UK MPs From Racing Areas Rail Against Affordability

February 27, 2024
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Several UK lawmakers representing constituencies with ties to the horseracing industry have called for affordability checks to be scrapped due to the risk of players going to the black market and the imposition on personal freedoms. 
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Several UK lawmakers representing constituencies with ties to the horseracing industry have called for affordability checks to be scrapped due to the risk of players going to the black market and the imposition on personal freedoms.

Gambling minister Stuart Andrew MP welcomed a Westminster debate that lasted for several hours on affordability checks on February 26, when he finally spoke after his fellow lawmakers had made their cases. 

Andrew said the checks represent a “significant improvement”, quoting a GambleAware study that three out of five adults support the checks.

He acknowledged that the checks should not “overregulate the gambling sector, not unduly disrupt the millions of people that gamble without harm, and should not cause unnecessary damage to sectors that rely on betting, in particular horseracing”.

Andrew ultimately defended the planned checks but added it is important to not “skip ahead” to full implementation “until we get the details right”.

He also said that he takes the threat of the black market "very seriously" and reiterated that proposed changes to the Criminal Justice Bill will extend the Gambling Commission's powers to block illegal websites when it is passed through parliament. 

When asked if horseracing would be carved out of the checks like lottery gambling, Andrew said that those experiencing harm often use multiple products including horse race betting.

Towards the start of the debate, former minister Matt Hancock MP, whose constituency includes the Newmarket racecourse, warned: “We are making a mistake and we must stop and start again.”

Hancock argued the government’s pledge of “frictionless checks” has been wrongly interpreted by the Gambling Commission to mean “frictionless for the vast majority”.

He believes checks could cause harm as they would push consumers to unregulated black market gambling sites, “which has a huge impact on horseracing and gambling harm”.

Hancock said he is “extremely tough” on games of chance, supporting £2 online stake limits for all consumers, but is convinced checks will, and already do, “lead to worse problems, not better”.

Philip Davies MP warned of the check's impacts on individual freedoms, challenging the “completely unacceptable” current thresholds set out by the Gambling Commission. 

Davies also questioned why the government does not ask customers of other industries such as retail or alcohol if they have enough money, a sentiment reiterated by several other MPs during the debate. 

However, Davies would not defend bookmakers, whom he accused of being the most “guilty of all” for banning punters that back too many winners, saying “until they abandon that anti-punter mentality what they do on this issue will always be subject to some level of ridicule”.

Similarly, Chris Grayling, the MP for Epsom and Ewell, which is also home to a racecourse, expressed concern that the introduction of checks could have an “enormous” impact on the horseracing training industry in his constituency. 

“There is a genuine concern around things like online casinos, but tackling those must not be at the expense of the racing industry that is so important to so many communities across the country,” Grayling said. 

Kate Kniveton, the MP for Burton, home to the Uttoxeter racecourse, is also concerned that an annual £500 net loss threshold would mean many people face “intrusive checks” and said they should instead be focused on people “most vulnerable to harm”.

However, Christina Rees MP, who led the debate, explained that the idea of introducing checks is not new and the need for regulation against harmful betting is supported by the industry and consumers alike. 

“The issue seems to be that such checks need to be frictionless without impact on punters or operator revenue and without pushing vulnerable customers to the black market”, calling on the minister to explain how frictionless checks will work and when a pilot scheme for checks will be introduced, Rees said.

Several MPs who frequently push for more restrictions on the gambling industry also argued for financial risk checks during the debate.

Carolyn Harris MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm  (APPG), explained her support for the checks is driven by her desire to protect vulnerable people and that arguments against checks were being used as a “scare-mongering tactic” by the gambling industry to make possible checks appear more intrusive than they are. 

Harris argued that evidence shows that the thresholds could be set at a lower level, but added that punters at bingo halls and horseracing tracks should be treated differently from online gambling. 

Ronnie Cowan MP, also a member of the APPG, reiterated that only around 20 percent of customers are expected to face affordability checks, adding that the threat of the black market has been “overstated by the industry and must be kept in proportion”.

“The argument follows that if we want to prevent the growth of black market regulation to prevent incidences of harm that lead to addiction is a solution to eliminating the demand for a black market, not the cause. Harm prevention means fewer addicts, fewer self-exclusions, and fewer attempts to circumvent the regulated market in the first place,” Cowan said.

Racing industry concerns

In September 2023, Gambling Commission chief executive Andrew Rhodes criticised the Racing Post in an open letter, claiming the racing publication’s “imbalanced” coverage was leading readers to “misunderstandings” about the impact of betting affordability checks.

The London-based publication, which was cited by Davies, has continuously campaigned against financial risk checks, saying bettors would move to the black market or stop betting if asked to supply payslips and bank statements to prove they can afford their bets.

The petition that triggered Monday’s debate was submitted by Nevin Truesdale, the CEO of The Jockey Club, and gathered more than 103,300 signatures, passing the 100,000 required to trigger a debate in parliament.

In a statement on February 22, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) said there has been “little opportunity for MPs to scrutinise such significant changes to gambling regulations which, if introduced, could cost the sport of horseracing up to £50m per annum”.

“It is therefore vital that as many MPs as possible attend the debate so that this important issue is subject to the appropriate level of parliamentary scrutiny,” the BHA said.

Gambling Commission next steps

The Gambling Commission announced its approach to financial risk checks and details of a planned pilot scheme for enhanced checks ahead of the debate in parliament.

“Frictionless, light-touch financial vulnerability checks” will be implemented in two stages, Tim Miller, the executive director of research and policy at the Gambling Commission, wrote in a blog post on February 22.

These checks to identify potentially vulnerable customers will look into unpaid debt and bankruptcy “only using publicly available data”. This means they will not require operators to ask for personal details such as postcode or job title.

Miller said: “To ease the introduction of these checks they will initially come into force at a higher threshold for a short period of time, before reverting to a lower threshold later in the year to smooth implementation for consumers. The details of this will be set out in the full response document.”

Enhanced financial risk checks appear somewhat trickier to implement, as they require reference data triggered by “unusually high loss levels where the risks are greater”.

Following the consultation on these checks, Miller said the Gambling Commission decided a pilot scheme is required to “test the details of data-sharing in practice, working with credit reference agencies and gambling businesses, thinking always about what this means for the consumer”.

“Our approach is that consumers should not be affected during a pilot period to make sure that we can refine the data-sharing processes before the assessments are rolled out in a live environment,” Miller said.

The Gambling Commission will introduce a requirement in the Licence Conditions and Codes of Practice to allow the data-sharing needed and build in data protection requirements.

The pilot is expected to run for four to six months and will see how operators' data sharing works but they will not have to act on the data they receive, instead they will rely on their existing procedures during the pilot.

Data gathered from the pilot will help inform the final thresholds with further details given within the regulator’s full consultation response.

Miller added that five principles will guide the commission’s actions, including considering all issues that arise during the pilot stage, checks are frictionless for the vast majority, an overall customer interaction process that can help customers who are at risk of harm and ensure additional controls and protections are in place to tackle harm.

Additionally, “a pilot approach is separate to the formal evaluation of the policy which is a distinct and important longer-term process — understanding consumer perspectives and experiences is a vital part of this longer-term evaluation”, according to Miller.

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