Who is John Whittingdale? The Government Announces Head of their Gambling Law Review

Official portrait of John WhittingdaleAs has been mentioned on these pages quite regularly in recent months, the government is well underway with their review of their laws relating to gambling in the UK.

As we saw with the Budget this week, Boris and co are yet to really get stuck into the Great British public as yet with anticipated tax increases largely put on the backburner, and so they will be desperately seeking ways to bring in some much needed income to the country’s coffers.

And that brings us full circle to the review of the Gambling Act. Betting firms are a source of consistently high tax revenue for the government’s coffers, and you wonder if they will keep any regulatory changes to a minimum – putting extra pressures on how these firms can operate, such as tighter affordability checks which could turn punters away, might be considered something of an own goal by those who update the Excel spreadsheets on Downing Street.

Interestingly, the figurehead for the gambling review has been named as John Whittingdale, a Conservative MP with a fairly liberal approach to the industry.


The Spin Doctor

John Whittingdale in Downing Street

Credit: wfpa / bigstock

Having reigned as the ruling MP in the constituency of Maldon since 1992, Whittingdale is considered something of a safe pair of hands by the government.

Previously fired by Theresa May for his outspoken pro-Brexit views, the 61-year-old has served as the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and so he does have experience in the field.

What is surprising is that Whittingdale, despite being a Conservative very much with a capital C, is actually pro gambling, and has made his stance pretty clear on several occasions now.

In the past he suggested that fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) should be allowed at motorway service stations and amusement arcades – a proposal later shot down by his fellow ministers. When told that FOBTs were the ‘crack cocaine of the gambling industry’ by campaigners, Whittingdale replied that the machines are ‘barely the cannabis of the gambling industry.’

In 2014, he asserted in a House of Commons debate that it was ‘virtually impossible’ to lose large sums of money playing on the terminals – that suggests naivety of the highest order or simply a complete mis-education….both of which are terrifying given his new role.

Whittingdale has also voted against the tightening of gambling regulation in the past, and so you can see why campaigners are so angered by his appointment. He will replace the previous incumbent, Nigel Huddleston, in overseeing the study into potential law changes.

A Voting Pattern

Houses of Parliament

You can see why there’s concern that the review of possible gambling law changes can no longer be fair and impartial – particularly when you consider Whittingdale’s voting record in Parliament.

Back in 2013, he voted against a motion that would have seen gambling firms have to ban players that have registered for a self-exclusion scheme, and he also voted against the need for gambling brands to apply for planning permission prior to being allowed to open high street betting shops.

No word has been given by government officials as to why Huddleston has stepped aside from the study, although pressures caused by Covid and its impact on sport and culture – which he oversees – are likely to be the cause.</p.

But Whittingdale as a successor? The government is adamant that he is a responsible choice. “The minister [Whittingdale] fully supports the comprehensive, evidence-led review of the gambling act to ensure that legislation is fit for the digital age,” a spokesperson decreed.

Carolyn Harris, the Labour MP, is just one opponent of Whittingdale’s appointment, and she has said that she hopes ‘he [Whittingdale] will be focused on the evidence and not influenced by aggressive industry lobbying.’

A Conservative Vision

Conservative Party Logo

While not necessarily a household name for casual observers of UK politics, Whittingdale is considered to be a reasonably senior figure in the Tory Party.

He acted as vice chairman of the 1922 Committee, and has sat on the Conservative Way Forward committee – a steering group that takes many of its cues from the politics of Margaret Thatcher.

A key aide to David Cameron, Whittingdale served as the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport from May 2015, although he was only in the role little over a year before the subsequent PM Theresa May gave him the bullet for being such an outspoken backer of Brexit. He was a member of the Leave Means Leave campaign group.

As well as his pro-gambling stance, Whittingdale also once voted against the Equal Pay Bill, which would have required large companies to declare the pay gap between their male and female workers.

A curious fellow indeed….