Access to Broadband Services

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Wednesday 6th September 2023

(6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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I congratulate my friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), on securing the debate.

One of the first areas of improvement that I identified for my constituency of Inverclyde when I was first elected in 2015 was broadband speed and resilience. Today, after many discussions, the occasional confrontation and a lot of repetition, Inverclyde is well served. We now enjoy an average download speed of 133.4 megabits per second, with 96.7% superfast availability, and 85.7% are receiving over 30 megabits per second. Although these numbers are among the best in the UK, I acknowledge that that is not the experience of everyone in Inverclyde. If you are my constituent, and you are one of those that are still not getting a suitable service, I accept that you will be frustrated and angered by the service you are getting. Believe me when I say that I am working on it.

It is important that I do. We live in an instant society, in which we have become used to instant access to entertainment, data, food, travel and a litany of things that were once planned for, looked forward to and experienced at our leisure. We now consume at the quickest possible rate, and the thought of having to wait is deemed unacceptable. I may sound like some curmudgeon, but in truth I am as frustrated as everyone else.

During my 35 years of working in IT, I saw a lot of change. The industry was gearing up when I first joined it, and it was moving at a much faster rate when I left. It now operates at breakneck speed. Changes to technology are being developed and implemented at a far greater rate of knots than we have ever experienced before. The speeds and volumes of data that we accept as normal were once a thing of dreams. We used to squeeze out every last bit of processing power, and then technology ran ahead of us and became cheaper, physically smaller and far more capable. But we were limited by our own imagination regarding what we were going to do with all these new telecoms capabilities. Initially, it was focused on industry and the work environment, and then there was the advent of desktop computers, laptops, iPods, gaming, the internet and online shopping.

The marketplace for digital inclusion and the requirements therein changed. Back in the day, Governments counted the number of households with clean water, as that was seen as a duty and a right. It was deemed important that not just the rich had access. Clean drinking water was required to eradicate cholera and the wider society benefited. The mission was clear, and the fundamentals have not really changed. Electricity and gas connections over time became more the norm than the exception, but where the vast majority of people enjoyed reliable access, the more rural areas were left behind and had to become more self-reliant regarding clean water and energy. That remains true to this day, and it now includes broadband.

We cannot allow that to continue. The legislation has to take into consideration the provision for areas that are harder to reach and not economically viable. Currently, the UK Government have estimated that 0.3% of properties are too expensive to reach. I accept that running a fibre cable to some very rural areas is not the solution, but alternatives exist and funding them must be considered. Simply saying it is too hard or too expensive is not good enough.

When it comes to future-proofing the infrastructure, we must acknowledge that we will never consume less than we currently use. The demand will continue to grow, and the shape and form of our engagement with it will change. The more bandwidth we create, the more uses we will find for it. It is clear that we need to be ambitious beyond our current or even projected requirements. Just as we now expect water, sewerage and power, we must add connectivity to that list.

I caution my fellow Members and those running Project Gigabit and the R100 scheme in Scotland that at some point we will require 1 terabyte per second. That is 1,024 gigabytes. I cannot say at present what for, but with quantum computing and the human imagination, I am sure that some day somebody will, and we must be designing and building the digital infrastructure that supports that growth. It is the responsibility of UK Government to manage, fund and co-ordinate the solution. Otherwise, we shall be standing still while the demand accelerates over the horizon.

Finally, as always, as a Scottish nationalist I look at situations and ask myself, “Could Scotland do this better if it were independent?” When I look at the Faroe Islands, which have some of the best broadband in the world, along with Norway, I am inclined to think that we could do better if telecoms were a devolved area. Some day, as a normal independent nation, we shall get the opportunity to prove that. I just hope it is before we are measuring success in terabytes per second.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)
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I call the newly appointed shadow Minister.

Gambling Act Review White Paper

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Thursday 27th April 2023

(10 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lucy Frazer Portrait Lucy Frazer
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I am very grateful for my right hon. Friend’s intervention, because he has made an important point. We have a world-class industry that has revenues of billions of pounds and which is putting in money, through its taxes, to support many of our public services. For the majority of people, it is offering something that they enjoy, so we are trying to strike a balance between allowing that to continue and protecting problem gamblers, of whom we estimate there are 300,000.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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I welcome the statement, although I have not had time to read the 250 pages of the White Paper. I am sure that the devil will be in the detail. I am not as enamoured of this statement as other Members seem to be. I am delighted that our hard work has been recognised, and it is important today that we recognise the hard work of the campaigners, the people with lived experience and the people who have lost loved ones who have committed suicide because of their addiction to gambling. We must recognise the hard work they have done to bring me to this place and allow me to express their opinion too.

