Winning Post: Gambling Review… History Repeating Itself?

Can the UK government avoid the pitfalls of previous generational reviews of the gambling sector, and provide stakeholders with evidence-based reforms as required. The government’s pledge is maintained against a final backdrop, that sees Regulus Partners report on frantic lobbying by clandestine groups trying to influence final outcomes…

There were further signs this week that the history of gambling reviews in the 21st century may be repeating itself as it was announced that the minister in charge of the review and the market regulator had both agreed to speak at next month’s ‘Gambling Reform Rally in Westminster.

The minister responsible, Chris Philp has demonstrated considerable energy in getting to grips with the Gambling Act Review since his appointment in September last year, attending numerous meetings and conferences. His decision, however, to speak at a rally organised by the lobbying organisations, Peers for Gambling Reform and the Gambling-related Harm All-Party Parliamentary Group perhaps marks a worrying departure from the path of impartiality.

A ‘rally’ is defined variously as “a mass meeting of people making a political protest or showing support for a cause” and “a long-distance race for motor vehicles over public roads or rough terrain, typically in several stages”. Sadly, it seems too much to hope that Iain Duncan Smith, Lord Foster of Bath and their fellow conspirators are to be despatched on the dusty road to Dakar and so we are forced to conclude that this is a rally of the first order. The minister’s decision to participate is likely therefore to deepen suspicion of partisanship in what was intended to be a balanced, evidence-based exercise. It also prompts a question of precisely what the minister – and the Gambling Commission – feel that they need to rally about (unless of course they have chosen to attend in order to moderate proceedings or to gainsay the often delusional claims of the so-called ‘reformers’). The DCMS and the Commission get to set the rules. There is no requirement for them to do so in a performative manner.

It may be that by the time the rally rolls around, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (‘OHID’) will have published its Delphi Study on “policies and interventions…to prevent and reduce gambling-related harm in England”.

Very little is known about the inner workings of this study which involves a clandestine group of academics, experts and experts by experience; very little that is other than the outcomes (tax increases, marketing bans etc) which have been well flagged from the get-go. If this week’s blog on gambling harms by OHID researchers is anything to go by, there is little hope for quality of output.

The article posted to the Royal Society of Public Health’s website proudly trumpets the findings of the former Public Health England team, which were published in September last year. Of course, the vast majority of the ‘findings’ (such as the fact that 54% of adults made at least one wager in 2017/18) are in fact from NHS Health Surveys and so credit really belongs to NatCen rather than PHE/OHID whose researchers did little more than cut and paste. Given the low threshold adopted for discovery, one wonders why the PHE/OHID researchers were not a little bit more ambitious. They might just as easily have laid claim to evolutionary theory with the aid of an e-reader, a copy of ‘The Origin of the Species’ and CTRL+C.

It is questionable whether plagiarism-as-research is really a suitable use of public money – but the taxpayer surely has a right to expect that such endeavours will at least be competent. This week’s OHID article suggests that the researchers did not even understand the survey results supplied to them by NatCen. By way of illustration, we examine a number of these here, juxtaposing PHE/OHID claims with our reading of what NHS/NatCen reports actually show:

PHE/OHID: “We found that apart from people who buy lottery tickets, which has seen a 10% reduction in the last 8 years, participation in all other forms of gambling has remained stable since 2012. However, online gambling has increased.”

NHS/NatCen: In fact, participation in a majority of gambling activities declined between 2012 and 2018. This includes scratchcards (19.5% down to 17.9%); non-remote bingo (5.4% to 4.5%); slot machines (7.3% to 5.7%); FOBTs (down from 3.0% to 2.2% even before the ban); non-remote casino (3.3% to 2.6%); poker (1.4% to 0.7%); horserace betting (10.1% to 8.2%); dog-race betting (2.8% to 1.7%) and private betting (5.4% to 3.8%). Even remote gaming participation nudged down (from 3.1% to 3.0%) with the online increase noted with such alarm by OHID entirely the result of growth in the relatively ‘soft’ (i.e. low problem gambling and harm endorsement rates) activity of online sports betting.

PHE/OHID: “The proportion of people experiencing ‘problem gambling’ has remained relatively stable since 2012, while the proportion of ‘at risk’ gamblers has seen an increase.”

NHS/NatCen: The combined DSM-IV/PGSI rate of problem gambling has indeed been fairly stable (0.6% in 2012; 0.5% in 2018) but – contrary to the OHID claim – rates of PGSI ‘at risk’ gambling reduced (from 4.1% to 3.5%) as the chart below illustrates (and as the Gambling Commission has also noted).

PHE/OHID: “People who experience harms from gambling tend to have higher participation in online gambling. Overall, participation in online gambling by ‘at risk’ gamblers (23.4%) was more than double that of the general population (9.4%) in 2018.”

NHS/NatCen: This may actually be true – but so what? The 9.4% figure refers to the proportion of the overall population who gamble online – including the 46% who did not gamble at all. One might be a little concerned at the proportion of ‘at risk’ gamblers who played online (although the overwhelming majority of these are unlikely to have experienced any harm) but the comparison is meaningless. One might as easily feign shock that beer consumption is more prevalent amongst hazardous drinkers than it is amongst teetotallers.

We could go on. The litany of errors points either to the presence of incompetence or agenda; and adds to the growing sense that what started out as a balanced, evidence-led and overdue reform of our gambling laws is turning into the Great Gambling Stitch-up. In 2009, reflecting on the mistakes made in passing the Gambling Act 2005, Professor Peter Collins wrote the following: “The story is an astonishing one…not least because it is a story of large numbers of intelligent people devoting a great deal of time and energy to the sensible project of reforming UK gambling law and yet winding up with a law that everybody recognises is radically defective…Consequently we now …regulate gambling in a way that satisfies no one, which furthers the government’s state objectives quite inadequately, and which largely frustrates all possible conceptions of the real public interest.”

The worry is that the last Gambling Act was attended by far greater attention to detail by parliamentarians than appears to be the case this time around. For all its faults, it was perhaps a more honest endeavour than the current review is shaping up to be. It may also be the case that some of the sharpest critics of the Gambling Act 2005 will in time prove to have been the most culpable in the creation of a new legislative shambles.

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Featured article edited by SBC from ‘Winning Post’ Sunday 20 February  2022 (click on the below logo to access the full unedited analysis of Winning Post). 

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