More dither and delay on gambling is hugely disappointing

(Photo: Unsplash/Rupixen)

On Thursday, the UK government finally published its long overdue whitepaper on gambling reform. The document, pledged years ago but delayed at least four times by ministers amid fierce lobbying by big betting, sets out a range of measures that could be introduced to help tackle the scourge of problem gambling, and make our legislation fit for the digital age.

The phrase "could be introduced" is a key one. Rather than announcing concrete proposals to be brought forward in legislation, the government has opted to flag measures that could be introduced and put them out for further consultation. This means more dither and delay affecting some of the most vulnerable people in our society, after years of back and forth.

The abuses of the gambling industry and the scale of gambling-related harms in Britain are crystal clear. There is no need for further consultation on measures that are broadly supported by campaigners and the public, such as a statutory levy, limits on stakes, and affordability checks. We need legislation. Ministers are delaying the legislative process that leads to real action.

It is not an overstatement to say that people's lives depend on reform. Unless we see truly bold action to defend vulnerable punters, and rules that reign in the behemoth of big betting, Brits will continue to suffer terribly. At CARE, we are calling for a number of measures that are backed by the UK public in polling we commissioned this month.

The government is swithering on whether to set a maximum stake on online slot machines that currently have no limit. They must do this. A maximum stake of £2, as applied to highly addictive Fixed Odds Betting Terminals in bookmakers, is crucial. Offline controls must be reflected in the more-pernicious online world.

We need a robust levy on gambling companies' profits to raise funds that will help problem gamblers. The white paper puts the size of a levy up for debate but it's clear a significant levy is required. Around 400,000 people in England alone are thought to be addicted to gambling and helping these people costs about £600 per year.

If 400,000 people need support and it costs £600, that is an annual bill of £240 million. Not to mention the additional funding needed to prevent others from falling into the grips of addiction. A low one or two per cent levy would fall short of what is needed, raising far less than £200 million. A 5% levy would be more appropriate.

CARE is also calling for a proper response to the gambling free-for-all we see in sport. In football, shirt sponsors, pitch side ads, and breaktime ads are saturated with betting content. The beautiful game has become an ugly spectacle. Relaxing advertising in 2005 has clearly had a harmful effect.

UK football has shown a willingness to reduce gambling shirt sponsorship, and this is to be welcomed. However, the action taken so far is not enough to truly protect vulnerable fans. Just as smoking advertising and sponsorship was banned in sport in the 1980s, so gambling adverts need to be taken out of football today.

The harsh reality of betting is this: companies need people to lose. To ensure the highest losses, gambling companies have developed targeted promotions, 'free bets', and 'VIP' schemes to induce people to keep betting more money. To ensure justice for vulnerable punters, we need to see an end to these traps.

Almost 60% of gambling companies' profits in the UK come from a 5% cohort of their customers thought to be problem gamblers, or at risk of becoming problem gamblers. Many of these regular customers are in gambling harm and cannot afford to continue betting. That is why we also need affordability checks. The government appears unsure about these despite campaigners offering viable solutions already.

The measures we argue for would start to address the harmful imbalance we are witnessing in our culture at present that puts gambling company profits before people. Voluntary codes, promises of better behaviour and good intentions are not enough. Robust, meaningful reform is needed immediately to help the countless individuals, families and, communities experiencing harm.

The government must consider whether it is content to go down in history as an administration that could have confronted abuses and protected vulnerable people but didn't because of the protestations of a greed-driven industry, or senseless procrastination. As it stands, ministers are building a poor legacy. We must pray that they change course and act quickly and decisively.

Louise Davies is Director of Advocacy and Policy at CARE