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Matt Zarb-Cousin: The public demands major gambling overhaul

| By Daniel O'Boyle
Clean Up Gambling founder Matt Zarb-Cousin has said the British public wants to see serious gambling overhaul and added that the industry must accept campaigners for reform reflect a more measured view than the public, rather than being prohibitionist.

In the latest episode of iGB’s Gambling Review podcast, which follows the launch of the UK Government’s review of the Gambling Act announced on Tuesday (8 December) Zarb-Cousin (pictured) said it was time for the industry to not only accept that the public had negative perceptions of gambling. He added that it must also acknowledge that this represented fundamental issues with the industry rather than a PR problem.

Matt Zarb-Cousin

“The industry needs a bit of humble pie,” he said to host Daniel Bliss. “They need to accept that the public are not on their side and either accept that there is a problem – not just a public relations problem, but a problem with how the industry operates and a fundamental problem – and take the Government and public on a journey to resolve that. 

“But that starts with admitting there’s a problem and so far the industry has not done that. So far it’s been, ‘We don’t think this is a problem but we’ll work to deal with it’. You need to acknowledge there’s a problem.”

Zarb-Cousin pointed to polls conducted by Survation and commissioned by Clean Up Gambling proved this, showing support for very low universal stake and deposit limits and significant levels of support for a ban on all online gambling.

“In the July edition, more people would have supported a complete ban on online gambing than opposed one,” he said. “I don’t support that, but the fact that so many people do should be a concern to the industry and a concern to everyone.

“I think the reformers are less prohibitionist than the public. I think MPs are less prohibitionist than the public.”

The campaigner – who entered the world of gambling reform after struggling with problem gambling himself – added that so far, the industry has not seriously engaged with what he considered to be reasonable proposals, such as a soft cap on deposits proposed by the SOcial Market Foundation in its report this summer.

“Let’s take the issue of affordability,” he said. “That’s been propagated by the industry, they’ll say ‘We have the data online, we don’t need stake limits’. But when an actual affordability model was put forward by the social market foundation, which included a soft cap on deposits, the industry called that ‘Nanny statist’. Well if you think that’s nanny statist, look at what the public thinks.

“It would be in the industry’s favour to engage constructively with proposals like a soft cap on deposits. If you can afford it, you can still bet more than that. The public has supported universal caps, regardless of if you can afford it.”

Zarb-Cousin played a major role in the campaign to reduce maximum fixed-odds betting terminal (FOBT) stakes down to £2. This, he said, was a watershed moment, as it opened the discussion on whether certain products are more harmful than others. Now, he said he hoped to bring that same scrutiny to certain online products such as slots.

“Back when we started campaigning about fixed-odds betting terminals, there was a sense on a rhetorical level that problem gambling, gambling-related harm, has nothing to do with the product,” he said. “The line was always that while one problem gambler is one problem gambler too many, there was no causal link between product and harm. This was about the user, they would say.”

“But now, looking at breakdowns of gambling-related harm by activity, we know that there are some products associated with harm more than others. They found that 40% of FOBT users were problem gamblers.”

Zarb-Cousin’s laundry list for reform includes not only greater affordability measures and stake and speed limits on online slots, but also a review of research, education and treatment funding and an examination of the Gambling Commission – which he wants to see receive more resources. All of these have been included in the Government’s terms for the review of the Act.

“I think the regulator’s issues stem from this instruction from successive governments to grow the industry, to prioritise growth,” he said. “If you have an industry where – according to the House of Lords – 60% of profits come from the 5% most likely to be at risk of harm – then if you grow the industry, you can’t reduce harm. It is literally one or the other with this business model.

“That attitude has shifted, starting under Sarah Harrison and then under Neil McArthur, but that was their ethos: that they had to prioritise growth. That was the root of a lot of the problems.

“But the solution seems pretty clear. Give them more money. Give them more resources.”

Finally, Zarb-Cousin added that he was confident these reforms would greatly improve society and the industry, and added that there was still time for the industry to engage with campaigners in a favourable manner.

“I believe these reforms will create a far more sustainable industry that will reduce harm and be better for the country,” he said. “I’m optimistic that the Government will see that as well. 

“There’s a new consensus emerging among many stakeholders and groups and that will help shape the outcome. But it’s not too late for certain gambling operators and their representatives to recognise what’s required. The reformers are not prohibitionist and you can engage constructively with us. It doesn’t have to be a fight.”

Listen to the episode once it goes live here, and catch up on previous episodes with Betting and Gaming Council chief executive Michael Dugher, All Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm chair Carolyn Harris MP and Peers for Gambling Reform chair Lord Don Foster of Bath.