Odds and ends

Wilf StevensonWilf Stevenson on why the Coalition’s slimmed down Gambling Bill is a missed opportunity

Online gambling was first regulated in the UK in 2007. Since then, all but one of our major online betting companies has moved offshore, avoiding taxation. The consequence has been that these operators are now outside UK regulation, which is unacceptable and needs to be tackled. Labour will support this modest Bill, but we think there are many areas which need to be strengthened; as well as some quite alarming gaps.

Why has this taken so long? After all, it was in 2009 that the then Minister of Sport, Gerry Sutcliffe MP, ordered a review of overseas gambling operators who advertised in the UK. The draft Bill was finally published in December 2012, and the Select Committee published its report on that Bill in May 2013. Four and a half years and four Ministers of Sport later, we have finally got a five-clause Bill that deals with the licensing of remote gambling operators at the point of consumption. Virtually everyone, including large parts of the industry, is in favour of that, and we will be saying so in the Second Reading debate tonight. 

The delay in bringing the Bill forward would be understandable if it addressed many of the issues that have come to light in gambling since 2007, but it does not. To take three examples: Why doesn’t the Bill introduce financial penalties for companies that breach the licensing codes? Why aren’t all operators required to display a kitemark to inform consumers that they are using a UK licensed online operator? And, why isn’t the government taking the opportunity to deal with betting advertised on TV before the 9 pm watershed? 

And there are other omissions which we will try to rectify. 

The European Parliament has recently passed a resolution calling on all EU governments to make match fixing a criminal offence. This is something that had cross-party support during the Olympics and is supported by the Sports Rights Owners Coalition. Labour will therefore look to amend Section 42 of the Gambling Act 2005, as the existing powers on cheating are too loosely defined. And we will also press amendments on spread-betting.

The government is on record saying it would legislate on unclaimed winnings and dormant betting accounts – including bets that are void because the horse did not run, and unclaimed winnings. We all agree that such money should be put to use for good causes, such as treatment for problem gambling. This Bill is surely a golden opportunity to deal with that.

Finally, the issue of overseas betting operators not paying the horse racing levy has been a cause of frustration for successive governments down the years. The horse racing industry suggests they miss out on some £20million each year. But this Bill, in effect, brings online gambling under the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act 1963 in exactly the same way as bricks and mortar betting shops. All parties would like betting operators to pay the levy; and while the government is considering the matter, I hope we will be able to bring remote gambling companies into line with those onshore.

The 2005 Gambling Act was a major piece of legislation that has largely stood the test of time. When put in place, the then Labour government said the issues raised during the legislative debates would be kept under review. It is a great shame therefore that the present Bill does not take the opportunity to deal with some of the other issues that have boiled up in the intervening period. 

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is a Shadow DCMS Minister in the House of Lords

Published 17th December 2013

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