The UK gambling sector is set for more turbulence as the pandemic lockdown eases as Conservative politicians appear to be teaming up with Labour MPs to push for more controls on online betting.
Bookmakers in the UK have seen a rise in profits in recent months despite the shutdown and the developing national recession, as regular gamblers place a greater number of online bets, and three recent reports from the UK parliament have called for industry reforms, including the setting up of a gambling ombudsman, new advertising curbs and a limit on wagers in skill-free games.
One priority for politicians is to extend the £2 stake limit on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), that was introduced to high street bookies last year to all internet gambling. The fight against FOBTs was an early sign of the growing political pressure on the gambling sector. It was led by Tom Watson, the then Labour’s deputy leader, and although Watson has now left politics, the torch has been passed to Labour MP Carolyn Harris, who has wide support across the political spectrum.
Harris has a reputation as a determined campaigner, and she chairs the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on gambling-related harm, with support coming from former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, another critic of the gambling industry, who is one of the vice-chairs. Worryingly for the UK sector, the APPG has recruited a number of members from the new intake of Conservative MPs who were elected at the 2019 General Election, including Richard Holden of North West Durham and the North-West Norfolk MP James Wild. Harris’ position as parliamentary private secretary to Labour leader Keir Starmer, has also helped to give her more political clout.
Data gathered by the Gambling Commission suggest that during the lockdown, the amount of money wagered through online slot machines has grown by 25%, although the number of individuals who are regularly gambling has not gone up. There is clear evidence, however, that those who regularly visited retail betting shops have moved their betting online. A rise in expected profits for betting companies in the UK has also rung alarm bells with some politicians.
Although the Conservative party has not traditionally been in favour of further regulations, there is polling to suggest that the voters represented by new Conservative MPs from traditional Labour seats may have a different view. A recent Survation poll showed that Conservative supporters and Leave supporters are most likely to back further restrictions on the industry.
In its election manifesto, the Conservative party had pledged to review the Gambling Act, which it described as being out of date in the digital age. The gambling sector may have been relieved that the last Queen’s Speech contained no gambling-related proposals, but that may only be a short term reprieve, as it seems that politicians of all parties are lining up behind reform and regulation.