Doug Marr: The odds are stacked against tighter regulation of the betting industry

I wrote recently of my good fortune in being very sick after smoking two cigarettes at the age of 9 or 10. I was never tempted again.

I was equally lucky just days after starting university. I witnessed a fellow fresher lose his entire first-term grant playing three-card brag in the student union. From then on, I knew gambling is a mug’s game. In the 1960s, gambling was generally frowned upon and arguably, morally unacceptable. New Labour’s 2005 Gambling Act changed all that, in effect deregulating and normalising gambling. So much for Labour being “a moral crusade or nothing”.

For an encore, it placed an avaricious form of gambling at the heart of its economic policy. Deregulation of the banking industry ushered in and lionised investment bankers. As it turned out, the self–styled “masters of the universe” were little more than spivs and punters using others’ savings as stakes.

Since 2005, gambling has wormed its way into everyday life. its impact visible on every high street. In my home city of Aberdeen, there are seven betting shops on, or in the immediate vicinity of Union Street. Their presence contributes in no small way to the down-at-heel appearance and feel of what was once one of Scotland’s most prestigious thoroughfares.

Little account is taken of the hundreds of school pupils who pass their doors every day, despite powerful evidence that increasing numbers of youngsters are becoming hooked on the betting habit. Away from city centres, betting shops are a ubiquitous feature of many of our most deprived areas. They have even diversified the ways in which they separate punters from their money, fixed odds betting terminals (FOBT) being but one example. Limiting maximum stakes on FOBT is notable, largely because it’s one of the few recent measures addressing the void at the heart of gambling regulation.

But hey, betting shops are so yesterday. Everyone with a phone has a mobile casino in their pocket. And that is where the real money is to be won but more usually, lost. Last year the remuneration package awarded to the boss of one of the biggest online betting companies was an unbelievable £421million.

When betting shops and casinos were closed due to Covid, losses were more than covered by the growth of online betting. According to the regulator, The Gambling Commission, the Gross Gambling Yield (GGY) for the “Remote Betting, Bingo and Casino” sector to March 2021, was up 18% at £6.9 billion. According to Statista, betting and gaming tax scooped £2.8 billion in 2020/21. Great news if you’re a bookie, shareholder or Chancellor, but less so if you’re a problem gambler.

Gambling England estimates there are over 400 gambling-related suicides each year. Defensively, the industry highlights the money it spends addressing problem gambling. It’s highly questionable if vacuous slogans such as, “When the Fun Stops, Stop”, are capable of countering the millions spent promoting and encouraging gambling.

The imminent publication of Westminster’s White Paper on gambling reform holds out the prospect of tighter regulation. The ever-defensive Michael Dugher, chief executive of the industry’s Betting and Gaming Council (BGC), warns MPs to “ignore extremists” trying to influence outcomes. That’ll be the dead extremists who took their own lives because it seemed their only way out. There’s also the extremist parents, widows and children mourning the loss of loved ones.

BGC members can sleep a little easier in the knowledge there’s a solid core of MPs who are snout deep in the gambling trough. Some, shamelessly wallowing in the largesse of betting firms, have the brass neck to warn fellow MPs of an “anti–gambling ideology”. For goodness sake, where does lobbying end and bribery and corruption begin? As a first step, all MPs paid by betting companies or in receipt of freebies, should be automatically disqualified from speaking or voting on proposed regulation. The next logical step should be a tobacco-style total ban on advertising and sponsorship. But, in the moral vacuum that is Westminster, don’t bet on it.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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