I have seen a couple of signs just recently that the tide might be turning against the establishment assumption that a strong, innovating and widely advertised commercial gambling sector is necessarily a good thing for the UK.
First was the Gambling Commission’s latest newsletter which contains the text of a speech in New York given by the Commission’s Executive Director, Tim Miller, who took up that position last August. This is interesting because it is the clearest acknowledgement that I have yet seen from anyone at the Commission that we might just have got it wrong in terms of the place of gambling in society and that a backlash against a liberalised commercial gambling sector may be underway. He refers to the 2005 Gambling Act as having introduced in Britain ‘one of the most liberal gambling markets in the world’. He believes we may be seeing public attitudes hardening against gambling, as witnessed for example by the decrease that the Commission has recorded in the proportion of people believing that the provision of gambling is fair and can be trusted. That proportion fell from just under half in 2008 to only a third in 2016. The decline in trust of gambling was even greater amongst gamblers than non-gamblers. He spoke interestingly about a possible breakdown in the implied social contract between gambling providers and the general public. If that is happening, he thought it would be pressure groups, politicians and the media who will point this out and be active in forcing change. He also said, ‘A responsible approach to gambling is a partnership – a partnership between both gambler and operator. But my challenge to you today is whether that partnership is being shared fairly? Is there too much expectation on the gambler to be responsible and not enough on the industry? … Are we thinking too much about ‘responsible gamblers’ and not enough about ‘responsible gambling’? These are strong words coming from the Gambling Commission, a pillar of the Gambling Establishment.
Second, coming from a very different direction, were football manager Arsene Wenger’s recent critical comments about gambling. The Arsenal manager has pointed to the hypocrisy of the Football Association banning Burnley player Joey Barton from playing for the next 18 months at a time when the English Premier League has become so heavily dependent on gambling company sponsorship and problem gambling has become such a prevalent problem amongst players. The Financial Times has recently said that, ‘It is clear the Premier League has a gambling problem’. The Football Association has now announced its own enquiry into its relationship with gambling and alcohol companies.
Perhaps the time has come for a root and branch rethink about the role of gambling in Britain. Should we acknowledge that the 2005 Gambling Act, which reset the basic rules about how gambling is provided in this country, went too far? Now that the results of the 2005 legislation are becoming clearer, is the time coming for a major new comprehensive gambling policy review? I recently heard this idea expressed by one of the speakers at a meeting organised by the Public Policy Exchange on The Future of Gambling in the UK held on 11 May in London. Dan Waugh of the Young Gamblers’ Education Trust made the point that it was now 16 years since the last major British government Gambling Review or Royal Commission, which tend to come round roughly every 20 years or so. He’s right about that: there were Royal Commissions in 1933, 1951 and 1978 and the major Gambling Review in 2001 which led to the 2005 Gambling Act. So the next one is almost due!