Winning Post: Prohibitionists, government u-turns and parliamentary tittle-tattle

Regulus Partners kicks off the week by reviewing the much anticipated GRH APPG report released last week, and Parliament’s continued tittle-tattle on reviewing the rules related to online and TV advertising, as debate on UK gambling heats up this summer.  

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UK: politics – with liberals like these… who needs prohibitionists?

It is a cliché of the age that expressions of intolerance are invariably preceded by professions of liberality (“I’m not racist but…” and so on). This week, the Gambling Related Harm All Party Parliamentary Group introduced its long awaited report on online gambling with a denial of prohibitionism… and then proceeded to outline an agenda that – taken literally and in full – would result in the end of licensed gambling as we know it.

The APPG’s demands include “a ban on all gambling advertising”. Such a proposal adopted without caveat (none was supplied) could by itself lead to the prohibition of online gambling (the ASA justifiably considers content on gambling websites to be a form of advertising) and the ‘plain packaging’ of licensed venues (no fascia, no promotions inside or out). The National Lottery would be defunct, casinos returned to speak-easies and horse racing consigned to the knacker’s yard.

It is unlikely that such severe interpretations were intended by the APPG as a whole (although one or two members might happily dance on the grave of licensed gambling – assuming that they had not also banned dancing in the meantime). For one thing, the group has been financed by elements of the gambling industry, who would face ruin if proposals were implemented in full. A ban on gambling on overdrafts would necessitate the introduction of mandatory tracked play in all seaside arcades, for example. With lobbying like this, who needs enemies?

The problems with the report arise from sloppy drafting and a failure to think through the consequences of the measures recommended (neither of which are positive attributes in a body of legislators). This in turn seems to derive from poor attention to detail and a campaigning zeal that has at times tipped over into fanaticism. This is a shame because the group has been hunting in the right areas. The Labour MP, Carolyn Harris who has led the group since its inception deserves recognition for her work in highlighting the depth of gambling harms, inconsistencies in our legislation and negligent behaviour by some licensees.

Replete with misrepresentations and basic factual inaccuracies (how many people gamble, growth rates in expenditure etc) the report is easy to criticise; but as we observed on Tuesday, its recommendations should not be dismissed out of hand. At the very least, the APPG has mapped the territory that the forthcoming Government review of gambling legislation will need to cover.

That the findings of such an error-strewn report were parroted so faithfully by parliamentarians, press and supposedly independent academic researchers illustrated once again the political and reputational weakness of the gambling industry. This is symptomatic of the gradual decay of key relationships – with Westminster; with the Gambling Commission; with consumer groups; and with large and influential sections of the national media. Gambling does not (as is often said) “need better PR” so much as a sustained process to rebuild trust with stakeholders.

It is not clear where Carolyn Harris and chums go from here. They have an opportunity to champion the interests of those harmed through gambling and also of those who are left to pick up the pieces (treatment providers, counselling and advice groups). They can play a role in keeping licensed operators on their toes (something that might even be welcomed by industry if pursued constructively). To achieve this, the group needs to switch tack – to exemplify discipline, factual rigour and the tolerance of liberal democracy. Surely these qualities are not too much to expect from our public servants.

UK: in Parliament – crime and punishment

This was the week that Richard Holden, like so many Tory MPs before him, turned to crime. The Member for North West Durham – perhaps prompted by the recent activities of the Howard League for Penal Reform – submitted a flurry of Parliamentary Questions on the subject of gambling and crime: numbers of arrests; number of people in custody; total amounts stolen and so on.

The chances are that the Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland may have to ‘take the Fifth’ as the data is not held centrally. The majority of people with a ‘problem gambling’ classification do not commit crimes in order to fund their gambling (it is consistently the lowest endorsed item on the DSM-IV screening instrument and was dropped in the transition to the DSM-5). Of those who do (or state at trial that they do), a small minority become the subjects of Gambling Commission enforcement actions.

Holden was also one of three MPs (his fellow Tory Andrew Rosindell and Labour’s Clive Betts being the others) who asked the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden (Cons, Hertsmere) when adult gaming centres would be able to reopen. Arcade operators had been expected to get going again on Monday (along with licensed betting offices) but in a rare departure from the Government’s otherwise flawless handling of the Coronavirus emergency, this appears to have been bungled.

Wes Streeting (Lab, Ilford North) asked whether the Government planned to review gambling taxation in order to promote “good public health outcomes”. Sensibly, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, Kemi Badenoch (Cons, Saffron Walden) pointed out that it was not the role of tax policy to regulate gambling (and as economist Professor David Forrest has noted, “the evidence [from Great Britain and the US] is virtually unanimous that gambling taxes add to the unfairness of the tax system” by placing the heaviest relative costs on those in the poorest deciles in society).

Mrs Badenoch pointed out that the casino sector paid £220m in gaming duty each year and that this was “a fair contribution to public finances”. Given that the true figure (pre-lockdown and including machine games duty and VAT) is likely to be pushing £300m, casino operators may argue that the sector’s contributions are somewhat more than fair; and will hope that this may insulate them from any tax increases when HM Treasury looks to replenish its coffers. Elsewhere, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson was moved to reassure the Commons that free school meal vouchers would not be accepted as payment in betting shops, casinos, bars or tobacconists.

If parliamentary tittle-tattle is true then next week will see the publication of the House of Lords select committee report on the social and economic impacts of gambling; while Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate (Cons) will lead a debate on “reviewing the rules relating to online and television gambling advertising”. It will be interesting to see whether fellow Conservative, Lord Chadlington joins in these discussions.

For a number of years, the Tory PR peer was one of the most regular interrogators of Government policy on gambling. However, this ceased suddenly last year at around the same time as he set up his charity, AAGH! (Action Against Gambling Harms) in the hope that it would be a receptacle for the Big Five’s big donation (£100m for treatment over four years from Flutter, Sky Betting & Gaming, GVC, bet365 and William Hill). This week’s announcement that the money will be going to GambleAware and not AAGH! might prompt Chadlington to take up once more the mantel of the inquisitor.

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