No sooner have we heard there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of Westminster’s gambling reform white paper than the Northern Irish Stormont Assembly has announced a similar review.
Stormont’s All-Party Group (APG) on Reducing Harm Related to Gambling has pointed to research by International Gambling Studies, which says that current approaches to preventing harm related to gambling activity are not working.
The group also found that Northern Ireland has greater incidence of problem gambling than either Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland. Data from a Department for Communities survey says 2.3% of the Northern Ireland population are affected, which equates to four times the number of Brits and three times the number affected in the Republic of Ireland.
It begs the perennial question: What social factors exacerbate a propensity to suffer gambling risks? Why should one society, ostensibly very similar to its neighbour, see such a stark contrast? Or is it simply that the data is too lightweight to accurately compare?
The APG plans to consult with health professionals, advocacy groups, academics, departmental officials, and those with personal experience to build a clearer picture of the issue. The consultation is open until 3 February 2023.
In the past, the group heard evidence from the chair of Westminster’s Gambling-Related Harm All Party Parliamentary Group Carolyn Harris. Harris has called for a number of reforms to the UK’s current gambling regulations, including a ban on front-of-shirt sponsorship across all English football leagues, which is not expected to be a feature of the forthcoming gambling-reform white paper.
Chair of the APG Robbie Butler said Stormont was looking to take a public-health approach to gambling-related harm. “This approach has been used for other addictions, including food addiction, smoking, and alcoholism”, he said, commenting last week on the launch of the consultation.
Referring to the APG’s previous inquiry on the future regulation of gambling, he said recognising gambling as a public-health issue, akin to other addictions, was a distinct finding at the time.
“We are recommending that gambling be reflected in regulation that prioritises health, prevention of harm, and treatment”, he said. “Gambling addiction should be fully integrated into all relevant strategies, including mental health and suicide prevention.”
Whether Stormont will again collaborate with Westminster is unclear. The Westminster white paper is likely to be published early next year, after a long period of uncertainty in UK politics.
Commenting on the Stormont enquiry and collaboration with Westminster back in June 2020, Butler said: “This is not about banning gambling; it is about protecting the vulnerable and making our laws fit for purpose. Our members are from across the political divide and there is a very strong sense of common purpose between us. Working with our peers at Westminster will bring obvious benefits to the inquiry.”
Since then, the UK’s gambling white paper has been through several iterations and is now being reviewed again by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s new administration before publication some time in 2023.
This week the threat of affordability checks, expected to be a major feature of the white paper, has been causing not insignificant unrest among those in the industry.
The Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) Monday published details of research conducted for it by consultants EY, which found that having weathered the pandemic, the gambling industry now stands to lose revenue if affordability checks are made compulsory.
BGC CEO Michael Dugher said: “As ministers consider the regulatory framework for this industry, they should stop and think and ensure the decisions they make support a sustainable future.
“This is a sector that is ready to invest, on hard-pressed high streets through bookmakers, in tourism and hospitality through world-class casinos and online where our tech-giant members are looking to increase the number of apprentices they hire.
“We urge the government to find an evidence-led, balanced White Paper that protects the vulnerable, allows the vast majority who bet safely to continue to do so, and crucially allows business to thrive.”
Finding the balance between consumer protection and supporting the status quo in terms of the industry’s current business model may prove to be a tall order.