Downing Street set to spearhead gambling reforms

Man placing a bet at the casino

Downing Street has taken control of the upcoming review of gambling legislation, due to be launched within weeks, amid a growing appetite for sweeping reform of the industry from Boris Johnson and his closest advisers.

The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is expected to kick off the long-awaited review this autumn but well-placed sources said Boris Johnson and his closest advisers were now steering the plans.

“The PM just sees it as people being exploited and it’s not him,” said one MP with intimate knowledge of discussions within Whitehall.

It is understood that Johnson’s closest adviser Dominic Cummings and Munira Mirza – director of the No10 policy unit – have both taken a personal interest in a push to overhaul the 2005 Gambling Act.

The legislation, introduced under Tony Blair, liberalised regulation of the sector, giving the UK some of the most relaxed gambling laws among major economies.

Figures within Downing Street are understood to be pushing for a wide-ranging review that could involve rolling back large sections of the act, including potential new curbs on advertising.

Some advocates of reform within government are concerned that the DCMS is conflicted over advertising due to the financial contributions gambling makes to both sports teams and broadcasters who have the ear of DCMS officials.

Sports minister Nigel Huddleston is thought to be keen on a wide-ranging review but speaking in the House of Lords last week, another DCMS minister, Lady Barran, appeared sceptical about the dangers of advertising.

“I cannot be specific on the scope of the review, but the evidence is not clear about the link between advertising and problem gambling, particularly among young people,” she said.

One MP with knowledge of DCMS said: “Like any organisation, departments become quite linked in to these industries [such as sport and broadcasting]… They weren’t that keen on changing tobacco advertising back in the day but it happened.”

A DCMS official denied there was any lack of enthusiasm for tackling advertising and insisted the department was working with No 10, rather than being directed by it.

Campaigners for gambling reform have emerged from across the political spectrum, coalescing around the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on gambling harm led by Labour MP Carolyn Harris, former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and the SNP’s Ronnie Cowan.

The cross-party momentum has also spilled over into the House of Lords, with the foundation this weekend of a group called the Peers for Gambling Reform. The group of more than 150 peers has demanded “urgent action” based on the findings of a Lords select committee report published earlier this year.

Chaired by Lord Foster of Bath, the group wants measures such as strict affordability checks on gamblers and a duty of care on firms to prevent harm, potentially exposing them to legal consequences where they fail to protect vulnerable people.

The group wants to see stake limits and restrictions on the speed at which online casino games can be played, as well as a testing regime to measure the risks attached to new gambling products.

“Given that we have a third of a million problem gamblers, including 55,000 children, and one gambling-related suicide every day, action is urgently needed,” said Lord Foster.

“Online gambling companies have cashed in on the pandemic, making more profit and putting more lives at risk. He said the group had been set up to ensure “urgent action is taken by the government to reform our wholly outdated regulation”.

While campaigners for reform have been assembling a powerful and determined political group, the gambling industry has also mustered a strong lobbying influence.

The Betting & Gaming Council is chaired by veteran lobbyist Brigid Simmonds, while its chief executive, Michael Dugher, is a former Labour MP.

Dugher’s close personal friend, former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, was last week revealed to have joined the world’s largest online gambling company, Flutter Entertainment, as an adviser on problem gambling.

During his time in parliament, Watson was a virulent campaigner for reform and previously described the company’s actions as “dirty” and “money-grabbing” after it took bets on the murder trial of former athlete Oscar Pistorius.