Donelan has been an industry critic – what’s her next move?

| By Zak Thomas-Akoo
Michelle Donelan, the newly appointed Secretary of State for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), condemned industry practices in historic parliamentary comments, backed stake limits for fixed odds betting terminals (FOBT) and supported the curtailing of gambling advertising. With the Gambling Act Review to oversee, what will she do next?
DCMS

At last, the months-long limbo that has paralysed British government since the resignation of Boris Johnson has come to an end.

Newly appointed PM Liz Truss dominated the latter half of the race, and while her victory was closer than some had predicted, she ultimately proved more successful with the party membership.

And to the victor belongs the spoils – with the gears and cogs of UK policy-making now in her hands, the reshuffle has already thrown up the latest cast of characters who will act as the UK’s leaders in the battles to come. The cabinet is more diverse, and leans further right than Johnson’s.

Leading the DCMS will be Michelle Donelan – previously known for her two-day stint as education secretary in the dying days of Johnson’s premiership, making her the shortest serving cabinet official in parliamentary history.

Since entering parliament in the 2015 in-take, Donelan has faithfully positioned herself as a government loyalist, taking the whip and rarely rebelling. Now at long last, she is in leadership, in a position to give – rather than take – orders.

The real Donelan

The new minister’s primary interest has been education, so there is relatively scant evidence of her views towards the gaming sector. However, she has twice commented on the matter in the parliamentary records, both times positioning herself as an industry critic. The comments were made on two occasions in 2018, where ministers associated with the department were questioned in parliament.

The first occasion was on 17 May 2018, when DCMS parliamentary under-secretary for sport and civil society, Tracy Crouch, announced that FOBT stake limits would be reduced to £2 from £100. In a response to the minister, Donelan criticised a perceived rise in gambling advertising.

“I strongly welcome this announcement, which addresses an issue that has destroyed far too many lives,” she said. “I appreciate that advertising is regulated, but we have all noticed the dramatic increase in gambling advertising online and on TV, preying on the vulnerable. What more can we do to address that?”

Crouch would go on to resign in November that year, after it was announced that the FOBT stake-limit legislation would be delayed until October 2019.

On 21 June 2018, Donelan criticised the steps that then-DCMS minister Matt Hancock’s department had taken to reduce problem gambling in the UK.

“As the secretary of state knows, I am strongly supportive of the decision taken on FOBTs, but problem gambling is an issue in my constituency, especially among the vulnerable,” said Donelan.

“What more can the department do to push gambling companies to better support addicts?”

The upshot

As DCMS minister, Donelan is among the most influential voices regarding the long-delayed Gambling Act review white paper, which will seek to point the way for future legislative reform. But there is ongoing uncertainty about both the content and the timing of the white paper.

While the white paper was initially due to be released this summer – and was delayed following Johnson’s resignation – there is some expectation it might be further held up, perhaps until after Christmas.

Newly appointed prime minister Liz Truss will face a social and economic crisis as we move into the winter. Truss, in her first speech as prime minister, called for the country to “ride out the storm”, as the nation braces for energy shocks and uncertain economic conditions. It is widely presumed that this will be the government’s immediate focus – and gambling reform will once more be quietly tabled.

Minister for tech and the digital economy, Damian Collins, is the junior minister currently leading on gambling. Following the reshuffle, Collins remains in place as of 7 September. However, a DCMS spokesman refused to confirm whether the status quo would continue, saying that the ministerial leadership “will be reported in due course”.

What it all means in practice is uncertain. But the game has been set, and all that’s left is to play.

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