I was delighted to hear in answer to the question about the levy that the industry is not going to have its fingers in that pie. That money must be ringfenced and channelled through the NHS so that it is used properly. I see one line in the statement reads:

“work with industry and the Gambling Commission”

I urge caution, because they are part of the problem. If we are going to work with them, we have to work with people who have experienced gambling harm in the first place, in order to get a balanced view.

I echo the sentiments of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who said that we are taking gambling adverts off the front of English Premier League team shirts on a voluntary basis—that should be enshrined in law—but what happens to kids who follow a team in the Championship, League 1, League 2 or the Scottish Premiership? Those children will still be exposed to the adverts, even though we acknowledge that they do harm. If the adverts do harm, they have all got to go: from all shirts; from all around the stadium and all around the pitch; and from in between games on the television and the radio. Advertising does harm, so all advertising has to go.

Lucy Frazer Portrait Lucy Frazer
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I commend the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done in this area. He rightly recognises the work of a range of gambling campaigners, and I am really pleased to have met many gambling campaign groups to hear their stories and see how they have been affected. He is right to talk about advertising aimed towards young children, which is why such targeting is already prohibited. We must welcome what the Premier League has done and, as I said, the statutory levy will enable us to look at this issue further. If necessary, of course, we can take other steps in the future.

Draft Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) (Terms of Agreement) Regulations 2022

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Wednesday 23rd November 2022

(1 year, 3 months ago)

General Committees
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Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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I attach myself to the remarks made by the Minister and the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) about garnering consensus on MDUs. The timescale involved in doing that is making it difficult for some companies to roll out broadband at the speed at which they would like to roll it out.

The reform of the code, placing additional requirements on operators not to disrupt the landowner’s use of the land and damage properties, is welcome. The SNP has no intention of standing in the way of this SI, but I will highlight a concern that has come to my attention. Telecommunications giants were involved in lobbying on both sides of the reform argument, investing money in campaigns. The Protect and Connect campaign, which lobbied relentlessly on the recent telecommunications Bill, asking for an independent review of the code, is almost entirely funded by a single US telecommunications company that makes money from UK mast rents. It spent £400,000 on Facebook adverts that lobbied MPs, and called on the public to write to their MPs—of course, we always welcome hearing from our constituents. The campaign, which runs in the UK to change UK law, is almost entirely financed by a US company, which only lightly alludes to its role in the campaign deep in the privacy section of the Protect and Connect website. While many businesses have legitimate cases, with small landowners facing huge drops in rent due to code reform, it is extremely concerning that a large foreign company is co-ordinating a campaign in the UK without declaring that and hiding behind others. The SNP has repeatedly raised the issue of the influence of dark money in UK democracy, and this is just another example. It should be taken as a sign of the range of influences that foreign countries seek in our democracy that even a matter such as the electronic communications code garners such huge attention.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I rise to support new clauses 7 and 33 in particular. I support them sometimes from a different angle from my hon. Friends, but fundamentally from the same angle: consent. I am not afraid to say that I have a different perspective from some hon. Members in this House in that I view sex work as a legitimate form of work under regulated and protected conditions, and pornography as part of that. What I do have a problem with is the lack of consent that occurs far too often not only in the industry—that may be too broad a term—but in particular content that we see online at the moment.

That is true particularly for those sex workers who might have produced content with consent at the time, as adults, but who later in life realise that they do not wish that material to be available any more—not just because they may be embarrassed about it, but perhaps because they just do not want that material commercially available and people making profits off their bodies any more. They are struggling to get content taken down because they are told, “You gave consent at the time and that can’t now be removed. You have to allow your body to be used.” We would not allow any other form of worker or artist to suffer that. In any other form of music or production, if they wished to remove their consent for it to be played, it would be taken down, but in pornography there seems to be a free-for-all where, even if people remove their consent, it still proliferates in copies of copies that are put all over the internet. That is not even to mention people who never gave their consent at all and experience revenge porn or their phones being hacked and the devastation that that can cause.

