The British gambling industry is shooting itself in the foot by engaging in a political battle it will never win, according to one of the most effective gambling reform advocates of the past ten years.
Matt Zarb-Cousin, who helms the Clean Up Gambling pressure group alongside leading roles with self-exclusion software Gamban and research group Yield Sec, told an audience of gambling executives they would continue to lose the argument over gambling policy unless they changed their approach.
Zarb-Cousin was one of the leading voices in a successful campaign to cut stakes for fixed-odds betting terminals and pointed to the recent white paper as another example of the continued success of gambling reform voices in UK politics.
“The government ended up going a lot further than we thought [it would]. A lot of the things we campaigned for ended up in there,” he said, speaking at the Reputation Matters conference in London on Thursday (October 26).
“The levy, affordability checks, stake limits on online slots, the ombudsman … these are all things we’ve been pushing for for some time.”
Zarb-Cousin put the success of reform advocates down, in part, to an error by pro-industry lobbyists in engaging with a political debate on gambling in the court of public opinion.
“The way the gambling industry has been represented has not helped their case. You have to be what you want the debate to be. When there’s a lot of spin attached to the rhetoric, you are endorsing that kind of debate.”
In many quarters the gambling industry is deeply unpopular, he said. Zarb-Cousin pointed to recent research by the Social Market Foundation which suggested that 30 percent of the public are in favour of an outright ban on online gambling.
Zarb-Cousin was clear that his group does not support any kind of ban, but said that in the context of that hostile climate and a national media that is happy to run negative stories about gambling company misdeeds, a hard-talking political campaign was always doomed to fail.
“If you end up in that polarised state, it’s going to be the ones who shout loudest that win, and that’s going to be the reformers. They have the media and the politicians.”
With the white paper now published, Zarb-Cousin has partially turned his attention to the United States, where he and the Campaign for Fairer Gambling founder Derek Webb are pushing for a federal gambling harm levy.
At home in the UK he is working with Yield Sec and the Gambling Commission on research that could allow the regulator to accurately gauge the scale of the black market.
Elsewhere at the conference, the conversation was dominated by plans for the UK to mandate financial risk checks.
A consultation on affordability checks closed on October 18, with the Gambling Commission currently considering the submissions it received before announcing its plans for the future.
However, it has already committed to establishing a working group and gambling minister Stuart Andrew has said the government will not allow the new rules to be rolled out until they are truly “frictionless” for the vast majority of gamblers.
Executives from leading gambling companies said they remain concerned about the details of the proposals, but are pleased that the commission has engaged with them on some challenges caused by the reality of mandated financial risk checks.
“I’m quietly confident that it’s going in the right direction,” said Grainne Hurst, the corporate affairs director at Entain. “I think there are movements from both the commission and the industry to meet in the middle and solve some of the key problems, but we still have a lot to do.”