John O’Reilly: Reflections on 2005 Gambling Act needed for best industry outcomes 

Rank Group Chief Executive John O’Reilly believes that a positive outcome to the government’s generational review of the 2005 Gambling Act should “rewrite the industry’s historical flaws”. 

Delivering the keynote speech at the ‘Reputation Matters: UK Gambling’s Future at Stake’ conference, O’Reilly provided his leadership take on legislative developments amid concerns of how the UK gambling sector will be re-shaped by pending outcomes.

The elder statesman amongst industry CEOs, O’Reilly reflected on his 30-year career as a betting executive, observing the industry’s constant rebalance to political judgements.

“The 2005 Act was stimulated by a desire on the part of those that initiated the review to sensibly liberalise what were then archaic gambling regulations that dated back to the 1960s,”  O’Reilly commented on the review’s historical precedent.  

“Today’s question is whether the gambling act review will result in a modernisation for the digital age or might it turn back the clock to an age of disapproval or intolerance of gambling.”

O’Reilly advised the audience to take a pragmatic approach in reviewing the media headlines and speculation circulating the upcoming review: “Let’s remember, there are relatively small groups that either wish to prohibit gambling or totally liberalise it.”

As DCMS evaluates its submitted responses, O’Reilly’s concerns related to the pending review “being moved away from the logic which underpinned the 2005 review, that positioned gambling as a legitimate activity that needed to be appropriately regulated to protect children and ensure fairness”.  

He conceded that his own viewpoints on industry reforms had changed throughout various stages of his career:  from settling bets in a bookmaker in Orpington, his 19-year tenure as an executive of Ladbrokes, as a corporate director and as CEO of Rank.

Regulatory adjustments were deemed as a necessary requirement on all licensed incumbents, as O’Reilly cited thirty years of changes that have evolved UK gambling from betting shops no longer serving customers food and beverage to today’s digital context.   

Yet, 20 years on from “Sir Alan Budd’s white paper recommending that the government liberalise gambling”, the executive acknowledged that political and public perception of gambling as a legitimate activity had wholly changed. 

Commenting on the self-reflection needed by stakeholders to evaluate 15-years of liberalised market consequences, he said: “Did operators overstep the mark? Has the industry overindulged in competition and advertising? Was it not inevitable the obvious consequences of competition and could the industry have self-regulated?” 

Despite hindsight rhetoric branding the “2005 Gambling Act as a laissez-faire piece of legislation, that swept away all safeguards”, the Rank CEO praised the Act’s notable contributions which have paved the way for the industry’s upcoming reforms.

He said: “I don’t accept the criticism that the 2005 Act was analogue for the digital age. Following the 2005 Act, safer gambling became part of the lexicon, though clearly not as visible as it is today.

“The Act created the Gambling Commission, replacing the Gaming Board for land-based incumbents and creating a first-time regulator for the rest of the sector.

“Some have deemed it a ‘steering job’, but that would be unfair to former UKGC CEO Jenny Williams and her expert team at the time.”

O’Reilly noted that the Gambling Commission’s regulatory mandate had been radically altered from its original stewardship under Williams and her successor Sarah Harrison.

“Industry sector expertise has been swept away, as the emphasis has been on tightening regulations and taking enforcement actions on operators for breaching regulations and guidance.”

On self-regulation, O’Reilly noted that the industry leaders should have acted faster on taking actions to lower FOBTs wagering limits before ‘critics became entrenched’ – a situation that the sector has vowed not to repeat under the guidance of the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC).

O’Reilly concluded his address by praising the BGC and its representation of the sector, which has promoted operators’ unified changes to safer gambling, be it through advertising protections, enhanced affordability checks, improved conduct and game designs. 

He summarised: “We need to stand-up for the consumer that enjoys betting and gaming. Those millions of customers, whose moderate voice has been lost amidst rabid extremes

“We need to take pride in the jobs we create and the taxes we pay and those consumers we entertain. We can lift our chins, learn from the past and lean into the future of what is a brilliant industry in which to be involved in.”

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