I might come from a different position on some of this, but I think we can be united in saying that of course we need better action on under-18s, which is very important, but even for those who have supposedly given their consent at one point or another, the removal of consent must be put into the Bill and platforms must have a strict responsibility to remove that content. Without that being in the Bill, there is a danger that platforms will continue to play loophole after loophole and the content will still be there when it should not be.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I was not planning to speak, but we have a couple of minutes so I will abuse that position.

I just want to say that I do not want new clause 7 to be lost in this debate and become part of the flotsam and jetsam of the tide of opinion that goes back and forth in this place, because new clause 7 is about consent. We are trying very hard to teach young men all about consent, and if we cannot do it from this place, then when can we do it? We can work out the details of the technology in time, as we always do. It is out there. Other people are way ahead of us in this matter. In fact, the people who produce this pornography are way ahead of us in this matter.

Diana Johnson Portrait Dame Diana Johnson
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While we have been having this debate, Iain Corby, executive director at the Age Verification Providers Association, has sent me an email in which he said that the House may be interested to know that one of the members of that organisation offers adult sites a service that facilitates age verification and the obtaining and maintaining of records of consent. So it is possible to do this if the will is there.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I absolutely agree. We can also look at this from the point of view of gambling reform and age verification for that. The technology is there, and we can harness and use it to protect people. All I am asking is that we do not let this slip through the cracks this evening.

Damian Collins Portrait Damian Collins
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

We have had an important debate raising a series of extremely important topics. While the Government may not agree with the amendments that have been tabled, that is not because of a lack of seriousness of concern about the issues that have been raised.

The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) spoke very powerfully. I have also met Leigh Nicol, the lady she cited, and she discussed with me the experience that she had. Sadly, it was during lockdown and it was a virtual meeting rather than face to face. There are many young women, in particular, who have experienced the horror of having intimate images shared online without their knowledge or consent and then gone through the difficult experience of trying to get them removed, even when it is absolutely clear that they should be removed and are there without their consent. That is the responsibility of the companies and the platforms to act on.

Thinking about where we are now, before the Bill passes, the requirement to deal with illegal content, even the worst illegal content, on the platforms is still largely based on the reporting of that content, without the ability for us to know how effective they are at actually removing it. That is largely based on old legislation. The Bill will move on significantly by creating proactive responsibilities not just to discover illegal content but to act to mitigate it and to be audited to see how effectively it is done. Under the Bill, that now includes not just content that would be considered to be an abuse of children. A child cannot give consent to have sex or to appear in pornographic content. Companies need to make sure that what they are doing is sufficient to meet that need.

It should be for the regulator, Ofcom, as part of putting together the codes of practice, to understand, even on more extreme content, what systems companies have in place to ensure that they are complying with the law and certainly not knowingly hosting content that has been flagged to them as being non-consensual pornography or child abuse images, which is effectively what pornography with minors would be; and to understand what systems they have in place to make sure that they are complying with the law and, as hon. Members have said, making sure that they are using available technologies in order to deliver that.

Football Index Collapse

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Tuesday 7th June 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on bringing forward this debate. I was assured as recently as this morning in this very room by a Government Minister that the gambling review White Paper is due in the coming weeks. Minister, we cannot keep meeting like this. Among a range of reforms, the gambling review White Paper must effectively regulate the digital age, and consumers must be better protected from Ponzi schemes.

BetIndex Ltd, trading as Football Index, was a sports betting platform. An operating licence was issued to BetIndex by the Gambling Commission in September 2015. It was BetIndex’s decision to dramatically decrease its dividend payment by 82% that led to a virtual market crash on the site. Scandalously, days before the crash, Football Index minted new shares in footballers, enticing consumers to purchase shares that some days later would be worth far less than their former value.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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One employee from the firm stated that 100 people were employed by Football Index. Some, but not all, of those had salaries of £1 million. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the investigation should pursue the directors, who seem to be well off at this moment?

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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Absolutely. I will touch on that briefly later. I watched “Question Time” from Belfast a couple of weeks ago, and I was surprised that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) did not intervene at any point.

BetIndex failed to properly notify the Gambling Commission of the nature of the product in its licence application. The Gambling Commission could have responded better, with earlier scrutiny of the product offered by BetIndex, quicker decision making and action, and better escalation of the issues, but it did not do so. The Gambling Commission ignored warnings that its business model was flawed and that customers’ money could be at risk. Although Football Index was not regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, the report identified areas for improvement for the FCA. Those included its speed of response to requests from the Gambling Commission.

