One of the perks of living in a so-called progressive democracy is that we can live our lives pretty much as we like – without breaking any laws, of course.
So attempts to limit these freedoms tend to be met with fierce opposition, and so you can see why the antipathy towards the UK Gambling Commission’s proposed affordability checks for bettors.
The organisation had launched a consultation period back in November, calling for views from the public and industry insiders as to the feasibility of affordability assessments and how these might be carried out.
This has now been extended until February – perhaps in the wake of increasing criticism from many within horse racing, who claim that such proposals will turn punters away from the sport and cost as much as £60 million in lost revenue for the industry.
The issue is so divisive that even Rishi Sunak has waded in – more on that shortly.
What is a Bookmaker’s Affordability Check?
There is plenty of interest in any decision that comes from the Commission’s investigation, but the upshot is that somewhere down the line we might have to prove to our bookie that we can afford to place the bets we wish to make.
How will we do that? Well, it’s likely that some form of supporting evidence – it may be a payslip, a bank statement, a photocopy of a savings account, and so on.
So yes, you can see why the idea of affordability checks is so hapless, and while the vast majority of people in betting and sport are sensitive to the issues of problem gambling, is invading the privacy of anyone who wants to have a flutter really the answer?
The other assumption is that your chosen bookmaker will be building a file of sorts on you, taking a closer interest in your betting habits. When any red flags emerge, be it the volume of bets you are placing or the amount being wagered, it will presumably trigger some kind of signal and you will be probed accordingly.
Most alarmingly, a blanket affordability figure of £100 per month is being discussed that would limit a large number of punters’ wagers to that sort of staking figure – a simply unacceptable breach of our personal liberty, and devastating for the small number of people for whom betting is their primary source of income.
This is about protecting vulnerable parties from harming themselves financially in the midst of problematic behaviour, and for that the Commission should be applauded as they continue to improve the integrity of the industry.
But are there not any more effective ways to do this? And should the Commission be limiting the freedom of every single punter in doing so?
It should be pointed out that nothing has been set in stone as yet, and Tim Miller – the executive director of the UKGC – was quick to point out that the time is for an ‘open discussion’ with all stakeholders and members of the public having their say. “Whilst some operators have continued to improve their customer interaction processes, our evidence shows that many online operators are not setting thresholds for action at appropriate levels. They are not taking the appropriate action or acting quickly enough when they do identify risks of potential harm,” he said.
“But we want to have an open discussion with the gambling industry, consumers, people with lived experience and other stakeholders, to ensure we strike the right balance between allowing consumer freedom and ensuring that there are protections in place to prevent gambling harm.”
Cash Out to Help Out?
When he‘s not trying to find loose change down the back of his sofa to pay for the economic rebuild in the UK, Rishi Sunak is all ears when it comes to raising much needed cash.
One is the taxation imposed upon bookmakers, and that will surely take a hit if intrusive affordability measures are introduced that turn punters away from the game.
So, understandably, he’s been receptive to criticism of the plot, and confirmed that he would speak to Oliver Dowden – the Culture Secretary – about the concerns of those in the industry and in horse racing, who claim the affordability checks could cost the sport £60 million in lost levy donations.
Catterick racecourse is part of the Chancellor’s constituency, and John Sanderson – chief of the course – was delighted that Sunak was receptive to a letter he had penned. “Catterick sent him a letter as suggested by the Racecourse Association because he is our MP and we had a very quick, very positive and friendly response saying he would raise the matter and that he had contacted the secretary of state at the DCMS,” Sanderson said.
“Affordability is a big worry as it is estimated to take £60m out of racing.”
Other political figures have been moved to action, including Conor McGinn, the Labour MP for St Helens North whose patch covers Haydock Park. “Like other MPs across parliament who have racecourses or racing interests in their constituency, I’ve been contacted by Haydock, who share a view across racing that some of the conjecture around affordability checks – if even anywhere near true – would be absolutely devastating for racing and its finances, and furthermore seem completely unworkable in the context of betting on horseracing,” he said.
Reform and additional safety measures to combat problem gambling are welcome. But are affordability checks really the way to go?