The weariness was palpable as members of campaign group Gambling With Lives gathered in the Churchill Room at the House of Commons last Wednesday. The group, founded by bereaved parents whose children took their own lives after a struggling with a gambling addiction, has been waiting six years for an overhaul of UK betting laws. During this time, co-founders Liz and Charles Ritchie have met 12 ministers with responsibility for gambling policy.
A white paper outlining a proposed shakeup, promised since December 2020, has been repeatedly postponed, to the dismay of addiction clinicians and campaigners, who say despairing addicts are being failed by the current lax regulation.
But the wait may soon be over. New culture secretary Lucy Frazer (in the job just three weeks) promised the assembled families an overhaul of Labour’s ill-fated 2005 Gambling Act “soon”. They have heard that pledge many times, but Whitehall sources insist the white paper could, with a fair tailwind, be published before Easter. So what could it bring for Britain’s £10bn gambling industry, its customers and the people some would call its victims?
Maximum stakes on online slot machines, which are associated with elevated addiction rates, are likely to be restricted to between £2 and £5, bringing them into line with high street machines. Dan Waugh, of gambling research group Regulus Partners, says some operators, conscious of increased scrutiny, have already reduced the maximum stake. “It will be a revenue and profit hit, but less than it would have been a few years ago,” he says.
Reformist MPs believe they have won the political argument for a statutory levy on operators to fund addiction research, education and treatment, despite misgivings among some Tories about earmarked taxation. If the levy goes ahead at a suggested 1% of revenue, it would cost firms about £100m a year and mark a bruising defeat for lobbyists who had proposed an enhanced version of current voluntary contributions.
There is still uncertainty about some of the most important battles, however. An early draft suggested bookmakers use “affordability checks”, demanding bank statements or payslips from anyone losing between £100 and £500 a month.
Waugh says this could be “catastrophic” for the industry, because heavy gamblers would seek alternatives such as the black market, while casual gamblers would simply stop bothering. Ministers are now considering lighter-touch “financial health checks”, perhaps using open-source credit information.
Another high-profile area still up for grabs is football sponsorship. The government would rather not legislate on this and has instead leaned on the Premier League to persuade clubs to voluntarily eschew multimillion-pound shirt sponsorship deals from gambling firms. An agreement is thought to be in the pipeline but questions remain over the LED ads on pitchside hoardings. Logic suggests they, too, should be axed if shirt sponsorship is, but logic and political compromise seldom go together.
Another option is for some knotty issues to be farmed out to the Gambling Commission. This could include the use of what Frazer last week called “enticements”, such as “free” bets or bonuses to lure back lapsed gamblers.
The regulator may also be asked to recommend a way forward on advertising. This could address bizarre discrepancies such as the industry volunteering in 2019 to ban gambling commercials during TV football broadcasts, while airing radio ads for online casinos during the school run.
Waugh anticipates a lengthy post-white-paper process in which the Gambling Commission does the government’s homework on the finer detail. This prospect keeps industry executives up at night, he says, as some feel the regulator has become more hardline in recent years.
But he points out that big players such as Flutter – owner of Paddy Power Betfair – and Ladbrokes Coral owner Entain have bigger fish to fry. Their sights are set on opportunities opening up in the US, after sports betting was legalised in many states.
“There’s less agitation from the industry,” Waugh said. “They’re just saying ‘For Christ’s sake, just publish it’.” On that point at least, the industry and Gambling With Lives are aligned.