One of the big arguments raging during the Covid pandemic is to what extent ministers can take action to safeguard public health while also protecting people’s personal freedoms, jobs and businesses.
Although not on the same scale, a similar debate bubbles away on the future of gambling regulation, with the Government expected to publish a white paper in spring.
Around 30m people – nearly half the population – gamble on the National Lottery, bingo, in a betting shop or casino, and increasingly online. When I quote that figure to my former parliamentary colleagues, most are surprised at how high it is.
This poses an interesting challenge to ministers charged with introducing the biggest shake-up of our gambling laws in years. It is vital they make good on their promise that future changes will be “evidence-led”.
Most of the betting industry strongly supports the gambling review as a once in a generation opportunity to deliver real change and much-needed regulatory certainty.
But it’s important we strike the right balance between protecting the vulnerable, and not spoiling the enjoyment of the overwhelming majority of people who enjoy a flutter safely and responsibly.
Huge strides have been taken in the last couple of years to make gambling, especially online, safer.
According to the Gambling Commission, the rate of problem gambling in the UK fell from 0.6pc to 0.3pc in the 12 months to September last year.
Nevertheless, one problem gambler is one too many, which is why the industry is committed to working with the Government and regulator to raise standards further and use technology to promote safer betting.
I hope one of the big priorities for ministers in this review will be child protection. A report by the regulator found the proportion of young people who gamble fell from 23pc to 11pc between 2011 and 2019. But that is still far too high.
The main types of gambling by 11 to 16-year-olds are private bets between friends, scratchcards, fruit machines and playing cards. We need to build on the good work, funded by the industry, to better educate youngsters about gambling-related harm.
There have always been people who are anti-gambling – prohibitionists who want to ban stuff. They compare gambling to drugs or tobacco, things which are intrinsically and universally harmful, rather than alcohol – something that most people don’t have an issue with, but where we need to act to help the minority who develop a problem.
That’s why they want to ban advertising and sponsorship, despite there being no evidence that it causes problem gambling. They may not care about the impact this would have on rugby league, darts, snooker and lower league football, but ministers should. It would, for example, likely be the end of horse racing on terrestrial TV.
The truth is anti-gambling campaigners don’t want to see safer gambling – they want to see less gambling. Stricter regulation may well see the regulated industry shrink in size, but it will not lead to a reduction in gambling.
If people are restricted from betting with licensed operators, with all their safer gambling measures, they will simply move to the many unlicensed, unregulated and unsafe gambling websites in the black market.
A report by PwC showed the number using unlicensed sites has more than doubled to 460,000. The amount of money staked on the online black market is now in the billions of pounds.
The report also highlights countries including France, Norway, Italy and Spain – which have tougher restrictions on licensed operators – as examples of where the black market share is far bigger than the UK.
Research also shows the public are wary of restrictions on how they spend their money. In a recent Racing TV survey, 95pc said they would be unhappy for bookmakers to access their bank accounts to check whether they can afford to bet, as is being considered in the review.
This echoed focus groups by Public First in those ‘Red Wall’ constituencies the Conservatives took from Labour in 2019. There, gambling is considered a normal leisure pastime.
Many voters see betting, and the sports which rely on revenues from betting, as part of their culture. They are resentful of “Covid mission creep”.
Boris Johnson has enough on his plate without picking another fight with Tory MPs concerned about state interference in personal freedoms.
Many of those Conservatives are trying to hold onto working class voters who regard restrictions on betting as a culture war waged by high-handed politicians who don’t approve of how they spend their time and money.
It’s worth remembering that Betting and Gaming Council members support 119,000 jobs on our high streets, in hospitality and in world-leading British tech, and generate £4.5bn a year in tax. A smaller regulated industry means fewer jobs and less revenue for a Chancellor who needs every penny he can get.
How the Government safeguards jobs and personal freedoms, prevents gamblers drifting off to the unsafe black market, and ensures more protections for the vulnerable and those at risk, without interfering in the enjoyment of millions of responsible gamblers, is a balancing act. Ministers are walking a tightrope. We hope they keep their balance.
Michael Dugher is chief executive of the Betting and Gaming Council, and a former Labour MP and shadow secretary of state.