HomeInsightsGeneral election highlights challenges facing the gambling industry in the UK

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All three major UK political parties – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – have now published their manifestos ahead of the UK general election (which takes place on 12 December 2019). These manifestos set out the policies that each party would implement were it to be the next UK government, although manifestos are becoming increasingly less useful as policy guides in a world of coalition and minority governments.

This is the UK’s 3rd general election in just 4 years, and much of the focus is on Brexit, the health service, schools and crime. The parties’ approaches to gambling merit just a paragraph or two in each manifesto, yet that brevity is not comforting for the gambling industry as there is substantial unanimity between politicians who agree on very little else.

Both the Conservative and Labour parties have the Gambling Act 2005 in their sights. “Given how the online world is moving, the Gambling Act is increasingly becoming an analogue law in a digital age” say the Conservatives. Labour wants to “introduce a new Gambling Act fit for the digital age”. Neither of Britain’s two main political parties have explained in any detail why they believe that the current, relatively flexible, legislation doesn’t, or can’t be adapted to, successfully deal with remote gambling, and their general position appears to be that “something must be done”, and reviewing or replacing the Gambling Act is certainly “something”. What is clear from the specific proposals of all three parties is that this updated or new legislation would contain more restrictions.

Starting with a simple change, Labour and the Liberal Democrats both want to ban the use of credit cards for gambling, while the Conservatives want to tackle “credit card misuse” (which is undefined). Regardless of whether or not allowing players to gamble on credit is actually harmful, the politics of this is crystal clear, and the industry would be well advised to introduce a voluntary prohibition to try and gain a modicum of credit ahead of an inevitable outcome.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats will restrict gambling advertising, with the Labour party focusing on curbing gambling advertising in sport. Due to the proliferation of gambling advertising around sports events in recent years, this is another easy target for critics of the industry. Hopefully the voluntary whistle to whistle ban and resulting contraction in gambling advertising will head off a more severe, Italian-style prohibition.

All of the parties are focussed on the health effects of harmful gambling. The Conservatives will “continue to take action to tackle gambling addiction”. Labour will “address… the adverse impacts of gambling as [a] matter of public health, treated accordingly in expanded addiction support services”. The Liberal Democrats, claiming that “there are 340,000 problem gamblers in the UK including some 55,000 children aged 11 to 16” will “introduce further measures to protect individuals, their families and communities from problem gambling”. A compulsory levy on gambling companies to fund research, education and treatment of problem gambling is included in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, and echoed in the Labour one.

Labour promises to introduce a “mechanism for consumer compensations”. Presumably this will take the form of the establishment of a Gambling Ombudsman, as promised by the Liberal Democrats.

The Labour manifesto refers to “establishing gambling limits” which, coming so soon after the interim report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm stated that “it is now a matter of urgency that stake and deposit limits are introduced in online gambling”, is a worrying sign for the industry.

And, finally, the Conservatives have vowed to tackle “issues around loot boxes”, which will likely mean reclassifying them as “gambling” and bringing gambling regulation to a whole new market.

So what now? Well, in most policy areas, who wins the election is crucial. The above shows that is not the case for the gambling industry, with broad consensus across all major parties. In an age of increasingly populist politics, where beliefs have largely replaced evidence-based policy making, the gambling industry is an easy target wherever a politician sits on the political spectrum. It’s hard to say at this stage what would be a positive election result for the gambling industry. Perhaps its only hope is that, with so much else to do, the new UK government simply won’t have time to make good on its gambling promises.