Reform stamp
Reform stamp

This week, BGC CEO Michael Dugher had a thing or two to say about the impending Gambling Act review by the UK government, and MPs should take heed of the chief executive’s advice. [Shutterstock.com]

Rumors and concerns

One of the world’s oldest gambling markets is getting a regulatory makeover this year.

The UK government was supposed to publish the results of its gambling regulation review at some point last year, but COVID-19 and other complications have delayed the process into 2022. Now, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport has confirmed it will publish its Gambling Act review white paper in the next few months.

rumors of sweeping regulatory changes

Any reform will represent the first major update to the mature market’s gambling legislation since 2005, and there are already rumors of sweeping regulatory changes inbound. This includes a possible ban on front-of-shirt gambling sponsorship deals with professional soccer teams, as well as curtailments on loot boxes in video games and deposit limits for iGaming.

However, before they decide to put the shackles on an industry that contributed $2.8bn to government coffers last year, UK MPs should take heed of a stark warning from someone well versed in the impact of regulation. Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) chief executive Michael Dugher provided some advice for the government on Monday.

Look towards the evidence

In a Telegraph column published at the beginning of the week, Dugher reiterated an argument often heard in opposition to gambling regulation reform. Rather than introducing changes just to appease anti-gambling bodies, he urged the government to follow an “evidence-led” approach to avoid a rise in black market gambling.

Although this argument is often used, countries with draconian restrictions continue to demonstrate its truth. For instance, Dugher went on to highlight the markets of France, Norway, Italy, and Spain, which all have tough restrictions on gambling. According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report, the black market share is far higher in these countries than in the UK.

It’s also vital to note the consequences when calls for evidence-based reform are ignored. For instance, Sweden’s government imposed strict deposit limits for online casino gambling during the pandemic. Earlier this month, officials proposed the implementation of even tighter restrictions including an SEK4,000 ($440.49) cap on weekly online casino deposits.

the number of players making multiple accounts to bypass the rules has increased

The Swedish government has backed these restrictions despite presenting no evidence to suggest online gambling actually increased during the pandemic. Now, according to the Swedish gambling industry’s trade body, the number of players making multiple accounts to bypass the rules has increased – something which I’m sure the UK government would be eager to avoid.

Dugher commented on this effect: “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.”

Clipping the industry’s wings

The BGC CEO also expressed his views regarding gambling’s opponents. “The truth is anti-gambling campaigners don’t want to see safer gambling – they want to see less gambling,” commented Dugher. “Stricter regulation may well see the regulated industry shrink in size, but it will not lead to a reduction in gambling.”

It’s certainly hard to disagree with the BGC boss. Anti-gambling government groups such as the Gambling Related Harm All-Party Parliamentary Group have called repeatedly for tighter restrictions over the past few years. One such request is the introduction of a £2 ($2.72) limit for online casino games, an issue that gambling opponents have pushed to no avail since 2019.

Notably, a similar £2 ($2.72) limit for fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBT) resulted in the closure of more than 1,000 betting shops in the UK since its introduction in 2019. Estimations suggest this number may have now reached closer to 2,000. Perhaps, this provides an example of the kind of shrinking that Dugher is referring to – a satisfying result for those who want to “see less gambling” in the UK.

Around 11,000 workers have lost their jobs as a result of betting shop closures in the UK since the FOBT reform. Commenting in 2019,  Fred Done, founder of sportsbook operator Betfred, expressed dismay at the lack of sympathy from MPs. “I haven’t heard a single politician show sympathy for anyone out of work in the betting industry,” he said. “We don’t matter to the government.”

While the gambling industry certainly isn’t for everyone, it still supports 119,000 jobs through betting shops, hospitality, and tech. As made clear by Dugher: “a smaller regulated industry means fewer jobs and less revenue for a Chancellor who needs every penny he can get.”

Focus on the vulnerable

While there are opposing camps in regards to the ethics of the gambling industry, an issue I believe we can all get behind is the protection of the vulnerable. Dugher put forward his opinion that, rather than unnecessarily clipping the wings of a profitable industry, the government should focus on child protection in its Gambling Act reform.

better educate youngsters about gambling-related harm.”

“A report by the regulator found the proportion of young people who gamble fell from 23% to 11% between 2011 and 2019,” the chief executive noted. “But that is still far too high. We need to build on the good work, funded by the industry, to better educate youngsters about gambling-related harm.”

Even the most ardent gambling industry fan will agree more needs to be done to protect children from the dangers of gambling, and the sector has a history of supporting such reform. For example, the BGC’s members voluntarily introduced a “whistle to whistle” ban on TV betting advertising during live sport in 2019. According to the body’s data, this slashed the amount of TV gambling ads seen by 4 to 17-year-olds by as much as 97%.

The BGC has consistently funded efforts to increase gambling education in the young, donating £2.5m ($3.4m) to the YGAM/GamCare education project in the last financial year. In addition, the body’s biggest members have agreed to raise the amount they spend on research, education, and treatment services by 0.25% each year, reaching 1% by 2023.

Ultimately, it’s clear that the industry cares about protecting those that need it. Rather than working against the sector and increasing the grip of the black market, the government must heed Dugher’s advice and work with the industry to ensure a safer gambling environment for all.

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