9 July 2021

All bets are off: the Gambling Commission is unfit to oversee the future of the National Lottery

By Andrew Bridgen MP

Gambling remains one of Britain’s favourite leisure activities, and the forthcoming Gambling Act Review has provoked serious debate as to what the future of the industry looks like.

To some, the Government should use the act to squeeze the industry into submission. To myself and many others, a much more nuanced approach is best. 

Yes, the industry must do more to protect those in need. Investing in digital technologies to identify problem gamblers is a start. Overall, encouraging this sort of action, combined with personal responsibility, is the best way to safeguard a favoured British pastime.

Whilst the debate has been robust, its conclusions will count for nothing unless the Government enacts a complete overhaul of the industry regulator.  The Gambling Commission has lost both its CEO and Chairman, replacing the former with a temporary lame duck leader who has zero experience or know-how for the job.  This bizarre appointment is illustrative of an ineffective organisation that acts in the shadows with little impunity. Another obvious example is how the Gambling Commission has presided over the ongoing Fourth National Lottery Licence Competition. 

Perhaps due to the review of the Gambling Act, little attention has been paid to the future of The National Lottery, despite it being the most lucrative contract handed out by the government, with licence up for grabs again later this year. That’s because the Gambling Commission has gagged bidders from communicating their plans for the lottery, while allowing the incumbent Camelot – owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund – to max out marketing spend throughout the competition.

The Gambling Commission is stifling free debate surrounding the future of an institution that is vital to the social fabric of this country. They’re doing so because they are desperate to prevent a spotlight being shone on failings that have happened under their watch. 

Camelot’s profits have surged exponentially compared to a measly growth in returns to good causes. These profits are fuelled by scratch cards and instant win games – under the Gambling Commission’s framework, a smaller percentage of the sales of these products go back to good causes compared to traditional draw-based games. 

This ultimately means that under Camelot’s stewardship and the Gambling Commission’s watch, fewer people are playing the lottery. Instead, record revenues are being generated by the exploitation of a smaller pool of players, who are maxing out their spend on games that are increasingly reminiscent of addictive online casinos. 

The Gambling Commission isn’t just stopping bidders from communicating to the public how they would do things differently – they are also preventing political debate. This month, the APPG on Gambling Related Harm attempted to hold a hearing on the process and invited Camelot and each bidder to testify, including Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell, Italian operator Sisal, Allwyn, a subsidiary of the Czech conglomerate SAZKA Group, and Indian operator Sugal & Damani. Erroneously, yet not unsurprisingly, the bidders were ultimately blocked from participating by The Gambling Commission.

The competition isn’t being run on a level playing field. If the Gambling Commission is afraid of Camelot’s record being scrutinised because of how it reflects on them, then they are unlikely to award the licence to a different and potentially more capable operator for the same reason: it would be an admission of failure. 

Whilst the Gambling Commission may believe they can run roughshod over an APPG, they can’t prevent proper parliamentary scrutiny of their record. The DCMS Select Committee, which has been extremely effective under the chairmanship of Julian Knight, should call an immediate inquiry into The Fourth National Lottery Licence Competition and the Gambling Commission’s conduct.

All bets are off: the future of the National Lottery is simply too important for the thousands of shopkeepers, charities, sports stars and local communities who depend on it for this process to continue under the Gambling Commission’s watch. 

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Andrew Bridgen is MP for North West Leicestershire.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.