Gambling Advertising - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 2:17 pm ar 25 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee 2:17, 25 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords, including the Minister, who are taking part in this debate. I declare my interest as chairman of Peers for Gambling Reform, which was set up to press for the implementation of the recommendations made by the Lords committee on gambling. I am delighted that very many of those recommendations, either in whole or in part, were included in the Government’s White Paper. However, except for the Gambling Commission taking a closer look at bonus offers such as free bets and spins, and the Premier League’s voluntary ban on front-of-shirt gambling logos, the White Paper proposes very little action in respect of gambling advertising.

The Gambling Act 2005 liberalised gambling advertising, and now on Twitter/X alone there are 1 million UK gambling ads a year. Gambling companies’ annual spend on marketing now exceeds £1.5 billion. As the Lords committee noted, companies would not spend so much if it did not work, leading to more gambling and greater risk of harm. Yet very little action is proposed. Surely any Government should have been worried to read just this weekend in the Observer, under the headline “UK children bombarded by gambling ads and images online”:

“Young people feel their internet activity is overwhelmed by betting promotions and similar content”.

If the Government are not worried, other people certainly are. Opinion polls show that the vast majority of the public want a clamp-down on gambling advertising, including Conservative supporters. A very recent opinion poll found that 77% of Conservative councillors agree that tighter restrictions on gambling advertising would reduce gambling-related harm. With the Government doing very little, others are taking action. In March, Sheffield City Council joined over 80 other English councils in restricting gambling advertising on land, buildings, vehicles and even bus stops, websites and newspapers they own. The Mayor of London says that he intends to end gambling ads across public transport in the city. I hope he gets on with it quickly, as one gambling operator is currently advertising that TfL tube and train carriages are now casinos, with bus-stop ads saying: “Your bus is now a casino”. In sport, the absence of government action has led 35 football clubs to decide to go it alone and join the Big Step’s campaign to end gambling advertising in football. Can the Minister explain why the Government are so out of step with all these voices and seemingly so in step with the gambling industry?

I suspect public concern is about to rise because, in July, the Gambling Commission will release new figures about gambling harm. The Gambling Minister in the other place has already indicated that they are likely to show that 1.3 million people will classify as “problem gamblers” and that a further 6 million are at risk. If confirmed, these figures are far higher than those used to inform the Government’s work on their White Paper. This is a real cause for concern, further strengthening the call for action.

If public opinion does not persuade the Government, there are many other justifications for action, including research evidence. When he responds, I suspect the Minister may be somewhat dismissive of the research and claim—as the White Paper does—that it does not show a causal link between advertising and gambling harm. I am prepared to accept that this is largely true, but it does not mean that the research evidence does not support the case for greater action. Academics are clear that, in social science research, causal links are rarely even possible, but they are equally clear that the research findings justify a much tougher stance against gambling advertising. Some 50 academics recently called for “badly needed” restrictions on the promotion of gambling products. They drew attention especially to the unprecedented numbers of young people being exposed to gambling ads via the internet and television, and concluded that

“it has become quite clear that the gambling products being offered and the ways in which they are promoted are harmful to individual and family health and damaging to national life”.

Reviewing the evidence, the Advertising Standards Authority accepted that some studies were robust enough to support a link between advertising and gambling behaviour. The Government’s White Paper itself points to research showing that gambling advertising and marketing leads to people starting to gamble, to gamble more and to recommence gambling. With all this evidence, it is bizarre that the Government are not taking more action.

Unlike us, other countries do not seem to struggle with the evidence, despite having far less of it. Ipsos and researcher Dr Rossi have identified 496 published research papers about gambling marketing here, which is more than the combined number of similar ones in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain. Yet on their evidence they have chosen almost full bans on gambling advertising and sponsorship. Can the Minister explain why the UK Government’s assessment of our evidence is so different from neighbouring countries with similar research findings? Does the Minister really believe that there would be 1.3 million people classified as problem gamblers in the absence of gambling advertising?

Frankly, our Government seem confused. In one breath, they say that action is not justified because there is little causal evidence linking advertising to harm but, in another, without causal evidence, they welcome the removal of gambling logos on the front of football shirts as a harm-reduction policy. The Government’s position simply does not make sense.

The Government have accepted that gambling-related harm should be treated as a public health issue, so they should be adopting the precautionary principle and, on the huge weight of evidence, taking greater action. Yet, the Minister in the Commons said, on advertising causing harm, that,

“if new evidence suggests that we need to go further, we will look at this again

Can the Minister explain what more the Government need before they will act?

I believe that a public health approach to gambling should lead to significant curbs on advertising and a ban on direct marketing, an end to inducements such as so-called free bets, and the removal of gambling sponsorship in sport.

Time does not permit me to detail all that I think should be done. Noting that estimates suggest that as many as 60,000 children suffer gambling harm, I will end with just one area where I believe urgent action is needed: so-called content marketing, which a Guardian headline recently described as “‘Sneaky’ social media ads … luring young into gambling”. Just one example will suffice. A social media post with the heading, “When the barman asks if you want another one”, is followed by a photo of Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp giving a thumbs-up. That is all there is to it.

This simple, humorous post was by Paddy Power, but there are literally hundreds of them, using cartoons and famous people, posted online by gambling companies all the time. In just one weekend, online gambling ads received 34 million views. Over half were content marketing. Research shows that such posts are particularly appealing to young people and that followers of gambling companies’ online posts are, disproportionately, young people.

Yet the voluntary code governing advertising says that advertisements should be clearly seen as such. I have met with the ASA, which oversees the code, and shown it numerous examples of content marketing that clearly breach the code. So I hope the Minister will agree that the time has come for a complete review of the code and its enforcement, including deciding whether self-regulation really is the right approach.

It is worrying that so many young people know the names of gambling companies, follow them online, think that gambling is part of growing up and see it as part of the enjoyment of sport. Gambling advertising encourages more people to gamble and to develop gambling harms. The figures are alarming, as are the consequences to individuals and our society. The threat to our children should be enough on its own to compel the Government to act. No primary legislation is required, as the Gambling Act 2005 gives the Secretary of State all the powers she needs to regulate gambling advertising as she sees fit. So my simple question is: will the Government get on and do something?