Winning Post – UK Politics Wheel of Fortune spins again…

Industry strategic consultancy Regulus Partners kick starts the week by assessing the potential impacts of the UK General Election (12 December) on betting incumbents and stakeholders.

UK: First thoughts on UK’s Snap General Election 

Rules, it seems, are there to be broken. Despite the passing of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 (which sought to establish General Elections on a regular five-year basis), the country will go to the polls next month for the third time in a little over four years (four times if one includes the EU referendum and five times if one lives in Scotland). It is far from clear that this cycle of political upheaval is contributing positively to the effective government of the United Kingdom – and the latest round poses a number of clear threats to gambling operators.

The most significant potential consequence of the December 12th poll is that it will lead to a radical overhaul of Britain’s gambling laws. Under its Deputy Leader, Tom Watson (Lab, West Bromwich East), the Labour Party has pledged that it will bring in new primary legislation to replace the Gambling Act 2005 (which Watson has described as “not fit for purpose”) – something that the Liberal Democrats appear to support. This may not in itself be a bad thing for the gambling consumer (and by association the industry’s progressive majority); indeed, it may be the best chance for a coherent resolution of the numerous issues that beset gambling companies in Britain today.

However, for this to occur, it seems imperative that Watson – who has approached the subject of regulatory reform with admirable consideration and balance – remains in place. Against the backdrop of a febrile and thoroughly dishonest public policy debate, it is easy to see how Watson’s moderation could otherwise be jettisoned in favour of a more radical agenda.

It is likely that – personal political preferences aside – many in the industry will be hoping for a Conservative victory. Boris Johnson probably spends very little time thinking about gambling (at least in the context of the regulated industry) – but when he does it is probably in fairly sympathetic terms. As someone who seems happy to be characterised by habitual displays of eccentricity, it seems unlikely that the Prime Minister has much truck with those who wish to impose their moral judgements on the lives of fellow citizens. However, there are those close to him – particularly on the more controlling far-right of the party – who seem to adhere closely to a Victorian moral distaste for gambling (particularly where it concerns those outside the elite circles they inhabit). A Conservative Government offers no guarantee of tolerance.

Gambling will certainly feature in the Labour Party’s election manifesto (with potentially a more fleshed-out programme of reform than the principles-based structure presented to date) and there seems to be a reasonable chance that both the Liberal Democrats and the SNP may include something on the subject (most likely the imposition of a statutory levy to fund harm prevention and treatment). A number of Conservative MPs appear keen on policies of regulatory restriction – but the Tories at large probably have bigger fish to fry.

The election has already precipitated one significant change, with the decision of the Culture Secretary, Nicky Morgan (Cons, Loughborough) not to stand for re-election. This is a great shame – both in terms of the loss of such a talented and well-regarded parliamentarian; and because it perpetuates the ministerial instability that is at least partly to blame for the mess that Britain’s gambling market is in. The former gambling minister, Mims Davies (Cons, Eastleigh) will also step down. The bullying and intimidation that precipitated Ms Morgan’s departure is sadly symptomatic of the erosion of tolerance and basic human decency in British politics – something that is often illustrated in the gambling debate (and indeed, whipped up by certain parliamentarians).

Further change is bound to follow. It is not at all clear who will replace Ms Morgan if the Conservatives are returned to Government. The current gambling minister, Helen Whately has a healthy 17,000 majority (c61% of the 2017 vote) in Faversham and Mid-Kent but there is no guarantee that she would remain in the post given the propensity for post-election reshuffles. In the event of a Labour (or Lib-Lab) win, Tom Watson will relinquish the Culture, Media and Sport brief (whether or not he remains in post as Deputy Leader) but again, it is not obvious who would take it on. Carolyn Harris (Lab, Swansea East) has the strongest interest in gambling – but her passion for the Women and Equalities role (which she currently shadows) may well trump this. Mrs Harris has a 13,000 majority and – possibly to the dismay of some browbeaten industry executives – has every intention of returning to Parliament after 12th December.

The former Liberal Democrat gambling spokesperson, John Leech may stand for the Manchester Withington seat that he lost in the party’s 2015 meltdown. The constituency voted strongly for ‘remain’ in the 2016 EU referendum – and this could give Mr Leech some encouragement as he seeks to dismantle Labour’s 30,000 majority. If elected, Mr Leech seems likely to resume his interest in gambling policy (and could even be given a role in the event of a coalition).

Other notable MPs standing for re-election include Helen Whatley’s neighbour and ministerial predecessor, Tracey Crouch (Cons, Chatham and Aylesford). Ms Crouch has a healthy majority and will be up against anti-FOBT campaigner and Labour candidate, Vince Maple (who took a third of the constituency’s vote in 2017). Amongst the gambling industry’s parliamentary tormentors, the SNP’s Ronnie Cowan has only a wafer-thin parliamentary majority in Inverclyde; and Iain Duncan Smith’s (Cons) Chingford and Woodford Green seat (split almost 50:50 in the EU referendum) was also a fairly close call in 2017.

One of the legislative victims of the General Election is the Private Members Bill to ban gambling on credit cards as well as the siting of automated telling machines (‘ATMs’) in casinos, bingo clubs and amusement arcades. The bill, which had its first reading just two weeks ago is now a non-runner and the Bishop of St Albans who sponsored it will need to return to the lottery of the ballot in the next parliament. It seems likely that the Gambling Commission will resolve the credit card element anyway – either by prohibiting or severely restricting credit card use in online gambling.

The proposed ATM ban (that seeks the removal of cash machines from inside and outside gambling premises) is grounded in legitimate concerns about ease of access to renewed funds for gambling. However, in seeking to prohibit ATMs entirely (rather than adding protective measures), it adopts a patronising attitude to the ability of grown-ups to make spending choices and more seriously may pose a risk to consumer safety (for instance, by forcing bingo club customers to venture out at night-time to distant cashpoints if they find themselves short of funds).

The House of Lords select committee inquiry will be interrupted by the General Election (with one more session taking place prior to parliamentary dissolution) but it will return – presumably in the New Year. This latest hiatus may push back further the deadline for publication of its final report (initially scheduled for March 2020 and currently slated for May).

It is understood that Carolyn Harris’s Gambling-related Harm All-Party Parliamentary Group is likely to publish its report on online gambling in the next few days – notwithstanding the shelving of its final hearing, with the DCMS and the Gambling Commission. The group will return in the New Year, although where its attention turns next is unclear.

It is hard to tell how much regulatory policy will feature in the forthcoming pitch for the nation’s votes – however, given that gambling is increasingly being used as a battleground for broader ideological campaigns (inequality, freedom, deprivation, diversity etc), the general rising of the political temperature is probably not a good thing. As Germany’s ‘Iron Chancellor’, Otto von Bismarck is reputed to have said: “People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election.

UK: Safer gambling – GamCare branches out…
The best ideas are often the simplest. NatWest announced this week that it would team up with GamCare (the principal provider of gambling harm treatment and support services in Britain) to offer support for those experiencing problems in relation to gambling. Sensibly, the initiative is starting as a pilot across 13 branches (as intelligent as the idea seems, there is always the chance of unintended consequences) and if it works, it could be rolled out across 700 sites in the United Kingdom.

It represents a further success in involving the broader supply chain in the campaign to address harm and follows the development of account blocking for gambling transactions developed by Starling, Monzo, Barclays and Lloyds TSB.

Amidst all the politicking, lobbying and publicity-seeking around gambling policy, GamCare has simply put its head down and focused on what it can do to reduce harm. It is an example from which others from all sides of the debate may draw inspiration.

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Content provided by Regulus Partners

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