Over the last couple of weeks, the Department of Culture Media and Sport Select Committee have held 2 hearings to hear the views of the Betting Industry, and those who campaign on ‘Gambling Harm’. To those who aren’t versed in what these are, a select committee is a group of backbench MPs who scrutinise the work of Government. They tend to be made up of newer MPs trying to catch the eye of the whips office as a candidate to become a Minister, and more established MPs who are either former Ministers or those who never reached top rank.
I have sat through more select committee hearings than I care to remember, and they tend to take on a rather formulaic structure. Many of those involved are either desperate to be noticed and/or go in with what could be considered to be a pre-determined view of the subject under discussion. Often considering the workload and sheer number of issues raised with MPs, they rely on a briefing prepared either by staff and/or campaign organisations.
Within this context, there were a few high, or rather lowlights, of the recent appearance of betting industry representatives in front to the esteemed panel. Chief Executive of the Betting and Gaming Council Michael Dugher was the principal witness. Michael has a long career in politics having served on the Labour frontbench and inside Number 10, so knows exactly how to handle these occasions and the tactics of MPs on the Committee. One such disarming tactic is to put across the impression that your organisation supports the measures being brought forward by the Government, in spite of the fact that you may have been arguing a contrary position for some time before. Positions taken around affordability and the statutory levy being examples where policy is seen by some as inconsistent.
We therefore were told that the BGC supports ‘the enhanced spending checks for online gambling, the ombudsman, the mandatory levy for RET, stake limits for online slots and the modernisation proposals for casinos.’
“Enhanced spending checks” are exactly as they sound – a code word for affordability checks, but we will come to that later. For me, one of the more interesting revelations comes to the reduction in gross gambling yield from the White Paper, which is estimated to be up to 14% from the online sector and 8% overall. Those figures suggest a loss getting towards a £1,000,000,000, a significant figure you may think, but clearly not significant enough for the Government to carry out an economic impact assessment. Perhaps an oversight from the Treasury, but a rather significant one, particularly when the Government claims from a fiscal perspective, the overall package is cost neutral or positive for Government.
This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of gamblers and gambling in that one must assume that those who have constructed the White Paper believe addiction will reduce in proportion to the reduction in gambling due to displacement (i.e people will go to the gym instead of having a bet).
A lower yield inevitably means less for racing through the levy. The Government have said that will not be the case and they will look at the mechanics of the horseracing levy, however no firm proposals have been brought forward and this must surely raise huge alarm bells for all involved in the industry whose share of the market is already in decline.
The MPs questions were broadly concerned with ‘problem gambling’, age related legislation, advertising, the black market and the Ombudsman. For the sake of brevity, I will focus on the two main themes the GCF campaign on, and that’s addiction and affordability.
In a battle to be the most anti-gambling MP, first past the post was SNP MP John Nicolson who spoke of nothing but the depression and broken families brought about through gambling (note the term ‘gambling’ not ‘addiction’), without covering any other ground. He proceeded to state that checks for £125 net loss per month or £500 a year were very sensible.
This was a point countered by one of the few sensible MPs on the committee, Labour’s Kevin Brennan who rightly noted that £500 a year is the equivalent of £1.37 a day, and enquired what would happen if a check was triggered. Considering the impact this would have on potentially millions of gamblers, it was heartening that at least one MP picked this up. As we know the answer is alarming, flags as to whether the customer if red, amber or green and checks against your financial position, all at a £500 spend per year. Beyond that, and the £2000 per 90 days brings different checks. No further detail on that and talk of the affordability question was done.
A further valid point from Kevin Brennan came around the further and tighter restrictions on 18-24 years olds and whether any young people’s groups had made representations to Government. Seeing at the Government has not bothered to consult gamblers, there was obviously no chance young people had been spoken to. With campaigns to lower the voting age to 16, this represents quite an outlier with the way certain politicians’ minds are moving.
There was also an extraordinary point made by Labour MP Paul Blomfield which cannot go without comment. That is the claim that the Betfair exchange has an addiction rate of 18%. Yes 1 in 5 exchange players is an addict. Clearly the sort of nonsense only someone who has either never played on Betfair or knows no one who does could come out with. You might ask where on earth this figure comes from and our friends at Regulus Partners have helpfully provided the answer in that it is ‘a distortion of the estimate from the Health Survey for England 2018 that 9.3% of people who participated in exchange betting were PGSI ‘problem gamblers’ and 8.6% ‘moderate risk gamblers’. While these rates are relatively high, neither classification denotes ‘addiction’. Moreover, it is incorrect to refer to these figures as ‘product rates’. Instead, they show rates of ‘problem gambling’ for people (a sample of just six or seven in the 2018 survey) who participated in exchange betting among other activities. In fact, the rate of PGSI ‘problem gambling’ for exchange bettors who either participated in no other forms of online gambling – or who bet on exchanges in addition to traditional sports betting or online gaming – was nil. Data from the 2018 survey (supported by the 2012, 2015 and 2016 surveys) indicates that exchange bettors were highly unlikely to be classified as ‘problem gamblers’ unless they also participated in spread betting.’
Although detailed, this is worth reproducing in full, as it demonstrates what we as a group, and gamblers in general are up against here. The questioners went on to present more distortions around the number of children addicted to gambling and around advertising. Ironically Labour MP Dr Rupa Huq (former statistician and academic) stated in the committee ‘you can always conjure up different figures to show what you want to show’ before going on to do just that.
In conclusion, the Select Committee demonstrated again the uphill struggle we face against the mood music of anti-gambling lobbying. There was only one MP who appeared to have any consideration for the millions of gamblers who will be impacted by unnecessary, impractical, and unworkable restrictions. We as a group need to harness the support of the millions of gamblers who are also voters to demonstrate the counter argument to those in Parliament. To do this please support us here