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POLITICS in PUBS Newcastle

Risking it all: the freedom to gamble
Notes from meeting held on 11 July 2023
Introduction by Jon Bryan
Chair: Caspar Hewett, Director, The Great Debate

Do people need state intervention to protect them from 'gambling harm'? Or is the threat to individual freedom and privacy a greater risk? PiP Newcastle met at The Telegraph pub to discuss what is really at stake in the Government's crackdown on gambling.

The introductory talk was given by Jon Bryan, a Newcastle resident and recreational poker player who has written and spoken widely about gambling to challenge the one-sided narrative. Betting and gambling in the UK is regulated by the Gambling Act of 2005, but this is currently under review to ensure it is fit for the digital age of online gambling. A four-month consultation in early 2021 received over 16,000 responses, leading to the publication of a white paper on proposed reforms in April 2023.

Jon argued that everyone, whether they like a flutter or not, should be concerned about these proposals due to their implications for individual choice and liberty.

One recommendation is that operators should investigate customers' financial circumstances to determine if their gambling is likely to be harmful to them and enable tailored interventions. Jon described this as a hideously illiberal idea. Aside from concerns about data privacy, the notion that people cannot be trusted to decide how to spend their own money has wider repercussions. If we accept this, public bodies could become more ambitious and seek to intrude on our spending decisions in other areas 'for our own good'.

Other proposals relate to promotion and advertising, such as tougher restrictions on direct marketing, the removal of sponsors' logos from football players' shirts and the statutory inclusion of safer gambling messaging in advertisements. It is remarkable, said Jon, that a Conservative government would act to restrict companies from marketing their products to consumers.

Most forms of licensed gambling are already illegal for under 18s, but the proposals seek to introduce new restrictions for 18-24 year olds such as lower thresholds for financial risk checks and lower maximum stakes. While it is sensible to protect children from gambling, the current proposals attempt to extend childhood and to infantilize adults. Jon highlighted the issue of prejudice and biased messaging around gambling. Half of the UK's adult population engage in some form of gambling every month. The level of problem gambling is statistically stable and low, affecting 0.2% of the adult population in 2022. Despite this, the media and political classes exaggerate gambling harm, emphasizing occasional tragic stories as a pretext for changes to legislation. This gives a false perception and fails to acknowledge that there is nothing inherently problematic in gambling, and that millions of people gain huge enjoyment from it as a social activity. Reduction of harmful gambling is important but can only be achieved through a balanced approach and an understanding of the benefits as well as the harms.

Jon concluded with the warning that accepting restrictions in this area of life could set a precedent for their introduction elsewhere. In a free society, individuals need to be able to make their own choices and live with the consequences.

The ensuing debate was lively and interesting. Despite being a small group, there was a wide range of opinions and of personal experiences. Some knew people who had lost their homes and businesses due to gambling, while two members knew people who had won millions on the lottery - what are the odds on that?!

On the whole, PiPs Newcastle members tend to oppose state intervention and restrictions on liberty. This sentiment prevailed in previous meetings about anti-traffic measures and the UK Government's pandemic response. However, the group was divided on this topic. Some felt that gambling was their 'line in the sand' where state intervention was justified, regardless of implications for freedom of choice. Others, despite never having gambled in their lives, agreed with Jon that the right to gamble should be defended.

The group asked about pushback against the proposed measures. Jon explained that although gambling is a popular pastime and an important contributor to the UK economy, gamblers are a diverse group and their interests are not coherently represented. In contrast, the anti-gambling lobby is very well organized. There is strong advocacy for horse racing, but this is an exception - more needs to be done to question and challenge anti-gambling measures across the sector as a whole.

The question of social class was raised. Gambling transcends class, but it was agreed that working class gamblers were disproportionately targeted by some of the proposed measures and the anti-gambling narrative in general.

Wider societal attitudes to risk and responsibility were discussed. Some felt we were becoming more risk-averse as a society, perhaps due to the rise of the 'laptop class' of people employed in bureaucratic roles in the public sector. This is worrying, as the ability to assess risk and take chances is crucial to a successful and competitive economy. 'We must fight for our right to have a bet' is a difficult rallying call to get behind, said Jon. The division of opinions at this meeting proved him right - not everyone would oppose greater restrictions on gambling. However, there was consensus that the paternalistic tone of the debate around gambling is unwelcome and insidious, implying that the public need to be saved from themselves and that the Government is the one to save us - an implication that the group unanimously rejects!

Paula Lightfoot, 2023

Risking It All: The Freedom to Gamble by Jon Bryan is part of the Letters on Liberty series published by the Academy of Ideas. It is available to order or download here

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