The Minister for Media and Data
(Mr John Whittingdale)
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) on obtaining this debate, which comes hard on the heels of the debate we had last week in Westminster Hall about casinos. I also thank him for his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on betting and gaming and all the members of the group for their engagement with us over the gambling review and the assessment of what further measures are necessary.
Let me start by making clear that the Government have a very simple vision for the gambling sector. We want the millions of people who choose to gamble in Britain to be able to do so in a safe way. The sector needs to have up-to-date legislation and protections, with a strong regulator with the powers and resources needed to oversee a responsible industry that offers customer choice while protecting players. As the Minister for sport, heritage and tourism, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) set out last December, the aim of our gambling review is to ensure that those objectives can be delivered in the digital age and that we have the balance right between protecting people from harm and maintaining freedom of choice in how they spend their money and leisure time.
Gambling is a legitimate leisure activity, and there are millions of gamblers in this country. In the year to March, 40% of all adults surveyed had taken part in at least one form of gambling in the previous four weeks, which is down from 47% in the pre-pandemic year to March 2020. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool
South has mentioned—indeed, it was endorsed by the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar)—businesses such as casinos and the bingo provide jobs and opportunities for social engagement in towns and cities right across the country. In some areas, online gambling is also an important source of skilled technology jobs.
While every single type of gambling comes with an element of risk, some forms are undoubtedly associated with higher risks than others. When I first took on responsibility for this brief, one of the first meetings I had was with the lived experience advisory group set up by the Gambling Commission to hear from those who have suffered from gambling addiction, members of their families and those affected by it. We know that something like 300,000 people are classified as problem gamblers in this country, and we are very much aware that it can devastate not just their lives but those around them. This morning I had a meeting with the Gambling with Lives charity, in which it described some of the most tragic cases where gambling addiction had certainly contributed to someone’s decision to take their own life.
We already have a public health approach to gambling regulation, with preventive rules designed to minimise the risk of harm to all consumers, and the provision of treatment to help those who suffer harm. However, in this review, we are taking a very close look at whether further measures are needed to deliver the Government’s objectives and to protect people in proportionate but robust ways.
Of course, that has to be based on evidence, which is why we started with the call for evidence. That closed at the end of March and received around 16,000 responses. I am grateful to the huge range of individuals and organisations that made submissions, including representatives of the industry, academics, researchers, charities, campaign groups and, as I said earlier, Members of this House and the other place. It is our intention to publish a White Paper later this year, which will set out the Government’s vision for change and allow all those with an interest to continue to shape policy. Ahead of that, I can give some indication of one or two of the areas in which we are thinking of making further change.
It has become clear that we need to take a holistic approach to gambling reform, recognising where parallels apply across sectors and issues that have traditionally been thought of as entirely distinct. We need to design a coherent package that is flexible enough to respond to future changes and innovation.
I was the Opposition spokesman during the passage of the Gambling Act 2005. Online gambling was hardly mentioned during the entire course of the debate on that Bill. Then, it was in its infancy, yet now it has become one of the major forms of gambling, and in some ways it has created greater risks. It has transformed the industry, and certain safeguards have come with it. Operators can and must use customers’ data to identify where they may be at risk of harm and to intervene accordingly. It is also now possible to self-exclude from all forms of online gambling through one single request. Since April last year, membership of GAMSTOP has been a requirement for all licensed operators.
On the other hand, online gambling has given rise to new products, which are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That challenges the assumption in the 2005 Act that controlling availability is a way of controlling risk. As I said, online gambling now accounts for more revenue than gambling in person, and the shift in how people gamble has become even clearer over the last 18 months as a result of the pandemic.
It is not just online but offshore, which very often is unregulated.
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to draw attention to the threat posed by the black market, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) did in his intervention. That is certainly something we need to bear in mind. It is very important that we create a safe space where people are given protection if they are gambling online, but we do not want to drive them away from the regulated sector and into the black market. That is certainly something that we will bear in mind during our consideration of these things.
