October 23, 2019

Won’t somebody please think of the children?

At 6pm on Tuesday 26th February 2019, in Committee Room 12 of the Houses of Parliament, the Parliamentary All Party Betting & Gaming Group hosted a seminar entitled ‘Are children really gambling? And if they are, what needs to be done about it’. To discuss this contentious topic were a highly eminent panel; David Williams, Director of Public Affairs, Rank Group, Ben Haden, Programme Director for Insight, Gambling Commission, Richard Flint, Executive Chairman, Sky Betting & Gaming and Lee Willows, CEO, Youth Gamblers Education Trust: YGAM. In the Chair was the Group’s Co-Chair, Philip Davies, Conservative MP for Shipley.

For those of you who don’t know about Parliamentary All Party Groups, they are groups of backbenchers (those without Ministerial office) from both the House of Commons and House of Lords who are interested in a particular topic, such as foreign country, a particular industry or even a specific policy who get together to discuss and learn more about it. An analogy would be a university debating society. 

The Parliamentary All Party Betting & Gaming Group’s mission statement is ‘To act as a forum for the discussion of issues concerning betting and gaming in the UK’. The Group maintains a view that gambling should be legal and well-regulated but beyond that, encompasses a wide spectrum of beliefs into the extent and scope of gambling provision that should be allowed. The Group regularly meets with stakeholders in the industry and has a regular seminar series where Parliamentarians and members of the industry can come and hear gambling industry topics debated by the experts in the field.  

I have had the honour of being the Group’s Secretariat for the last 12 years and it is my job to put together the meetings and seminars and to keep the Group’s members up to date with what is going on in the gambling industry. It is for that reason we looked at children and gambling and it is also for that reason that I must most now vehemently state that all my comments from now on are purely my own and in no way reflect the opinions of the Group’s members or any of our guest speakers.

My reason for choosing the topic of children and gambling was that it epitomised to me how there are certain tropes about gambling that are repeatedly used to attack it as an industry and as a recreational pursuit. Hence this article’s title, unashamedly stolen from The Simpsons who would often have a very conservatively dressed woman screaming ‘think of the children’, then swooning when anything even remotely adult orientated was proposed. The suggestion being that there was a moral majority who believed that children should be cocooned from all aspects of life that are considered ‘adult’, whether that be swearing, sex, alcohol, drugs or gambling. 

Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe that having age limits for adult pursuits are a very good thing and children should be prevented from indulging in them as an activity. What I don’t agree with is the idea that children should not be educated about adult (and by that we mean risky) activity, as I believe this helps them deal with such issues responsibly when these events arise. It is no coincidence that the incidence of underage pregnancy is less in countries that have successful sex education and early years, similarly with drugs and alcohol. It is no coincidence also that I am such a big supporter of YGAM who such sterling work teaching kids and young adults about the risks (and the fun) of gambling

What has raised my shackles has been the way the gambling industry’s eco-system (its regulator, government department and some associated charities) have not only misrepresented the number of children gambling but also seem willing to argue that children should not even be aware of gambling as an activity based on the evidence-free idea that just by sampling its delights in an amateur fashion, the only possible outcome will be a future generation of gambling addicts. If this logic were true, then the famed French practice of giving their children diluted wine to taste would have generated a population of alcoholics centuries ago. 

The major villain is the Gambling Commission and their publication of a report; ‘Young People and Gambling 2018’ in November of last year. This was the basis for our seminar’s discussion,

the transcripts of which are available from the website (www.apbbg.org). Unfortunately they only cover the speeches and not the question and answer session. While these speeches include sterling critiques of the Commission’s report by Richard Flint from Sky Betting & Gaming and David Williams of Rank Group, what you won’t be able to read is Philip Davies’s take down of the Commission in the way they published the report.

To provide some background, the Gambling Commission commissioned a highly credible survey of gambling habits of young people up to and including the age of 16. What they then did can only be called a brazenly political attack on the industry which only goes to further evidence how much the Commission is in breach of the Regulators Code which obliges them to ‘carry out their activities in a way that supports those they regulate to comply and grow’.  The report, upon publication, was given exclusively to the Daily Mail. It was written in such a way that the headlines provided a sensational story of children gambling while the detail proved otherwise. It was almost like a third rate hack had written it for a tabloid hatchet job on the industry and then given it to the newspaper famed for its tabloid hatchet jobs. 

According to the Commission, 14% of 11-16 year olds had spent their own money on gambling in the past week. What they were happy for the Daily Mail to ignore, especially as it’s not prominently written in the report, is that the majority of those children were gambling completely legally, between themselves or by buying National Lottery tickets. The actual number illegally gambling was less than 2% and that was down on previous years. Also not written up, possibly due to its lack of prominence within the report was the fact that of those children who were actually gambling illegally, the majority were doing it with the connivance of their parents.

It is plain to see that the Gambling Commission actively allowed their report on children’s gambling to be misinterpreted by the press in order for the gambling industry to be attacked unfairly. I do recommend that you read the transcripts from the seminar session and see how the Commission had little to say in response to this accusation and take it from me, in the Q&A they had nothing to say either. If there was such blatant bias against an industry by its regulator in any other industry, there would be far more outrage.

What the Commission infers in their speech is they are concerned about children’s gambling activity in general, so the fact that children play gambling style games is a concern to them. Now, look at Tom Watson MP, the Campaign for Fairer Gambling funded Labour spokesman on gambling who has campaigned against gambling firms’ sponsorship of football shirts because children, in his mind and going against all evidence, will become problem gamblers if they merely see a brand name. Also consider a report by the Advertising Standards Authority on ‘Normalcy’ where they include children and gambling as an issue for further consideration. Yet again, this is not about letting children gamble with licensed gambling operators, this is about a picture building up of the industry’s eco-system taking a position that even the slightest exposure to gambling by children is something to be regulated against.

Where this leads us is the tobacco route. Absolutely no advertising or sponsorship is the least of it. Its an end to seaside amusements and the subsequent death of seaside towns. Its pubs having the machines removed unless they ban children and their food service. Its racecourses banning children and so ending the next generation of racegoers. And for what?? The mistaken belief that children are made of glass. We all have spent the last 50 years with betting shops on the high street, ten years with gambling TV advertising and football shirt sponsorship and a thousand years with children playing gambling style games and has the number of problem gamblers increased – No.

We hope in the Parliamentary All Party Betting & Gaming Group’s seminars to address the contentious issues of the day and I, speaking in a purely personal capacity, look forward to our panel members and Chair calling out the political machinations of the regulator and the ever increasingly un-evidenced anti-gambling stance of the eco-system. Please do apply to be put on our mailing list.

Steve Donoughue, MBA
As featured in Gambling Insider

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