The idea behind the Labour Party’s consultation document ‘More Sport for All’, recently announced by Harriet Harman, Labour’s Shadow Culture Secretary, is excellent as are most of the specific policy ideas explored in the document. Encouraging people of all ages and backgrounds to take part in sport and physical activity is highly important and ideas such as re-introducing two hours of sport for every primary school child, increasing female participation in sport and its organisation, and having a ten-year National Strategy for Sport, all seem like good ideas.
The exception is the idea of a new levy on sports betting to support community sport and help raise awareness about problem gambling. Gambling Watch UK opposes this on the following grounds.
Horse racing and the betting associated with it has, over a very long period of time, become an accepted part of British sporting and social life. Although there have always been problems associated with horse race betting, such as the effect of problem gambling on individuals and their families, and periodic fraudulent betting scandals, it can be argued that we have ‘adapted’ to it over time so that the scale of those problems is kept within limits that society finds tolerable.
The situation that pertains to other forms of sports betting is very different. Betting on dog racing has never been so popular as horse race betting and has been declining. But one of the biggest changes in British gambling in recent years, as evidenced, for example, in the results of the national gambling surveys carried out from 1999 onwards, has been the increase in other kinds of sports betting including betting on football, tennis, cricket and many other sports. This has been a comparatively rapid development reinforced by an expansion of the ways in which bets can be placed (e.g. by machine or online via a betting office or internet gambling account), an expansion of the bets that can be placed (e.g. in football on many aspects of play such as goal scorers, corners, penalties, penalty cards), the timing of bets (e.g. ‘in play’ betting such as betting at half-time in a football match), plus an expansion of betting advertisements to which children and young people as well as adults are exposed. This is all quite new and remains controversial. Whether the public is happy with such exposure to betting advertising, whether we are endangering new generations who are facing potentially dangerous activities which their parents and grandparents did not have to face, whether the overall prevalence of problem gambling will rise, and whether one effect will be to increase health inequalities, all remain open questions.
If it is accepted that that picture is at all accurate, it can be argued that a levy on sports betting is an inappropriate way to fund community sports facilities and clubs since it encourages the normalisation of an increasingly complex and rapidly changing form of gambling which there is reason to think may be dangerous, about which we still do not know enough, and about which the public probably remains highly ambivalent. In addition it will have the effect of making sports facilities and clubs dependent on gambling proceeds which is in itself unsatisfactory since it makes a health-enhancing enterprise dependent on one which is potentially dangerous to health, leading to a conflict of interests which has been widely criticised elsewhere, for example in Australia where clubs as well as State and Territory governments have become highly dependent on gambling revenue. It would be a wrong and unwise move to link sport and sport betting so closely at this time.
It would also be strange to simultaneously benefit from gambling revenue and use the same levy to increase awareness about the problems associated with that same activity. The conflict of interests would be too obvious for comfort and might show a Labour government up in a poor light. The mechanisms for funding the prevention and treatment of problem gambling should be separate from those used to tax gambling profits. The existing method of an annual voluntary levy on commercial gambling providers is used to fund gambling treatment and research, but I and others have argued that this raises far too little and is not sufficiently separate from the gambling industry to be seen as properly independent. But the more important point is that the negative externalities associated with gambling (particularly debt, dependence, and family harm) are such that government should face up to its responsibility to adequately fund gambling prevention, research and treatment from general taxation as it does for other comparable conditions such as illicit drug misuse (which has a very similar annual British prevalence).