SBC News Winning Post: Ministers take your time...

Winning Post: Ministers take your time…

Regulus Partners details year-end frustrations as yet again, UK gambling scrutinises ministerial movements in the absence of no White Paper being published, providing no indication on the Gambling Review’s final outcome.

This week offered cause for cautious optimism for those seeking a coherent outcome to the government’s review of gambling legislation, as the minister responsible, Paul Scully (Cons, Sutton & Cheam) addressed GambleAware’s annual conference.

Mr Scully provided little in the way of detail but spoke confidently of the need to ensure balance between consumer protection and consumer enjoyment (a word now considered heretical by some in public health) and to base decisions on a careful exploration of what is undeniably a complex subject matter. He was keen to stress that progress had already been made on harm prevention through regulatory changes to online game design and the banning of credit card payments. All in all, the minister’s speech suggested that the White Paper (now expected in mid-January) may in fact adhere to the original aims of the review.

Scully cuts a distinctly different figure to his predecessor in the role, Chris Philp. Where the Honourable Member for Croydon South was excitable and showy, Scully seems calm and down-to-earth; where Philp was opportunistically evangelical, Scully appears balanced and considered; where Philp was easily led (Public Health England, Muggleton etc), Scully evinces healthy scepticism.

In the absence of a White Paper, ministerial utterances will inevitably be scrutinised for clues as to the direction of policy, in much the same way that the ancients use to divine the future by examination of animal entrails. While early impressions can be misleading, there is a sense that – so long as Scully remains in place – the DCMS will pursue policies that are balanced and proportionate, resisting the shrill demands of public health extremism.

The minister’s speech at GambleAware did hint at one new development – the possible introduction of warning messages to accompany gambling advertisements. Mr Scully made specific reference to recent work in Australia to develop a suite of admonitory taglines aimed at gambling consumers. The Australian mottoes range from the banal (‘You win some, you lose more’) to the boneheaded (‘Chances are you’re about to lose’) and seem to be predicated on the idea that people who spend their money on wagering are morons.

The vapid nature of the taglines is revealed when one considers how they might be applied in other domains of public health catastrophism – for example, ‘You eat pizza, you get fat’; ‘Imagine what you could be drinking instead’; or ‘Think. Do you really want an ice cream’. We suggest that – in the interests of simplicity and economy – the five messages from Down Under might be compressed into one almighty “TSK!” of disapproval (we are happy to waive our creative fees).

It is a sign of the undue influence of the advertising industry that taglines have been invested with such importance, when evidence suggests that they have fairly limited direct impact on consumer behaviour. They are likely to be most effective when developed as part of integrated programmes of harm prevention – but too often they are devised on a stand-alone basis by ‘creatives’ who understand very little of the subject matter. In this way, large sums of money are expended on facile campaigns designed either to signal virtue or provoke outrage.

The Government may feel that it has no choice but to introduce health warnings following March’s Prevention of Future Deaths Report on the suicide of Jack Ritchie. Indeed, this year’s delphi study from the Office of Health Improvement and Disparities was expressly mandated by Government Legal to provide guidance in this area. Conveniently, the industry has constructed a neat little space for state-sanctioned warnings through its (also banal) ‘When the Fun Stops Stop’ and (somewhat better) ‘Take Time to Think’ campaigns. It is a legitimate gripe of the anti-gambling movement that licensees shouldn’t really be in charge of public health messaging (although some of the alternative custodians are undoubtedly worse).

Scully has, at least, made it clear that he will not blindly follow the Australian lead but will instead develop “a solution that works for our own country”. The risk of course is that, having established a precedent for state-determined gambling warnings, editorial control will then be handed over to public health. Once that happens, we are probably only a Pet Shop Boys hit away from what campaigners really wish to say.

GB: In Parliament – PHE scandal enters extra time but will we see penalties?

As the World Cup moved into the knock-out stages this week, so the Government entered extra-time on the scandal of state agency manipulation of evidence in the Gambling Act Review.

The DCMS had been due to respond by Wednesday to a brace of questions from Scott Benton MP (Cons, Blackpool South) on Public Health England’s (‘PHE’) manufactured claims about the social and economic costs of gambling. It was Mr Benton’s scrutiny that, during the summer, forced the Department of Health and Social Care (‘DHSC’) to commit to a review of PHE’s work. Having been promised a report in the autumn, Mr Benton may be feeling rather let down by the sight of so much DHSC tumbleweed in response (and we suggest that the length of time being taken over such an ostensibly simple review is, in itself, revealing).

Mr Benton’s party colleague, Andrew Bridgen (Cons, North West Leicestershire) has also taken an interest in the issue. He asked why the DCMS was not informed by the Gambling Commission of its view that PHE’s estimates of suicides associated with problem gambling were ‘inaccurate’ and ‘unreliable’. Mr Bridgen has also requested that the Gambling Commission’s opinion now at last be published.

Featured article edited by SBC from ‘Winning Post’ Sunday 11 December 2022 (click on the below logo to access the full unedited analysis of Winning Post). 

SBC News Winning Post: Knight rides the Rambling Rhodes

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