Gambling white paper not perfect, but a tipping point – Will Prochaska

People who suffer harm from gambling are not weak. They are not unwell because of any so-called vulnerability. They have been sold highly addictive products, designed and promoted to keep them gambling, no matter what. Gambling addiction is a recognised mental health disorder.

Somebody has neglected to tell this to Lucy Frazer, secretary of state at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, who has rolled out tired industry lines that everyone loves a flutter and just a small number of people are so weak it harms them.

Industry misinformation is writ large in Frazer’s language but in the substance of today’s white paper, no amount of misinformation or lobbying was able to stand up to the weight of evidence and public expectation that a new approach is needed.

What’s been released is far from perfect, but it’s a start. The principles upon which future policies can be built are the most significant elements to this much-delayed white paper, which has come after a long review of the outdated 2005 Gambling Act.

Among them, with a proposed reduction in stake sizes and spin speeds for online slots, is an acceptance that the products themselves are “the source” of the harm. Also, plans for an independently administered levy on gambling industry profits are welcome and suggest that the industry itself cannot be trusted to deliver safer gambling messaging or have any hand in research, education or treatment.

But — and it’s a big but — if it’s accepted that addictive online products cause the harm, surely it’s incoherent to let those products to be freely and relentlessly advertised? That, unfortunately, is what the government will continue to allow.

This is a serious dereliction of duty to protect the public, suggesting the officials have listened to industry lobbyists such as Scott Benton MP over the evidence. Benton was perfectly exposed by undercover Times journalists posing as industry execs offering favours for cash, but there are many more MPs taking hospitality from a powerful gambling lobby.

Affordability checks are another area where industry lobbying has clearly played a role. The evidence shows that losses of £100 a month would be a good level to set checks on whether someone’s gambling is affordable. The government has said a check should happen only when someone loses £1,000 a day, or £2,000 over 90 days, which, in a cost of living crisis, is going to go down like a lead balloon. By the time someone is losing these sorts of amounts they will already be addicted, and it may be too late.

The infuriating implication of the white paper is that almost all its policies will be subject to further consultation. It’s been two years already since the full Gambling Act review consultation ended, during which time about 1,000 people have died and the industry has run off with about £30 billion of people’s losses.

To push new policies out to consultation again is cruel, and the Gambling Commission must now be held responsible for getting on with it without delay and free from industry influence. Let’s see if they have the strength required to stand up to the industry they regulate.

First published in The Times, April 28 2023.