UK Election Casts Shadow Over White Paper Reforms

May 28, 2024
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With several elements of the UK white paper yet to be fully implemented, do suspended animation in Westminster and a potential change of government threaten these reforms?
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With several elements of the UK white paper yet to be fully implemented, do suspended animation in Westminster and a potential change of government threaten these reforms?

The UK is headed to the polls on July 4, after a rain-soaked Rishi Sunak called a general election in a speech in front of 10 Downing Street last Wednesday (May 22).

The announcement set a hard deadline for lawmaking activity for the end of Friday (May 24), after which parliament is prorogued, meaning it ceases all business before being officially dissolved this coming Thursday (May 30).

The next parliament will not be able to pass legislation until late July at the earliest, once a new government has been sworn in and a new Speaker has been elected.

Weeks of frenzied campaigning remain until polling day, but Sunak’s Conservative Party is 22 percentage points behind Labour in the polls and it seems likely that there will be a new party in power post-election.

That throws more uncertainty onto pending gambling reforms. In particular, recently announced plans to change land-based machine rules.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) announced last week that it had approved plans to allow small casinos to quadruple the number of machines on their premises.

However, updating the rules requires amendments to the Gambling Act itself, where machine entitlements are enshrined in law, meaning they are now in limbo after parliament ceased work on Friday.

It will be up to a new government when, or if, to submit the amendments and there is real fear among the UK’s land-based sector that the reforms will be delayed or forgotten about by a new administration.

“A snap general election was always the biggest risk to getting the gambling white paper reforms passed into law,” said John Bollom, president of trade group Bacta.

"I am asking every Bacta member to contact their parliamentary candidates — especially the Labour Party candidates — to encourage them to support the land-based gambling reforms,” he said.

New website blocking powers being awarded to the Gambling Commission are even more imperilled.

The Criminal Justice Bill, which contains the new powers, was not among the legislation rushed through in the final days of Sunak’s leadership and is set to be completely abandoned.

With parliament dissolving, the UK has also entered a period known as purdah, during which civil servants are instructed to limit their external communications over fears they could be seen to be influencing the election.

That likely shuts down the prospect of all but the most pressing announcements from either the Gambling Commission or DCMS and could affect the consultation on the statutory levy, which is still ongoing.

Under plans unveiled in October, operators would be expected to pay a portion of revenue to a safer gambling fund administered by the National Health Service. The fee for online gambling operators is set at 1 percent of yearly gross gambling yield.

Officials at the DCMS said they are still scrutinising consultation responses and although an official line on the government’s plans had been expected in the late spring or summer, that could now be delayed.

The prospect of a delay was greeted with horror by some safer gambling experts.

“As National Advisor on Gambling Harms I am calling for cross-party support of pre-election publication by DCMS,” said psychiatrist Henrietta Bowden-Jones on X.

“We need the implementation of the levy to allow for a safe delivery of national treatment for gambling disorder. Lives are at risk and we cannot delay. It is not safe.”

The build-up to the general election is not expected to affect those white paper measures that have already been consulted on.

That means no change to the implementation of financial vulnerability checks that will be implemented in two stages in August and February.

The ongoing pilot of the more intense and controversial financial risk assessments is also expected to continue running throughout the election and should conclude sometime in the autumn.

However, the rollout of these risk assessments will rest in the hands of the new government and a potential Labour administration would have no ties to the well-worn promise of “frictionless” checks — a condition that the Conservative ministers have promised will be met before the affordability policy becomes mandatory.

The two parties are not seen as wildly divergent on gambling policy in general, but the more radical campaigning MPs have tended to come from Labour and the party would have a clean slate to approach affordability on its terms if elected.

Questions have already begun to swirl around the white paper's commitment to create a gambling ombudsman. It remains uncertain whether a voluntary industry-led body will be established or if a statutory body will be set up to handle gambler complaints.

That uncertainty is unlikely to dissipate in the immediate aftermath of the election, until a new government makes its position clear, although the concept of an ombudsman began its political life as a proposal championed by former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson. 

Watson belonged to the shadow cabinet of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a faction that has been effectively marginalised by current leader Sir Keir Starmer.

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