Football Index is a scandal that underlines the need for wholesale reform of the gambling industry and raises significant questions about the Gambling Commission, given that it saw fit to license the platform and failed to enact adequate oversight. In the regulated sector, when people gamble they should have confidence that they are doing so on the basis of the outcome of a wager. It should not be a gamble on the solvency or sustainability of the licensed operator.

This scandal shows how much a gambling ombudsman is needed to ensure that consumers have a clear avenue for redress in circumstances such as the Football Index scandal. The Government said that they would not use public funds to compensate customers who have lost money, despite customers losing up to, at a modest estimate, £90 million. BetIndex Ltd was approved and operated a licence authorised by the Gambling Commission. The failure is on the regulator as much as it is on the Ponzi scheme that stole consumers’ cash. The Government should be doing more to protect their citizens and should act swiftly when they have let them down. The ex-CEO of Football Index, Adam Cole, has been named persona non grata by the Jersey Gambling Commission, with the regulator citing the executive’s track record as the reason for its decision. While the Jersey Gambling Commission has stepped up, there are no immediate plans for the UK Gambling Commission to act.

At the heart of the scandal are those robbed of their money. One football fan has revealed that he lost £98,000, saying:

“It has completely torn my life apart…It is all the money I’ve ever saved, almost everything I’ve ever had and has put quite simply left me on the verge of committing suicide.”

This is a wrong that needs to be made right through better legislation, stronger enforcement and compensation to those swindled by BetIndex.

--- Later in debate ---
Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I was going to come on to that point. Unfortunately, that ask is not possible, for a couple of reasons. The FCA is required by law to pass revenue from fines to the Treasury, net of enforcement costs, and the Treasury is required to place that into the Consolidated Fund, to be used for Government Departments on important public services. That is the law. The Gambling Commission fines are used for socially responsible purposes, usually for specific projects to reduce gambling harms. I completely understand the intend behind the request, but I am afraid that it is not possible.

Going back to the changes made as a result of the recommendation, the Gambling Commission and the FCA are also signing a strengthened memorandum of understanding to improve co-operation, and the FCA has nominated an executive director to oversee its relationship with the commission. Therefore, some changes have already happened and others are happening now.

Even though the independent report has been published, other processes are ongoing. First, administration proceedings continue, which may result in some money being refunded to customers. Secondly, the Gambling Commission referred BetIndex to the Insolvency Service and asked it to consider whether the actions of BetIndex’s directors prior to administration breached insolvency or fraud laws.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
- Hansard - -

I have listened to what the Minister has said about compensation. Under section 123 of the Gambling Act 2005, the DCMS Secretary can impose a levy, at the level they determine, for any purpose whatsoever.

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

With regard to compensation, as I have said, there are procedures that we cannot move from. It is also very clear that we strongly sympathise—everybody strongly sympathises. As a constituency MP, I also have constituents who have been impacted by the collapse and who have lost money. We have heard today anger and frustration about the genuine hardship—both financial and, of course, mental—caused by the collapse. However, we do not think it would be appropriate for the Government to use public funds to cover losses to individuals resulting from the collapse of a gambling company. Consumers staking money on gambling is not the same as their placing money into other things, such as savings products. Furthermore, the Gambling Commission does not have any statutory powers that would enable it to offer redress for losses suffered as the result of a gambling operator collapsing.

I know that I need to leave time for the hon. Member for Blaydon to respond to the debate, so I will briefly refer to a couple of other points that hon. Members have made. On the Insolvency Service investigation, BetIndex entered into administration on 26 March 2021 and administrators are required to report to the Insolvency Service on company directors’ conduct. Following information received from the administrators and the Gambling Commission, the Insolvency Service has confirmed that it is investigating the conduct of BetIndex’s directors.

The hon. Member for Blaydon asked for a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South. I will pass that request on, rather than make a promise on his behalf, but I am sure that he will receive that request with respect. I will also ask him to respond to a couple of other items that she asked about. Please be in no doubt of the seriousness with which the Government take all the matters that have been highlighted today, and the gambling review will indeed be announced in the coming weeks.

Statutory Gambling Levy

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Tuesday 7th June 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Scott Benton Portrait Scott Benton
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

There is clearly more work that we can do in this area, but it would help if the NHS had a long-term strategy for dealing with the issue, which it lacks at present. I will say more on that point in a few moments.

