Lord Smith of Hindhead is Vice-Chairman of Peers for Gambling Reform.
The recent launch of the highly anticipated gambling review is a welcome and important milestone as we head towards much needed reform of the gambling industry.
Peers for Gambling Reform, of which I am Vice-Chairman, was set up to drive the agenda for gambling reform forward. We are determined that this review brings about fundamental and positive change to our gambling legislation. Like the Government, I strongly believe that while the Gambling Act 2005 was suitable for its time, with the advent of the internet and the smartphone, it has quickly dated leaving us with an analogue rule book for a digital world where everyone with a phone can gamble 24/7 if they want to. Effectively there is a potential supercasino in everyone’s pocket, except a person can gamble there unsupervised and unprotected.
It is for this reason that I commend the Government on the ambitious scale of this review – but if change is to be effective, the gambling review must ensure at least three things.
First, reform of the industry must be fair and take an evidence-based approach. Conclusions must not have been influenced by vested interests from either side of the debate. While we fundamentally need to protect people who have been suffering far too long from the harms associated with some parts of the gambling industry, this once in a generation reform must also ensure the industry is still able to continue to thrive, grow and contribute to our economy and local communities. We should also not underestimate the contribution our land-based sector makes as UK tourist attractions, such as casinos and the arcades at our seasides.
A fine balancing act is indeed needed if this review is to be fair to the industry while at the same time reforming the parts of it which are letting the sector down so that we also ensure the vulnerable are protected from gambling-related harms. Which brings me onto my next point.
Second, a thorough review is needed into how we can protect vulnerable players in a multi-disciplinary way. We are not simply seeing one gambling product that is the cause of harm, neither are we seeing one particular section of society that appears to be more at risk of harm than others – I have heard harrowing evidence from men and women from all walks of life on the impact of gambling addiction.
This review can therefore help a wide audience, and there are many areas and ways where legislation that currently fails to protect vulnerable players can be improved. For example, changes should be made on a number of areas that would almost immediately protect players such as the need for effective affordability checks for customers, changes to game design such as the speed of play and stake limits online, the reform of VIP schemes and gambling regulation for loot boxes, licencing tipsters and affiliates so they are brought under appropriate code of conduct standards, and raising the age limit for those who can participate in the National Lottery and buy tickets in a Societies Lottery – and I say that as Chairman of the National Conservative Draws Society.
Furthermore, to truly tackle gambling-related harm in a multi-disciplinary way, one government department simply cannot spearhead this review alone and it is concerning to see the omission of the Department of Health and the Department of Education in having a leading role in the review. This review should be cross- departmental in order to tackle the wide range of issues that are contributing towards harm and may have the ability to provide the solutions to the problem, such as treatment and education.
Third, the review must deal with the proliferation of funding and urgently find an alternative funding mechanism for sport. The “gamblification” of sport is now very real. We are bombarded with gambling advertising during sports games on our TV screens, online and on football shirts. Half of the Premier League’s 20 clubs and 17 out of the 24 Championship clubs have gambling companies on their shirts and the Football League itself is sponsored by a gambling operator.
We must remember that children are just as exposed to this kind of advertisement as adults and evidence suggests children are more likely to be negatively impacted from exposure to gambling advertisement. Shockingly, the number of 11-16 year old problem gamblers has just increased from 55,000 to 62,000. The problem is getting worse and time should not be wasted.
Although I understand that many different sports are reliant upon sponsorship and advertising funding, a difficult situation has arisen over time where the majority of sports funding is now far too reliant on the gambling industry and we urgently need a solution to this.
Actions by Lewes Football Club demonstrate that there is another way around funding and sponsorship for sport as they are surviving without any form of gambling sponsorship and I hope there are many more clubs to follow. The current situation is out of control and without genuine will and action from sports clubs, the Government may soon be forced to intervene.
We now have an opportunity to right some of the wrongs we are seeing within the industry to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected from gambling harms and critically, we can address the alarming issue of children and gambling. If parts of the gambling industry are unable to self-regulate and act responsibly, operators who do act responsibly and recognise that a long term customer is always better than a short-term gain, then enforcement through tougher legislation is highly likely be the direction that ends up being taken.
My hope is that we can get to a point where a person who may be facing problems, and who really wants to stop gambling when it is harming his or her wellbeing or lifestyle, can do so swiftly and has the ongoing help and support they need; and where all the responsible operators who provide safe environments are able to carry out their business without the need for additional regulation and interference.
Until then, there are clear areas where progress can and should urgently be made which both treats the industry fairly and recognises its importance to our social activities and economy while fundamentally protecting those who need it most. These are Conservative initiatives and something which all Conservatives should be able to get behind.