Some 600 million people, in over 140 countries and from every walk of life imaginable, tuned in to watch this year’s Grand National. I was in Aintree with thousands of other people for fun after so many months of miserable closures and Covid restrictions.
Millions of us have also enjoyed a float on the run. For 22.5 million adults, gambling isn’t something they do once a year, it’s something they do every month.
It could be watching the races, buying a lottery ticket, playing bingo and casino games, or betting on football and other sports.
But the freedom to have a bet is threatened by a tiny minority of anti-gambling prohibitionists who are determined to make betting the latest victim of the nanny state.
The government is currently putting the finishing touches on an overhaul of gambling laws which could have far-reaching consequences.
A small but vocal anti-gambling lobby demands draconian restrictions for activity it doesn’t approve of. They want bans on sports sponsorship and advertising, an end to promotions like free bets, a new tax on the industry, and so-called “affordability checks” if anyone wants to spend even $23 £ per week. Players may be required to produce their bank statements and payslips before betting.
There is also a lot at stake for the country. The regulated betting industry supports 119,000 jobs in the UK, generates £4.5 billion in tax and contributes £7.7 billion to the economy.
It provides a lifeline to many of the nation’s favorite sports, many of which have been hit hard by the pandemic. Betting is investing £350m in horse racing, £40m in the English Football League and £12.5m in snooker, darts and rugby league.
But there is an even greater risk if ministers mess up the betting changes. Gambling on global black market websites operating in the UK is now worth billions of pounds.
The number of bettors who have already been pushed into the dangerous and unregulated online black market has doubled in recent years.
These are warning signs, but there are also lessons to be learned from abroad.
Norway has already been hailed as a shining beacon of regulatory reform after introducing participation limits, affordability controls and advertising bans. But as a result, customers have flocked to the online black market, which now accounts for more than 66% of all money wagered there.
France has banned online casino gambling and now 57% of the money wagered there goes to black market operators.
In Norway, 1.4% of their population are problem gamblers. In France, it is 1.6 pc. And it’s the same story in Spain, Denmark and Italy. All have seen spikes in dangerous black market use paradoxically after regulations were put in place to prevent gambling harms.
To give a rare perspective to this debate, problem gambling rates in Britain are now at 0.2% – down from 0.4% the year before, according to the independent regulator, the Gambling Commission.
This is due to recent changes and rising standards in what is an already highly regulated industry.
The perspective is certainly something the government’s “red wall” voters have. When opinion polling firm Public First held focus groups in the seats the Tories must take, many voters said they saw betting as part of their culture.
And after two years of being told what they could and could not do during the pandemic, they were hostile to the suggestion that politicians or bureaucrats might start interfering in what they choose to do with their own money.
In the aftermath of partygate, Downing Street was keen to reassure Tory MPs that there has been a “reset”.
No 10’s new high command, like Andrew Griffith and Steve Barclay, have said it’s time to kick-start the economy and that means getting the state out of the way.
Everyone, including the industry, agrees there needs to be changes to the way gambling is regulated, especially online, but future restrictions should be targeted at those who are problem or at-risk gamblers. . All others must be left alone.
By the time millions of us watch next year’s Grand National, we’ll know if the government reset actually means anything.
Michael Dugher is CEO of the Betting and Gaming Council and is a former Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
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This notice was published: 2022-05-14 09:00:00