Loaded dice

Online betting has stimulated a huge boom in gambling – and gambling addiction.

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Look up “betting” on Google, and the list of links is prefaced by an offer of a £50 free bet for new customers of a business called Betway. Betway’s website proclaims: “Best Odds on 30,000 Markets. Online Betting Specials. Live Streaming & In-Play Betting. Money Back [sic] Specials. Accumulator Betting. Cash Out Betting.”

There are live odds on every sport one can think of and some one cannot. When I visited, the list started with darts, cricket and cycling. Football is there, as is tennis, and something called “eSports”, or computer games. One eventually finds horse racing and greyhounds, golf and motorsport, but also baseball and volleyball. Want to bet on netball, handball, judo or other martial arts? Or on sports of which your uneducated writer has never even heard, such as bandy and pesäpallo? Betway is for you.

Or, if you don’t fancy Betway, other betting sites crowd the internet. The seven big players – William Hill, Paddy Power, Betfair, Ladbrokes, Bwin.party, 888 and GVC Holdings – own many of them. Revenue from online gambling is expected to reach £3.22bn this year (an estimated £1.3bn goes through betting shops). The government rakes in £400m a year from online betting, having in 2014 changed the basis of taxation of online bookies from point of supply to point of consumption, so it is not only the bookmaker who wins.

The social consequences have yet to be entirely grasped. Official figures actually show fewer people gambling than a few years ago, but that among the 18-24 age group the numbers have risen by 5 per cent. Successive governments have encouraged betting, not least New Labour, whose 2005 Gambling Act made it easy for online gambling to flourish and to advertise its services too. John Major’s administration had set the tone by establishing the National Lottery in 1994. More than 30 million people play it each week, the organisers say, and nearly 4,000 millionaires have been “created” since 1994. Most regular lottery players will lose around £150 a year, a trifling sum compared with what can be lost through online betting.

Perhaps nine or ten million Britons gamble online annually. Charities that help addicted punters claim that a million are “problem gamblers”, half a million of whom are serious addicts. The British Gambling Prevalence Survey noted in 2013 that a further 2.7 million people showed “some risk factors” of becoming problem gamblers. The NHS’s website claims there are 593,000 addicts. Nor is gambling something that only “blokes” do. More women are becoming problem gamblers. The NHS  warns too not just of the likelihood of gambling addicts resorting to crime, but also the high numbers dependent on drugs and alcohol and suffering from depression.

Betting shops have existed since 1961, when off-course betting was first legalised. Many now contain fixed-odds betting terminals. There are over 33,000 of these, making a profit per machine of around £825 a week, and they have been likened to “crack cocaine”. Televised sport contains a constant barrage of bookmakers’ advertisements. Some gamblers come out ahead of the bookmaker, or the house. They are a minority: bookmakers and casinos exist because, in the end, the house always wins. The masses who now engage in gambling from their sitting rooms and bedrooms seem not to have been let into that secret or, if they have, to have suspended disbelief.

The Gambling Commission, the regulatory body, oversees “organisations and individuals who provide facilities for gambling or advertise gambling products to consumers in Great Britain”. It polices “bingo, betting, lotteries (raffles), gambling in a casino, gaming machines on gambling premises including arcades, and remote gambling (including gambling online)”. Its statutory duties include to “keep crime out of gambling”, to “ensure that gambling is conducted fairly and openly” and, perhaps most significant, “to protect children and other vulnerable people from being harmed or exploited by gambling.”

A Tory peer, Lord Chadlington, has asked questions in the Lords about the prevalence of advertising. Shocked that it was appearing before the watershed – it dominated commercial breaks during last summer’s Sky coverage of the Ashes, for example – and that “free bets” and “free money” advertising offered exceptional inducements to use online bookmakers, he asked what the government was doing to restrict such advertising because of its effect on vulnerable people. He was told that the watershed applied except for “the advertising of sports betting around televised sporting events” – in other words, on sports channels watched by countless under-age people, it did not really apply at all. Bingo and lotteries may also be advertised at any time. An Ofcom report into gambling advertising in November 2013 showed it had risen 600 per cent since deregulation in 2007.

