Home > Legal & compliance > Regulation > Have politicians lost interest in the gambling sector?

Have politicians lost interest in the gambling sector?

| By nicolemacedo | Reading Time: 4 minutes
For the UK’s 2019 general election the parties' manifestos had an almost unprecedented level of detail on plans to reform the gambling industry after a period of intense scrutiny for the sector. Fast forward to 2024 and it doesn’t even merit a mention in the ruling party’s plans. Does this mean the Gambling Act review has put to bed the issue of industry reform?
politicians gambling

Gambling has gone from a prominent issue for political parties, to a side note.

The last time the UK went to the polls, the gambling industry found itself getting a lot of attention. Each of the ConservativeLabourLiberal Democrat and Scottish National Party manifestos set out plans for reform and curtailing the sector in some cases.

Central to these plans was a review of the 2005 Gambling Act, for which “analogue law in a digital age” became shorthand for dismissing the legislation as out of date in the smartphone era.

Such “substantial unanimity between politicians who agree on very little else” meant change was on the way, law firm Wiggin noted at the time.

In 2024, however, following Brexit, Covid and last year’s Gambling Act white paper, the industry barely scrapes into the manifestos. When the white paper was released, Betting and Gaming Council CEO (now chair) Michael Dugher called it a “once in a generation moment for change”.

He said its publication should bring to an end “lengthy and often polarised debates on gambling”. At face value, the lack of policy plans for the industry suggest Westminster agrees.

Have politicians settled the gambling reform debate?

But as Regulus Partners’ Dan Waugh points out, the 2019 manifestos were exceptional, purely for the fact they covered gambling in any sort of depth. The inclusion of gambling in those documents “represented the accumulation of issues around gambling” he says.

This followed concerted pressure on the industry, first resulting in fixed-odds betting terminal (FOBT) stakes being cut to £2, with campaigners in and around parliament turning their attention to online gaming.

“The lack of interest, apart from the Liberal Democrats, really is unexceptional,” Waugh says of 2024. Gambling hasn’t traditionally been a vote winner – or vote loser for that matter – so historically gets ignored when manifestos are put together.

“The fact that we’ve had the [Gambling Act] review and many of the changes implemented have been policies that parties were calling for in the last election, perhaps explains their lack of interest,” Waugh notes.

“[The Conservatives] may feel that they’ve carried out their review of legislation and therefore the matter is now settled. But Labour really just had a fairly few anodyne statements in there about raising standards.”

Gambling doesn’t fall neatly on party political lines

Labour and the Liberal Democrats both committed to the blanket statement of “reducing gambling-related harm”.  

Labour also noted its intention to “reform gambling regulation, strengthening protections”, as the party said it “recognised the evolution of the gambling landscape since 2005”. Much of that, thanks to the white paper, is already happening.

And Waugh says a Labour government looks reasonably comforting from a gambling perspective. “I don’t think Labour have at the moment a particularly negative agenda towards the gambling industry,” he says, and it’s worth noting there isn’t any real partisan divides when it comes to reform.

For example, parliament’s particularly vocal all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on gambling related harm featured politicians from across the spectrum, including Labour’s Carolyn Harris, Ian Duncan Smith of the Tories and Ronnie Cowan of the SNP.

What of the reform campaigners?

Around 2019, there was a significant boots-on-the-ground operation around gambling reform supporting the APPG, spearheaded by Derek Webb’s Campaign for Fairer Gambling, supported by efforts led by prominent campaigners such as Matt Zarb-Cousin.

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling’s focus has since shifted to the US and, while Zarb-Cousin is still a vocal and eloquent campaigner, his work extends into gambling blocking solutions such as GamBan. This leaves groups such as Gambling with Lives leading the charge.

Without the groundswell of support from multiple groups, these campaigns are not quite cutting through as they once did.

Where will the pressure for reform come from?

“The Conservatives and Labour are, from an ideological perspective, not a million miles apart,” Waugh says. But as he pointed out on the World Series of Politics podcast, much of the work of government is carried out by civil servants, not politicians.

“And there’s fairly strong evidence to suggest that the major organs of state have been captured, or at least to the extent they touch on gambling, they’ve been captured on a very strong public health movement in this country, which really sees gambling as the new tobacco,” he says.

For example, a paper from the office for health improvement and disparities – part of the department of health – published a paper in the Lancet Journal setting out a series of 81 recommendations for state intervention in the gambling market.

“Prohibitionist territory”

Some interventions were eminently sensible, Waugh says, so much so that they already exist. Others, however, were more extreme, such as a total ban on gambling advertising and marketing, extending even to racecourses. The office also proposed a ban on wine, beer and spirit sales at casinos, bingo clubs and racecourse and an industry tax that would rise annually above the rate of inflation.

“[That] pretty much soon gets you to prohibitionist territory because you make the market uneconomic,” he points out. Perhaps most bizarrely, there was a proposal to impose plain packaging controls on gambling products. Think of what that does to a deck of cards, he says.

“[These] are pretty mad policies, but these are the people who exercise executive functions within the British government and they are proposing these sorts of measures. And perhaps the most alarming element is there is some evidence the Gambling Commission is sympathetic to some of their policies.

“I think the election is important to a degree but it may be a bit of a sideshow because so many of the organs of the state seem to have now an anti-gambling agenda.”

And reform has hardly ground to a halt – although casinos may argue differently after the general election campaign slowed their package of improvements.

The white paper has sparked an extensive run of ongoing consultations and tweaks to existing legislation, with significant uncertainty over incoming changes such as affordability checks still causing operators concern. Arguably it’s less a case of the industry no longer feeling the heat and more a case of the ripples from the work to fulfil the 2019 pledges still being felt.

Subscribe to the iGaming newsletter