Under current arrangements, all companies regulated by the Gambling Commission are expected to make a voluntary contribution of 0.1% of turnover. To put that in context, in 2019-20 that figure was £10 million. Most of the funding goes to GambleAware, which is a totally independent charity. The industry has no say whatever on how that money is spent. In its five-year strategy published last year, the charity says that it expects to see that income increase to £39 million by the year ending 2024. As the hon. Member for Swansea East alluded to, the four largest gaming companies—Entain, William Hill, Flutter and Bet365—have agreed to increase their contributions to 1% of turnover. That is an additional £100 million over a four-year period to tackle the issue, with all of that funding going towards tackling and preventing the causes of problem gambling.

As I said in response to the intervention from the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), the NHS still does not have a long-term strategy to tackle problem gambling. It was only in 2019 that the Department of Health announced it would open 15 new NHS clinics for addicts. Despite that, only five are open so far, with three more supposedly coming online later this year. Meanwhile, it is the industry and charities that have spent the last two decades trying to tackle the issue. Currently, charities use about 160 locations for face-to-face counselling services—part of an already mature network of clinics, treatment centres and outreach programmes that are making a real difference right now.

A statutory levy would risk charities’ existing funding models by taking cash out of their coffers and putting it into the NHS, which, sadly, is not yet set up to delivering those services.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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Has it crossed the hon. Member’s mind that the difficulty for the NHS in rolling out its plan for 15 clinics is the lack of guaranteed funding, which is exactly the strategy that a smart statutory levy would cover?

Scott Benton Portrait Scott Benton
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The issue has been around for decades. Obviously, the gambling review is long awaited. Hopefully, that will help to address the issue, but it is unmistakable that the industry has taken voluntary steps over the years to try to tackle the problem. What we need is a consensus on the most appropriate way forward. For the reasons outlined, I do not think that a statutory levy is the answer, but I am open to hearing all Members’ views, so I am attending the debate to hear both sides of the argument.

A clumsy one-size-fits-all approach would have a disproportionate effect on land-based operators, which are only just recovering from the pandemic. In truth, it would be catastrophic on those businesses, because, like the rest of the hospitality sector, they have many fixed costs to fund, including staff, business rates, tax and licences. A tiered system would take that into account and better protect jobs.

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Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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Thank you very much, Mr Betts. It is a pleasure to be here this morning. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for bringing forward this debate.

Gambling legislation is reserved to Westminster. The UK Government must publish the gambling review White Paper and that must include a smart levy on the gambling industry. In December 2020, Westminster announced a review of the Gambling Act 2005, which generated some 16,000 responses to a call for evidence. Yet, in June 2022, we are still no further forward from where we were in December 2020.

I have been told that the White Paper is “imminent”, “very imminent” and even “very, very imminent”, but there is still no date. Once the paper is published, there is still quite a journey before it becomes law and no doubt there will be an implementation period, too. While we dither, gambling-related harms impact vulnerable people in an unabated manner, so we must act, and act now.

We are rapidly approaching the summer recess. Minister, we need the paper now, so that it can be scrutinised and debated. We need to make substantial progress before the summer recess. We are here today, of course, to debate a statutory levy. However, I confess to being slightly confused after reading the Library briefing on this issue. Excellent as such briefings always are, this one informed me that the Gambling Act 2005 regulates gambling in Great Britain. The Act has three licensing objectives: preventing gambling from being a source of crime or disorder; ensuring that gambling is conducted in a fair and open way; and protecting children and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by gambling.

The 2005 Act is overseen and enforced by the Gambling Commission and that is where I got confused. Under section 123 of the Act, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport can make regulations requiring gambling companies to pay an annual levy to the Gambling Commission. Section 123 clearly states:

“The regulations shall, in particular, make provision for—

(a) the amount of the levy;

(b) timing of payment of the levy.

(3) The regulations shall, in particular, make provision for—

(a) determining the amount of the levy by reference to a percentage of specified receipts of an operating licence holder,

(b) determining the amount of the levy by reference to a percentage of specified profits of an operating licence holder”.

And more points are set out. Reading this section, it looks to me and reads to me as a smart statutory levy. Minister, why has section 123 of the 2005 Act never been commenced? Why are the Government not implementing a statutory levy now?