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Sport relies heavily on bookies for sponsorship, and racing is largely funded by it. William Hill sponsors races and meetings, and the newcomer Bet365 is increasingly engaged. Scottish football is now backed by Ladbrokes – the premiership and both leagues – while William Hill sponsors the national team and the Scottish Cup. Ladbrokes also backs the Rugby Football League Challenge Cup. William Hill sponsors the FA Cup, the England national team; and numerous soccer clubs, from Manchester United and Chelsea downwards, have or have had bookmakers or betting firms as backers. Sky Bet sponsors the Football League. Betway (who have taken over sponsorship of the World Snooker Championship) sponsors West Ham’s shirts. Bookmakers also support big European football clubs. Bwin, based in Austria, has helped bankroll Real Madrid and AC Milan. William Hill also sponsors the World Darts Championship and greyhound racing.

In 2014 Test cricket highlights appeared on terrestrial television sponsored by Coral. When one realises how much revenue Sky generated from bookmakers during the Ashes, one sees how it could afford to pay the England and Wales Cricket Board so much for the rights (£260m for a four-year deal in 2013, just extended to 2019), and how dependent cricket, like almost every other major sport, is on gambling. Bet365 has been a partner of Cricket Australia since 2012.

It took Tony Blair’s Gambling Act to make gambling debts recoverable under English law. From 1845 until 1961 gambling was only legal on racecourses. This illiberality was eventually tested from the opposite end of the spectrum, however. In 1958 John Aspinall, who later founded London’s most glamorous casino, the Clermont, patronised by (among others) Lord Lucan, was arrested with two associates – his mother, Lady Osborne (grandmother of the present Chancellor of the Exchequer), and John Burke – for running illegal gaming. The law stipulated that people could gather together and gamble, provided that no one charged for the facilities. Aspinall and Burke set up private parties in Mayfair and Kensington that moved from one house to another each night: but they took 5 per cent of the winnings, which broke the law.

They were rumbled at a flat specially leased by Lady Osborne, and taken to court. The prosecution failed to prove money had changed hands illegally, and all were acquitted. The parties featured chemin-de-fer, and usually began with standard bets of £1,000 – worth around £18,000 today. Yet the participants were all known to each other; they had the money to lose; they paid up and carried on their way; their behaviour may seem idiotic to many of us, but they knew what they were doing. It is a far cry from young people earning the minimum wage or a little above it, or struggling to support a family, squandering cash on online gambling sites, their habits facilitated by loose regulation. 

Casinos of the Aspinall stamp are no problem at all: they usually only admit those known to the house, who have proved their creditworthiness and who, if they choose to lose a fortune, have fortunes to lose. But it would seem to fall within a civilised society’s duty of compassion towards the weak not to make it easy for those with little money to ruin themselves. Some steps would appear obvious, such as restoring the watershed for all television advertisements and regulating more tightly the use of slot machines by under-18s. Last year the Gambling Commission sent under-18s into arcades to play on machines, and half were not challenged about their age.

The bookies’ relentless pursuit of customers might be checked if the 2005 law making gambling debts recoverable were repealed. The government might also like to consider a new code of practice for credit card companies in relation to online bookmakers that might make it harder for huge losses to be racked up by their clients. Also, “free” bets and other such inducements appeal disproportionately to the most vulnerable and should be stopped.

The bookies, the sports they bankroll and the broadcasters know there is a problem. The onslaught of betting advertisements is now punctuated occasionally by one that acknowledges a concept called “bad” betting and recommends that “when the fun stops, stop”. Perhaps the novelty of internet gambling will wear off. If it doesn’t, however, the social and economic consequences could be profound, and for that reason if no other the government should rethink its light-touch regulation before it is too late.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

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