Winning Post: UK’s carry-on Gambling Review goes down Hill…
Regulus Partners reflects on the week that the UK Gambling Review reached its embarrassing slapstick stage, wearing down all industry stakeholders as an Autumn delay beckons the White Paper’s publishing.
The farcical handling of the current stage of Britain’s Gambling Act Review was brought to a fitting conclusion last week as the minister responsible, Chris Philp MP, bowed out with a TV interview on Parliament Green to the accompaniment of the Benny Hill Show theme tune.
Christopher Ian Brian Mynott Philp, Member of Parliament for Croydon South, arrived in post last September – the fourth minister with responsibility for the gambling review since its announcement in December 2019 and the third since its actual launch a year later. While his predecessor, John Whittingdale MP had been seen by some as being too close to the gambling industry, Philp was immediately acclaimed as a kindred spirit by ‘gambling reform’ activists (a consequence of his very public support for the ultimately successful campaign to ban Fixed-odds Betting Terminals).
During his ten months in office, Philp did little to discourage suspicion that his sympathies lay with those seeking to marginalise betting and gaming. He referred on more than one occasion to the “influence” that certain anti-gambling activists had exerted on his conduct of the review. In March, Philp – as the minister responsible for the reform of Britain’s gambling laws – attended an anti-gambling rally to demand ‘gambling reform now’, calling on those assembled to lobby their MPs to lobby him. His rallying cry that “reform is coming and it’s coming soon”, however turned rather flat as a White Paper originally slated for publication in 2021 disappeared into the long summer grass.
Even by the outlandish standards of the administration within which he served and the generally idiosyncratic nature of gambling policy discourse, Philp’s stewardship of the review stood out as bizarre. It was characteristic that his resignation letter appeared to be more about him than about the Prime Minister that he was abandoning or the issues that prompted his decision to join the disaffected. In it, he mentioned his “track record in founding and growing businesses”, his pride that UK tech businesses had raised £12.5 billion in the first five months of the year (an achievement that he somewhat implausibly seemed to attribute to his brief stint in the DCMS). Moving to the Gambling Act Review, he revealed that it “is with No 10 at the moment for final approval” and urged for it to be delivered “in full and undiluted”.
This demand raises interesting points of political etiquette and ministerial responsibility. After all, it was widely understood that the original White Paper, drafted under the oversight of John Whittingdale had been well-advanced at the time of his removal from office last year. It was quite appropriate for Philp to delay its publication in order that he – as minister responsible – could be sure that he understood the issues and agreed with the proposed actions. His insistence that his successor simply rubber-stamps his White Paper smacks of a sense of entitlement.
It may be frustrating – if not perhaps surprising – that the process is taking so long; but given that opportunities for full review roll around once in a generation, coherence warrants precedence over haste. After all, Philp has publicly admitted that his White Paper has been heavily influenced by the deeply unreliable (and in parts thoroughly dishonest) Public Health England review of gambling harms. The next minister would do well to look before leaping.
Of course, if Philp had held his nerve for a few more hours, he would still be in post and would therefore be in position to publish the White Paper – subject to the agreement of whoever happens to be residing in Downing Street at the time. If there is now a further delay, it will be in no small part one of his making.
The Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, who is understood to have little sympathy for betting and gaming, may still choose to publish – but that would leave her on the hook for the fall-out from a review that she has engaged with only slightly. With a further reshuffle coming, now may not be the best time to take risks with the highly charged and deeply controversial political process of gambling reform.
It now looks as though the former Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee chair, Damian Collins (Cons, Folkestone and Hythe) will assume responsibility for the review – along with the Online Safety Bill. Philp may decide to carry on campaigning from the backbenches but he is likely to weigh this against his longer-term aspirations. Some MPs spend their careers in campaigning mode – but this often requires the sacrifice of whatever political ambitions they might hold. As Boris Johnson discovered to his cost this week, obedience is a more prized attribute than zealotry for those who appoint ministers.
Whoever is tasked with overseeing the conclusion of the review would do well to reflect on the wisdom of the late Professor Peter Collins, whose observation that policy-makers “almost all [make] the fatal mistake of thinking that because gambling is pretty unimportant in the great scheme of things it must be easy to regulate” has been vividly demonstrated in recent months.
It should be noted that the White Paper, however strident or circumspect it may be, will be primarily a consultation document. The unwillingness or inability of a caretaker government to pass legislation for a few weeks need not have any impact on its publication or immediate Whitehall-driven next steps. What will matter far more is how strong the next government is and whether the UK’s new PM is committed more to sound legislation and individual rights and responsibilities or populism and big government.
A weak government and/or a populist leader will be very tempted to take the most severe choices available and add further restrictions to the White Paper’s positions regardless of evidence. However, since the opposite is also true, an opportunity for real leadership from the top down has also presented itself.