The government has just released its long-overdue gambling reform plans. A white paper on suggested new policies was announced in parliament on Thursday by Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer. Press reports had abounded with speculation on what it would include. The plans were promised years ago and have been delayed at least four times, to the dismay of campaigners.
For years, there’s been a growing consensus that existing gambling legislation has become out of date. Passed in 2005, the Gambling Act adopted a light touch approach and essentially told betting companies to ‘self-regulate’. What politicians did not anticipate was the astonishing rise in online gambling. As story after story appeared in the media, highlighting the harms being done by gambling, pressure grew for a fundamental change in the law.
CARE first became involved in campaigning for reform when we called for a dramatic reduction in the limit on machines called fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs). We backed a private members bill from Lib Dem Peer Lord Clement-Jones which aimed to slash the max stake from £100 to just £2. After years of campaigning, eventually that change was introduced in 2018.
Then, in 2018, the Labour Party adopted a tougher line of gambling regulation and their plans included a raft of measures proposed by CARE. In 2019, ahead of the General Election, the Conservative Party announced in its manifesto that it would review the 2005 law, paving the way for change.
Since that promise, we’ve had three prime ministers, multiple secretaries of state and months of dither and delay. So as press speculation mounted that perhaps, finally, the reforms would be published, we poured over all the reports to glean what we could. Would the government go as far as necessary?
The government’s proposals
What’s emerged is a list of suggested measures, many of which are positive, including the following:
- Statutory gambling levy – to help fund treatment of gambling related harms
- New stake limits for online slots games – it will be between £2-15 per spin
- Player protection checks – to stop those most at risk of harm before they lose too much
- New powers for the Gambling Commission – so the regulator can tackle black market operators
- New industry ombudsman – to settle disputes between operators and players
From CARE’s perspective, none of the measures above are a bad idea. But you also need to look at what’s missing. For example, there’s nothing at all in the entire white paper on new curbs on gambling advertising. It’s all well and good for the Premier League to announce it will make changes so from the end of the 2025/26 season betting logos won’t be on the front of shirts. But the scale of betting advertising, especially for bet in play, needs far more robust attention.
More to the point is the fact many of the measures announced by the government will simply be put out for consultation. What does that mean? It ultimately means yet more delay and dither.
So, overall, it isn’t what many hoped to see. We’ve already had years of consultation. The harms of gambling, and the measures that could be put in place to address them, are well-understood. It is time for concrete proposals to be considered by parliament and ushered into law. Action is vital and it’s been pushed back. Again.
As CARE’s Director for Advocacy and Policy, Louise Davies, told the BBC this week:
"After years of disappointment relating to this white paper it is galling to learn of more dither and delay from the government. The abuses of the gambling industry and the scale of gambling-related harms in Britain are crystal clear. There is no need for further consultation on measures that are broadly supported such as a statutory levy and affordability checks. We need legislation."
Gambling-related harm is a public health emergency in our culture today. There’s the equivalent of one gambling-related suicide every single day. As many as two million people are addicted or at risk of becoming addicted. Harms resulting from gambling addiction, which range from health problems to homelessness, cost billions in taxpayer money, and far more in human terms.
Take the tragic story of Jack Ritchie. He was a 24 year old English teacher. He developed a gambling addiction that began with betting small amounts on controversial fixed-odds betting terminals when he was in sixth form. A key moment for Jack came when won £1,000 in less than 30 seconds. It was this win that accelerated his gambling (which is how the system is designed to work). When he was 18, his dad discovered his gambling addiction. So, he took him into every betting shop in Sheffield and Jack left a photo and signed a form to exclude him from placing bets there.
But his addiction just transferred online. He became a regular visitor to BetVictor, the online gambling website. In 2017, faced with growing debts, he took his own life.
Since his death, Jack’s parents, Charles and Liz Ritchie, have become campaigners for gambling reform through their charity, Gambling With Lives. In response to the government’s proposals, they warned that stronger action is still needed, to prevent people from taking their own lives.
This is about justice
At CARE, we’ve been campaigning for law change for years. We believe that the state has a God-given responsibility to safeguard citizens and address injustice. And we are concerned that the status quo is allowing people made in God’s image to be harmed and exploited, as gambling companies leech ever-greater profits from vulnerable groups. Existing regulation is dated and ineffective.
The Bible warns against the rich and privileged in society exploiting the poor and vulnerable. “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker”, wrote King Solomon in Proverbs. At many times in the Old Testament, the people of Israel are punished for turning a blind eye to exploitation. God’s heart is very much for the downtrodden, and His anger is kindled when such people are abused.
We see injustice in our culture today when it comes to gambling. Research shows that the most deprived areas of the country have a high saturation of betting shops. People who don’t have much disposable income are lured in by false promises of big wins. Gambling addicts are repeatedly targeted by adverts and promotions, despite being vulnerable, as are children.
While the Bible does not contain one single verse that explicitly forbids gambling, what you do find are clear principles. We should be good stewards of what we’ve got because it’s all from God. There’s no such thing as chance, because God is wholly in control of all things. Moreover, as I’ve outlined above, gambling related harms impact some of the most vulnerable in our communities. So it’s a matter of justice that the law is changed so their exploitation does not continue.
It is welcome that the government is in the process of doing something to help people who are suffering. But it is heart-breaking, and even anger-inducing, to see ministers procrastinate. We must pray that the consciences of men and women working in this area are affected, leading them to act firmly and quickly to defend the oppressed, and disarm the oppressor.
CARE is calling for a number of specific measures in law to address the problems we are witnessing in wider society, some of which are outlined in by Louise Davies in an opinion piece for Politics Home. We want to see a low maximum stake on online “slot machines” that currently have no limit and allow people to lose huge amounts of money.
We want to see a 5% levy on gambling companies’ profits to fund help for problem gamblers damaged by their product. An end to gambling advertising and sponsorships in football, which have turned the beautiful game into an ugly spectacle. Affordability checks for vulnerable gamblers, and an end to unethical ‘VIP’ promotions and free bets. We will be working to see this happen.
It is vital that, as Christians, we take this matter to the throne of God regularly in the months to come. With more consultation coming, there is a danger the measures the government are committed to will be watered down. Please pray with us that a clear consensus would be shown for robust reforms, and that ministers will do the right thing when the time comes.