We are looking at whether further controls for play online would be effective in preventing gambling harm, including whether greater controls are needed at account or product level. We are also working closely with the Gambling Commission on its parallel work to improve how operators interact with customers, and we will ensure that any new checks that it introduces to increase protections for those who are financially vulnerable, binge gambling or losing significant amounts over time harmonise with the aims of our own review.
While it is the case that more people are now gambling online, the land-based sector is still very important in our gambling landscape, and of course it accounts for more than four fifths of the jobs in gambling. I absolutely recognise the important social role that some gambling clubs play in communities. We know in particular that bingo clubs attract a wide demographic of players who rely on those places as spaces to socialise and see friends. I am looking forward to my visit to Buzz Bingo in Clacton-on-Sea on Monday.
We recognise the importance both of a well regulated sector that keeps people safe wherever they choose to gamble and of a strong gambling industry that supports jobs. I will not repeat what I said last week about the casino sector, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South knows, there is a need to look at the existing restrictions within that sector. In some cases, they have become steadily more anomalous, and they clearly need to be updated.
Another matter that we are considering is consumer redress, which has featured in a lot of the submissions to our call for evidence and in the public discourse. It is a condition of their licence that gambling operators must provide customers with free access to alternative dispute resolution services to handle complaints. That applies where customers are unhappy with an operator’s service or its response to a complaint, for example about paying out on a bet.
I recognise, however, that the current arrangements deal only with contractual disputes and do not allow for individual resolution if a complaint is about whether the operator has breached its social responsibility obligations, for example by failing to step in when someone shows signs that their gambling is getting out of control. That means that consumers may end up having to pursue action through the courts. Understandably, concerns have been raised that the current system makes it difficult for individuals to seek compensation or support. We are looking carefully at the evidence in that area.
My hon. Friend talked about the Gambling Commission. The commission has broad powers under the Gambling Act that enable it to tackle new and emerging risk through licence conditions without the Government having to take legislation through Parliament. In the past 18 months, for example, the commission has banned gambling on credit cards, tightened rules on VIP schemes and introduced new rules to limit the intensity of online slots, as well as permanently banning reverse withdrawals. We are consulting on and have now approved proposals for a fees uplift for the commission, which will take effect from 1 October for remote operators and from April next year for the land-based sector. This will allow the commission to continue to cover its costs. As my hon. Friend will know, a new chief executive, Mr Andrew Rhodes, has just been appointed to the commission and we are in the process of selecting a new chair. The commission is undergoing a reboot and we are looking at its powers and performance as part of the review.
My hon. Friend mentioned advertising. It is too early, I think, to say where we will end up on the issues around it, but we are looking at the evidence very closely indeed. It is worth emphasising that there are already many rules that govern gambling advertising in this country. The UK advertising codes make it clear that all gambling advertising must be socially responsible, that it must not be targeted at under-18s and that its content must not encourage irresponsible gambling behaviour. Gambling adverts are not permitted to be shown in or around children’s programmes. Compliance with the codes is a licence condition, so breaches can and do result in enforcement action by the Gambling Commission. Licence conditions also set out additional controls on gambling advertising, and the gambling industry code for socially responsible advertising includes rules such as the 9 pm watershed on most television advertising and the whistle-to-whistle advertising ban around live sports.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing us an opportunity to debate the issues. As I say, work is ongoing, particularly on scrutinising the 16,000 submissions that we have received as part of the review. I look forward to coming back to the House later this year with a White Paper that sets out our conclusions and recommendations.
Madam Deputy Speaker, may I end by wishing you, my hon. Friends, all hon. Members and all those who work for us so well in this House a very happy recess?
Madam Deputy Speaker
(Dame Eleanor Laing)
I echo what has been said many times today: we are all extremely grateful for the amazing service given by everybody who works in this amazing building during these very difficult times in order to keep our precious democracy working, and working well. Let us hope that when we return it will be back to normal and working even better. I wish everybody a happy recess.