More choppy waters ahead in Parliament for the UK licensed gambling industry

An ‘Urgent Question on the deal between the FA and Bet365’ has provoked furious parliamentary debate.

The Question was raised in the House of Commons today (8 January 2020) by Carolyn Harris MP (Chair of the Gambling Related Harm All-Party Parliamentary Group, whose interim report relating to its Online Gambling Harm Inquiry was published on 4 November 2019).

It arose in relation to a Daily Mail article concerning The Football Association and Bet365 (entitled “Fury as FA Cup rights are sold to betting firm Bet365 which lets fans watch free if they open account – despite links between gambling and depression and FA president Prince William’s mental health campaign”) published on 7 January 2020.

Providing a statement in response to the Question and answering a series of questions from MPs on this issue, the Sports Minister Nigel Adams MP (speaking on behalf of the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) was repeatedly pressed to confirm when the review of the Gaming Act 2005 would commence. He replied that:

  • the Government is committed to the review,
  • although “work has started on the review”, he is not yet in a position to confirm the date on which the formal review will commence but “Ministers will make the announcement when that is ready”,
  • “nothing is off the table” insofar as matters to be considered as part of the review process are concerned.

Regardless of the inaccuracy of some comments made by MPs, the timing of this latest news could not have come at a worse time for the UK gambling industry, leading – as it did – MPs to pass comment in Parliament such as:

  • “The Government are …. very angry”,
  • “Anger and … utter disgust at the greed and immoral behaviour of the gambling companies”,
  • “Many people are outraged that gambling firm Bet365 has won the rights to broadcast FA cup matches exclusively through its website and applications, because we are all too aware of the devastating impact that gambling can have on lives. At the heart of this issue is the cynical way Bet365 hook people into placing bets and gambling during matches, almost grooming people into becoming gamblers. We know the link between gambling, mental health and suicide is real”,
  • “The deal with Bet365 is distasteful, naive and a long way short of what good governance of sport, especially football, should look like”,
  • “The all-party parliamentary group on gambling-related harm conducted a series of inquiries with the chief executives of several gambling companies. The biggest area of risk is their drive to get more and more people into VIP rooms, where they give them incentives, such as tickets for football matches. What we are discussing is all part of that. The biggest abuse takes place in that process, whereby companies drive people who gamble a lot into higher levels of gambling because that is where their profits lie”,
  • “We have done a lot to make the physical gambling environment safer for users, but the online environment remains like the wild west”,
  • “Let us be honest: betting companies disproportionately target low-income demographics and working-class communities”, and
  • “Given that there will be an increase in gambling as a result of this deal—after all, that is why Bet365 has engaged in it—there will also be an increase in problem gambling. That needs to be properly monitored, that monitoring will have a cost and that cost should be paid by Bet365 and the FA” (from a recent former Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport).

Other illuminating exchanges between MPs (posing questions) and the Minister (answering those questions) included the following:

Q1: This is not about sport any more—we have gone way beyond that. This is entirely about gambling. It is not about the love of the game; it is about the unrestricted greed of Bet365 …. People who have identified themselves as suffering from gambling-related harm are being asked to put themselves back in a vulnerable position simply to watch their chosen sports. The Government should stop asking the gambling industry to act; they have to tell the industry what to do. We have to legislate; we cannot kowtow to the industry and let it have authority in this. This place makes the law. The gambling industry has to be brought into line with a completely new gambling Act, and during that process we should consult people who have suffered from gambling-related harm”

A1: “The hon. Gentleman is spot-on. That is another reason why we are going to review the Gambling Act—and the sooner we do so the better as far as I am concerned”.

Q2: What is important are measures that actually tackle problem gambling, rather than virtue signalling in this House. People do not have to place a bet to watch these matches. Is it not typical of the metropolitan, privileged outlook of people in this House that there is no urgent question on people having to pay £100 a month for a Sky subscription to watch football matches? There is no urgent question on people paying £35 a month to BT to watch football matches, but there is one on something that allows working-class people to watch these matches free of charge, because some people in this House do not like gambling. Will the Minister look at all this in the round?”

A2: “I think everybody in this House can agree that problem gambling causes mental health problems. Indeed, this House has heard about—and I have spoken to colleagues about—situations when some of these cases have led to suicide. There is a clear link; mental health problems can lead to problem gambling, and can also be triggered by or made worse by it. The Government and the Gambling Commission have tightened protections, and we have committed to a further review of the Gambling Act, as I said in my response to the urgent question”.

Q3: “Does my hon. Friend agree that all our legislation needs to be fit for purpose for the digital age, especially when it relates to online activities and their impact on health and mental health? Does he also agree that the review of the Gambling Act is not only needed, but urgently needed?”

A3: “I could not agree more”.

Q4: “This issue raises fundamental public policy questions about ethics, fair rules and controls, and the responsibility of the Government to protect the most vulnerable from exploitation. It also fundamentally calls into question the judgment of the FA. The chief executive officer of Bet365, Denise Coates, was paid £277 million in basic salary in the last financial year. Does that not suggest that something is fundamentally wrong with our gambling system and industry, and again highlight the need for fundamental root-and-branch reform?”

A4: “The hon. Lady will not have missed the point that I have made on several occasions: we are going to be reviewing the Act”.

Q5: “There is a mental health crisis for young men in our country, and it is clear that gambling addiction is a major factor in that. Time and again we hear that the gambling companies are investing more funds in tackling problem gambling, but will the Minister update the House on whether this investment has actually had any impact in tackling this issue?”

A5: “I do not have the figures that my hon. Friend refers to, but this is an absolutely crucial issue in the sector of society that he mentions, which appears to be the target for this type of advertising. There is indeed a huge crisis in gambling addiction within that age group, and it can lead to some pretty horrific stories that we have heard in this House”

The Betting & Gaming Council has not been slow to respond to the criticisms by MPs, making the following announcement on its website:

Following reports about the media rights for screening FA Cup games, Brigid Simmonds, Chairman of the Betting and Gaming Council, said:

“Our members did not seek exclusivity for the rights to screen FA cup games. They are therefore happy for IMG to offer the rights to screen these games to the Football Association or another appropriate body so that the games can be viewed for free by the public with immediate effect.”

This statement is supported by bet365, GVC, Flutter, William Hill and Kindred.

Further information in the above respects is available on the website. You can download below the Hansard transcript of the Q&A session within the House of Commons. It can also be viewed on parliamentlivetv here.

With confirmation given on behalf of the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (the government department responsible for gambling) that “nothing is off the table” for the government’s forthcoming review of the Gambling Act 2005, it is clear that it will be far from restricted to the issues identified in the background briefing notes to the Queen’s Speech, namely online loot boxes and credit card misuse.

What is also clear is that there are more choppy waters ahead in Parliament for the UK licensed gambling industry.

UPDATE: The BGC has subsequently published a fuller statement in relation to the subject-matter of the Urgent Question. That statement can also be downloaded below.