The new UK gambling minister has endorsed a view that gambling should not be treated like tobacco and that regulators should engage with the industry to help develop policy.
In his first public appearance under the unofficial title of gambling minister, Paul Scully revealed next to nothing about a hot industry topic, the white paper.
Scully, a Conservative MP, is the fifth gambling minister to be charged with developing a white paper that will launch an update of the 2005 Gambling Act.
Scully, as many officials before him, promised the white paper “in the coming weeks”.
“That’s not code,” he joked, “I want to make sure this gets done ASAP.”
He was appearing in London on Wednesday (November 23) at the annual meeting of bacta, the amusement industry trade group. He praised members as being key to the tourism industry and for launching measures such as safer gambling training.
Scully appeared on a panel with speakers who were highly critical of the Gambling Commission, such as Regulus Partners’ consultant Dan Waugh, who said it was “no longer morally neutral” and was acting with a “clearly prohibitionist agenda”.
A 21st century debate is whether the gambling industry should be regulated like tobacco, considered harmful even in small doses, or like alcohol, considered acceptable if steps are taken to minimise harm.
Regulating it like tobacco suggests severe restrictions on marketing, but alcohol regulations allow advertising, albeit with restrictions, health warnings and licensing of merchants.
Scully said the government was wrong not to engage with the tobacco industry, which could have been helpful in suppressing black market or counterfeit cigarettes.
Likewise with gambling regulators, “if you’ve got your head in the sand because you’re being dogmatic, you inevitably end up with a bad solution”.
Arcades feature coin pushers or crane grabbers, which are low-stakes but nonetheless regulated by the Gambling Commission, while adult gaming centres and bingo venues have B3 machines, which have maximum £2 stakes and £500 prizes.
Bacta members raised other issues pertinent to its industry, which includes seaside arcades, so-called fruit machines in pubs and adult gaming centres.
Arcade machines are not allowed to take debit cards, which rankles an industry which sees other sectors of retailing increasingly going cashless.
Scully offered no immediate consolation. “I will take that under advisement,” he said.
Later, Gambling Commission policy director Ian Angus pointed out that the regulator had allowed a trial of cashless payments through an app, which includes features such as age verification, time and spending reminders and safer betting limits.
He praised bacta’s voluntary code, which commits to curb losses disguised as wins and better information.
But he asked for changes to remove auto-play provisions and to set ways to display a player’s net spending and play time.
The gambling industry as a whole has performed poorly, Angus said, citing £45m in fines against 16 operators so far this year. That compares to £1.7m in penalties against three operators in the 2016-17 fiscal year, he said.
None of the fines were against the arcades industry, Angus said, but added “there are no circumstances under which it is acceptable for an operator to prioritise commercial considerations over compliance”.
He noted that player numbers in arcades and land-based slots have rebounded this year from last, but have not reached pre-pandemic levels.
Angus said the regulator seeks to collaborate on raising standards of compliance.
But he closed with a “fundamental truth”: “As a regulator, we can’t please everyone, all of the time. As our CEO Andrew Rhodes often notes — if you want to be in the business of making people happy, then it’s probably best not to be in the business of regulating the gambling industry.”