It couldn't happen here. Could it?

As a new year dawns, it is only natural to look to the future. If that’s your thing, you can find my predictions for 2024 here. But for the moment, I want to talk in a little greater detail about something I have touched on before, but that seems particularly relevant and interesting at this moment in time. 

That topic is the apparently unshakable belief that the alternative to the currently proposed affordability checks in the UK is no affordability checks, or “business as usual”. In some circles this appears to be an article of faith. The very idea that the alternative might end up being something worse (by which I mean, worse for the gambling industry) never crosses anybody’s mind.

But as we enter 2024, is that really a sustainable position? I would argue that anyone willing to lift up their eyes and look around would quickly reach the opposite conclusion, Let’s talk about just three of the reasons why.

The coming general election

With apologies for the UK focus, 2024 is the year that the country welcomes a Labour government, or at least will in all likelihood. Although it might be a little lazy to make assumptions about what that means for the regulatory landscape, most would agree that such a change in government is unlikely to mean any change in the general direction towards increased regulation.

Indeed, you don’t have to take my word for it. Stephanie Peacock, currently shadow minister for sports and gambling, stood up in parliament and said this: 

“The Government must waste no further time in introducing a modern system of gambling regulation that is fit for the future. Affordability checks will form an important part of that and must be set independently, rather than by the industry”

Do those sound like the words of someone about to have second thoughts? Hardly. As we hear (inevitably) that this government is likely to run out of parliamentary time to deal with gambling reform, that leaves something of a blank slate for an incoming government and minister. Things could get a whole lot worse.

Ireland’s advertising ban

As I write, we still don’t know precisely how this story will play out, but one likely version goes like this: a ban on gambling advertising on all channels is legislated and enforced. Racing TV and Sky Sports Racing are longer viable for broadcast in Ireland, removing horse racing from the nation’s televisions. The horse racing industry, and gambling industry in turn, are severely impacted.

It may happen, it may not (I still have my doubts). But it is a reminder that affordability checks are just one tool in a government’s arsenal. They have others they may decide to turn to, and we might not like them very much. I am old enough to remember when gambling advertising was illegal in the UK. Indeed I played a minor role in some of the first gambling ads ever broadcast after that situation changed. So although it might feel like advertising is natural, normal, and never going away - don’t count on it. A perfect statement by that Labour government we mentioned above perhaps?

Dutch legislation

I’ve talked about the international situation previously, but here’s a new one to the party. The Netherlands is proposing new regulations that remind us (and some of us really do need reminding) that what is currently being proposed by the UK Gambling Commission is by no means as bad as it can get.

The key proposals from our perspective would be:

  • A requirement to speak to any customer who sets a monthly deposit limit in excess of €350, and
  • A requirement to verify the income of any player who deposits €700 or more in a single calendar month, and
  • To do the same for any player under 25 who deposits €300 in a calendar month

The switched-on among you will notice that these limits are significantly lower than those currently proposed in the UK. Indeed, they are closer to the nightmare scenario of £100 a month in losses that was briefly discussed early last year. Gambling advertising is already illegal on TV, btw, and this move isn’t an outlier: liberal, hippy Holland is getting tough on gambling - just as many countries across Europe already have.

So what?

What conclusions should we draw from all of this? It’s really very simple: what the UK Gambling Commission is proposing is very much a compromise between those who oppose any checks or limits on gambling, and those who wish to see gambling made illegal. Like any compromise, sometimes you have to accept a good deal in order to avoid a worse one down the line.

That feels like the case here. I’ve said this before, but a ‘solution’ that doesn’t actually solve the problem will not last: and the next one will be worse. Those people who would be happy to see gambling made illegal add up to the third of the population, by the way. And 38% support a ban on horse racing. The idea that either of these industries will ultimately be ‘protected’ by government looks increasingly fanciful to me.

I hope in 2024 we grasp the nettle and agree on a sensible, pragmatic solution that solves the problem but does not impose unreasonable restrictions and limitations on gambling operators. 

The good news is, that solution already exists. But if you’re reading this blog, you already know that…