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More dither and delay over gambling reform is deeply disappointing

(Alamy)

4 min read

Today, the government finally published its long overdue white paper on gambling reform.

The document, pledged years ago but delayed at least four times by ministers amid fierce lobbying by big betting, sets out measures the government intends to introduce to help tackle the scourge of problem gambling, and make our legislation fit for the digital age.

Rather than announcing concrete proposals that will be brought forward in legislation, the government has opted to flag measures and put them out for further consultation. This means more dither and delay on the issue of gambling reform. It’s hugely disappointing for campaigners agitating for change.

There is no need for consultation on measures such as a statutory levy and affordability checks, which are broadly supported

The years leading up to this long-anticipated white paper involved endless consultation and engagement with a range of organisations. The abuses of the gambling industry and the scale of gambling-related harm in Britain are well-known. There is no need for consultation on measures such as a statutory levy and affordability checks, which are broadly supported. Our own polling demonstrates this.

The government’s white paper merely pushes back a legislative process that will lead to tangible action. After all this time, ministers should be offering firm proposals to Parliament. Instead, they are inviting more procrastination and inviting industry lobbying efforts to downplay the harmfulness of gambling. Such efforts have sustained a situation where profits come first, and people come second.

It is not an overstatement to say that people’s lives depend on reform. One gambling-related suicide occurs every single day. Unless we see truly bold action to defend vulnerable punters, and rules that reign in the behemoth of big betting, Brits will continue to suffer terribly. At CARE, we are calling for a number of measures to protect people and bring accountability to companies.

The government is swithering on lowering the stakes on online slot machines that currently have no limit. They must do this. A maximum stake of £2, as applied to highly addictive fixed odds betting terminals in bookmakers, is crucial. Offline controls must be reflected in the more-pernicious online world.

We need a robust levy on gambling companies’ profits to raise funds that will help problem gamblers. The white paper puts the size of a levy up for debate but it’s clear a significant levy is required. Around 400,000 people in England alone are thought to be addicted to gambling and helping these people costs about £600 per person a year.

 If 400,000 people need support and it costs £600, that is an annual bill of £240m. Not to mention the additional funding needed to prevent others from falling into the grips of addiction. A low one or two per cent levy would fall short of what is needed, raising far less than £200m. A five per cent levy is required.

CARE is also calling for a proper response to the gambling free-for-all we see in sport. In football, shirt sponsors, pitch side ads, and breaktime ads are saturated with betting content. The beautiful game has become an ugly spectacle. Relaxing advertising rules in 2005 has clearly had a harmful effect.

UK football has shown a willingness to reduce gambling shirt sponsorship. However, the action taken so far is not enough to protect vulnerable fans. Just as smoking advertising and sponsorship was banned in sport in the 1980s, gambling advertising and sponsorship need to be taken out of football today.

The harsh reality of betting is this: companies need people to lose. To ensure the highest losses, gambling companies have developed targeted promotions, “free bets” and “VIP” schemes to induce people to keep betting more money. To ensure justice for vulnerable punters, we need to see an end to these traps.

Almost 60 per cent of gambling companies’ profits in the UK come from a five per cent cohort of their customers thought to be problem gamblers or at risk of becoming problem gamblers. That is why we also need affordability checks. The government needs to deliver, fast.

The measures we argue for would start to address the harmful imbalance we are witnessing in our culture at present that puts gambling companies before punters. We hope that these will emerge from the coming period of consultation. It is deeply regrettable that the public will have to wait even longer to find out.

 

Louise Davies MBE is director of advocacy and policy at CARE

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