advertising to safer gambling messaging. And why I support initiatives like Safer Gambling Week. This messaging throughout the year, and during Safer Gambling Week, encourages punters to use the suite of tools available in the regulated sector to keep a check on their betting, tools like time outs and deposit limits.
This is good work. But there’s one place where gambling is growing unchecked precisely because it doesn’t take steps like this – and it’s the unsafe, unregulated black market. This again, is a question of balance. It is foolhardy to think betting with the regulated market is the only place the public can have a wager.
Over-regulate the legal market, and frustrated punters will find another way to place their bets. The numbers using these sites has doubled and the amount staked is now in the billions.
None of that cash is going to the sports we love, like horseracing, darts, snooker, rugby or football. It is not investing anything into preventing problem gambling or harm prevention. And crucially, it is raising zero cash for the Treasury.
Getting the balance right can often be like walking a tightrope. One foot wrong, and you’ll come crashing down to earth. I decided long ago to make up my own mind about betting and gaming, not fall for the lazy stereotypes others continue to cling to. I see an industry ready to find a balance – I hope Government offers them a pathway so punters can continue to enjoy a bet.
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