Tottenham Report: Is the UK industry awaiting a ‘reboot’ or an overhaul?

Tottenham Report: Is the UK industry awaiting a ‘reboot’ or an overhaul?

  • Hannah Gannagé-Stewart
July 29, 2021 2:00 AM
  • Hannah Gannagé-Stewart

There is little chance of any change to the UK’s Gambling Act being passed before well into 2022, but debates continue in Parliament, as ministers attempt to wrap their heads around the finer details of the industry. 

Last week, on 22 July, an adjournment debate was brought by conservative MP for Blackpool South and joint chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Betting and Gaming Scott Benton.   

It is no coincidence that, with Blackpool being a broadly working-class seaside town, built on entertainment and tourism, Benton has a vested interest in protecting the ongoing viability of the gambling industry. Blackpool is itself vying for a place on the short list of locations that may become home to a super-casino, pending government review.  

Moreover, having posited that problem gamblers make up just an estimated half-percent of the adult population, Benton argued, “Betting, and the sports that depend on betting, are part of our national culture.” Many of his constituents, he continued, “are sick and tired of being told what they can and cannot do, so the government must tread very carefully here.” 

Benton said the 0.5% figure had been stable for around 20 years, but he did not clarify where that figure had come from. It would seem unlikely, given the proliferation of online gambling products in that time, that there has not been a consequential increase in problem gambling; to ignore this likelihood would be as much of a mistake as to overstate the figure. But here again, the hard facts elude us. 

In closing his address to the minister in charge of the gambling review John Whittingdale, Benton said: “I am fully aware that the minister will have to weigh up competing viewpoints, but I hope he can progress with a rational and evidence-based assessment that takes into account the need to protect the small number of people who have a gambling problem with the huge economic and cultural benefits that the industry has across the UK. The voters will not thank us if we get the balance wrong.” 

There were, throughout the speech, thinly veiled threats of a voter uprising if the government, with a newly working-class following and having rather capitalised on a “bread-and-circuses” approach to calming post-lockdown frustrations (see ‘eat out to help out’ and the Euros), now thwarted a nation’s right to a flutter.  

Whittingdale has been round the block a few times and knows where to apply the words “holistic” and “proportionate” and “robust” to minimise tensions. He is not, however, shy of waving through major reforms.  

As secretary of state for culture, media and sport in 2016, he oversaw a high-profile review of the governance of the UK’s mostly publicly funded broadcaster, the BBC, after which its oversight body, the BBC Trust, was scrapped, with regulation passed to Ofcom, the nation’s independent media and telecoms regulator. 

Earlier this year, when the Football Index furore blew up and the Gambling Commission’s (GC) Chief Executive Neil McArthur beat a hasty retreat into obscurity, I wondered whether Whittingdale may advocate for a similar outcome here.  

However, faced with criticism of the GC by Benton, Whittingdale appeared to defend its work to date and positioned the upheaval earlier this year as an opportunity to bring in new blood. 

Benton suggested the regulator’s agenda was often set by the personal perspectives of its leader at any given time. “Although the Commission is there to support businesses and enable them to operate within the guidelines, it has on occasion unnecessarily made negative comments, been overly critical of the industry as a whole, and faced criticism for being obstructive to firms trying to engage with it”, he said. 

In response, Whittingdale reeled off a number of the GC’s recent successes. “In the past 18 months, for example, the Commission has banned gambling on credit cards, tightened rules on VIP schemes, and introduced new rules to limit the intensity of online slots, as well as permanently banning reverse withdrawals.” 

He said the GC had been granted a fees uplift, which will take effect from 1 October for remote operators and from April next year for the land-based sector, implying that there has been a recognition that the regulator was under-resourced to manage the needs of a rapidly growing and diversifying sector. 

“As my honourable friend will know”, Whittingdale continued, “a new chief executive, Mr Andrew Rhodes, has just been appointed to the Commission and we are in the process of selecting a new chair. The Commission is undergoing a reboot and we are looking at its powers and performance as part of the review.” 

As such, it looks more likely that the GC will remain broadly intact, if “rebooted”. Certain responsibilities are likely to fall away, such as dealing with consumer complaints.  

Currently, the GC does this through an online third-party called Resolver. However, the Betting & Gaming Council has backed calls for an independent ombudsman, which would be a legal requirement for all licensed operators to sign up with. This would appear a likely outcome, as it would not only deal with a practical need, but provide a public face for consumer concerns to be directed to. 

A white paper containing the government’s findings from its consultation process and its proposals on the basis of those findings is due later this year. Whether it provokes headlines describing a ‘reboot’ or an overhaul remains unclear. 

Whittingdale says the government have realised it needs to take “a holistic approach to gambling reform” and that, “we are taking a very close look at whether further measures are needed to deliver the government’s objectives and to protect people in proportionate but robust ways”. Make of that what you will.