Gambling Review...how we got here. - by Neil Channing
The last time we had a new Gambling Act was in 2005 which only became law in 2007. Prior to that gambling in the UK had been covered by the Gaming Act of 1968, the Betting Gaming and Lotteries Act of 1963 and the Lotteries and Amusements Act of 1976, so it definitely made sense to update everything and to roll it into one act. If you can remember the years before 2005 we had only just discovered debit cards, so prior to that punters needed to get a credit account to bet. In the world of casinos you could not gamble until 48 hours after you joined and it was very normal to write a cheque to your casino. Betting shops were only allowed to have a window display and to open on Sundays from 1995 and it was 2001 that the first Fixed Odds Betting Terminals came in.
The 2005 Gambling Act had three main aims which were to protect children from gambling, to break the link between gambling and crime and to make sure gambling was conducted fair and openly. Whether it achieved any of that would probably need a much longer article, but it's true that the discussions leading up to 2005 were taking place at a time when the world was changing very quickly due to the growth of the internet and because the legislation didn't become law until 2007, you could easily argue it was already out of date before it even got passed. The world had become more global, everyone now had the internet in their pocket via their phone and in the UK we had a change of Prime Minister who quickly cancelled the idea of the first Super Casino coming to Manchester.
Fast forward to the Conservative manifesto of 2019 which used the hugely popular term "analogue law in a digital age" to describe the 2005 Act, and as part of their promise to prevent online harm, particularly to children, a review was promised of the legislation. In December 2020 the UK government announced a review of the act and called for evidence to be submitted by all interested parties by the end of March 2021. The Minister responsible suggested that the review would be wide ranging, and he welcomed evidence from anyone who was interested, but he stressed that improvements would be made separately to the review prior to the act coming in. Some of these improvements included restrictions to VIP schemes which came into force in October 2020 and plans to change the nature of online slots. These kind of changes can be made without legislation as the Gambling Commission already has the power to regulate the industry, but at this time they asked for more money to do their job as they felt their budget of £25m was too small to cope with a £4bn industry.
One of the other "improvements" that the Minister for Sport, Tourism and Heritage would have been happy for the GC to enforce on operators was tighter requirements for operators to protect customers, including interventions to protect potential problem gamblers and the dreaded affordability checks. The GC called for evidence to be submitted to a separate consultation process just on this subject by February 2021 and people started submitting their thoughts from November 2020. I was one of the many people who called for people to respond, and I think it's true to say that the GC were surprised by the volume of respondents. They possibly expected to get a number in the low hundreds and they received over 10,000. I would suggest that if they had just received a few hundred replies, mostly from gambling reformers and a few from large corporations, they may well have concluded that everyone thinks bringing in strict affordability checks was a good idea, not at all controversial, and they'd have insisted gambling operators would implement them by May 2020, with no need for any change in legislation. It feels to me like the strength of feeling and the sheer volume of responses to that consultation made them feel like they ought to "kick the can down the road" and insist that the government need to put affordability into the legislation.
If you aren't a fan of the idea of affordability checks, as I definitely am not, this was a victory, but it now meant there wasn't much time to go before the closing of the period that we all had to submit evidence to attempt to help shape a wide-ranging review of gambling that will lead to the new act coming in. That review closed in March 2021 after running for 16 weeks but the government stressed the emphasis was to be on player protection, advertising, the powers and resources of the GC, age limits and on land based gaming. For people who thought it might focus more on account restrictions, punter dispute resolution or reparations for punters suffering from rogue operators it was always going to be disappointing. The government definitely are interested in cheap wins, looking for things that sound very reasonable to an outside observer, and that don't cost much to implement.
Some people have suggested that since the invitation to submit evidence ended almost a year ago, the chance for regular punters to take part in the process and influence the legislation has finished. I don't believe that is the case at all.
Currently the civil servants are engaged in writing the White Paper which really ought to take about six weeks so it should be ready by early March. A White Paper explains exactly what will go into an Act of Parliament, it gets published and can now be amended as interested parties get to suggest changes before it goes to the House of Commons as a Bill briefly explaining what the legislation will do and that will routinely pass. There are then chances for a committee to review and amend the proposed legislation and also for amendments to be made by both the House of Lords and the Commons. The bouncing back and forward and the constant changes to the original document take time and maybe this Gambling Act won't be passed until 2023 but possibly even in 2024.
Certainly those writing the White Paper will refer to the expert evidence gathered via the consultation and the Minister will be listening to lobbying both from Parliamentarians who are Gambling Reformers, (ranging from those that want to protect problem gamblers and reform the industry to those who wish to abolish gambling), and also from the many MPs and Lords who have enjoyed a nice day out watching a sporting event with an excellent lunch and now want to speak up for the big gambling corporations. Both of those groups have a decent number of MPs and Lords to speak up for them and my worry is that very few MPs are available to speak for the 99% of punters who aren't problem gamblers and who don't own or run a massive gambling company.
We do still have time to change the content of this new Gambling Act by lobbying our MPs. Most MPs receive enough correspondence each week for about two or three full time staff to deal with and a lot of that will be individuals having their own problems with housing, immigration issues, employment issues and benefits. Lots of correspondence will come from online petition sites and organised campaigns and most of that will be on subjects they are very familiar with, very often animal welfare. Not many MPs are gamblers, will know much about gambling or will have had contact with constituents who want to talk to them about gambling. What can happen now is that each MP starts to receive a dozen or more letters about the act and they then go and speak to Chris Philp, the Minister who is responsible for writing the White Paper. Probably most MPs will just get one or two letters and will send back a standard reply, possibly given to them by the Department of Culture Media and Sport or Shadow DCMS team and they'll soon forget about it. It's only when they start to get a regular trickle of letters every day that pressure can build and they will make the effort to speak to the Minister.
Yesterday The Guardian ran a story saying that the writing of the White Paper is not going as quickly as it ought to, and that we might not see anything until May. I had heard that Philp is considered a "safe pair of hands", but that the issues are complex and he is spending a lot of time talking to the GC, who are emphasising that they are under-resourced and they have been distracted by working on the decision on who gets to operate the National Lottery for the next ten years. I feel like he will be very happy to announce that he is doing a lot to solve the issue of problem gambling without spending any money, by bringing in affordability checks and thus making it the problem of the large operators. The average voter will not have a problem with any of that as it won't affect them and who wants to sympathise with a large corporation? If they start to get Conservative colleagues, plus opposition members, telling them their postbag is full of people arguing about their right to privacy and their freedom to spend their own money on what they want, then he might listen. I also think the potential loss of a large amount of the £4bn that the industry brings to the Treasury makes the issue much harder for him.
It's definitely possible that the White Paper is published and that affordability checks are announced at a level much higher than the "deposit only £100 a month before you have to send in loads of paperwork" originally suggested by think tank the Social Market Foundation. If MPs make enough noise about it the level at which the checks kick-in could go higher or they could abandon the idea altogether.
One other thing that could happen is that we could see a change of Prime Minister. If, for example, Rishi Sunak was to move from No11 to No10 then that would be a much more free market, libertarian Thatcherite from a constituency where horse racing is an important industry, who very much cares about the Treasury and it's coffers, taking over from a guy who doesn't like gambling in Johnson. Sunak might get rid of Chris Philp and the process could be totally delayed or he could simply want a quick win and call for a much simpler piece of legislation. Who knows?
What we do know is that the battle hasn't been fought yet and if you want to protect the sport of horse racing and enjoy your hobby without the government and bookmakers nosing into your life then you ought to write to your MP now.
Do make the effort to send off a letter to your MP on the imposition of affordability checks. I've written one for you here