Currently, the Gambling Commission requires all licensed operators to make a voluntary contribution of 0.1% of net revenue towards the research, prevention and treatment of gambling-related harm. Most operators donate to GambleAware, a charity that commissions support for problem gamblers as well as research and awareness-raising about gambling-related harm.

In July 2019, the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Sir Jeremy Wright), who was then the Secretary of State, announced that five of the largest operators would increase their donations from 0.1% to 1% over the following four years. However, the current funding arrangement does not generate enough money to prevent and treat gambling-related harm. In a September 2020 paper for the Gambling Commission, the Advisory Board for Safer Gambling said the current funding system was

“no longer fit for purpose”.

That is nearly two years ago now.

A statutory levy would address issues of transparency, independence, equity. sustainability and public confidence. It would also have the potential to raise

“significantly greater levels of funding”

and it would also guarantee funding, so that service providers can confidently plan to recruit and train into the future. And it is not just me who is saying this. In April 2022, GambleAware called on the Government to introduce a mandatory levy of 1% of gross gambling yield. According to GambleAware, this would raise £140 million annually and would

“enable better longer-term planning and commissioning for services to prevent gambling harms”.

Unfortunately, the Betting and Gaming Council is part of the problem. In a May 2022 blog, Brigid Simmonds, Chair of the Betting and Gaming Council, claimed that a statutory levy would not make a “tangible difference” to research, education and treatment or to problem gambling rates. She said that the current funding system was “making good progress” and warned that the “clumsy one-size-fits-all approach” of a statutory levy would have a “disproportionate effect” on land-based operators that were just recovering from the covid-19 pandemic.

“Making good progress”—where is the evidence for that? The clock is ticking, people are being harmed and people are dying. And nobody is talking about a “clumsy one-size-fits-all approach”. We have identified that we require a smart levy—the polluter pays. It is callous remarks like those from the Chair of the Betting and Gaming Council that clearly show that the funds raised by a levy must be ring-fenced and allocated to NHS-commissioned work. The expenditure should be identified and allocated by medical experts, and not by the gambling industry, their appointees or politicians.

More often than not, the debate about this issue has come down to money. How do we pay for the outcomes that we seek? Where does that money come from? However, we must acknowledge here today that behind the call for money, the reality is that people are being harmed and people are dying. We need appropriate, timely action and the time for it is now.

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Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I can say no more than that we will be publishing in the coming weeks. I am afraid that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South is currently detained elsewhere, so the coming weeks is all I can say today.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
- Hansard - -

I asked the Minister a question about section 123 of the Gambling Act. I do not understand why it has not been enacted.

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The answer lies in the evidence given in the debate today. As I have said, we are looking at the Gambling Act review and considering the options and the arguments made today, but there is not 100% support for that at the moment. We committed to looking at that as part of the review, and I am afraid the hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the report to come out in the coming weeks.

I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I will make sure that the Minister responsible gets a full report of today’s debate.

Gambling-related Harm

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Tuesday 29th March 2022

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and it is also only right to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that before I came to this place, I was employed by Bet365 between 2006 and 2019. I have not come to this place to be a spokesperson for the gambling industry, but I hope that my experience can be used to inform the House in such debates. Bet365 is a major employer in Newcastle-under-Lyme—I see two colleagues from Stoke-on-Trent here as well—and contributes a huge amount to the local area and to skilled jobs there. I will come to that later.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to her tenacity and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), and to everybody who has pushed the subject of gambling-related harm, which we all want to see reduced. I see the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) in his place. The Gambling Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), visited Bet365 last week, and I know that he shares that ambition. I want to share my experience and understanding of how the industry works to respond to some of the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Swansea East in her opening remarks, and to say that I do fear the impact on the black market. I will come to that in a minute.

The hon. Lady is right to have held the industry to account for so long. It has been too slow to adapt in the past, but has made some big changes in recent years, such as the whistle-to-whistle ban and the code on high-value customers, as referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. High-value customers are not just addicts; some are seriously wealthy, so have been treated as VIPs in the past. They are big customers that any capitalist firm would wish to have. However, I accept that VIPs have gone wrong in the past.

Points have already been made about advertising, but I am pleased that 20% of TV adverting by the industry now promotes safer gambling and that we are tackling problem gambling. Figures published by the regulator the Gambling Commission, covering the period to December 2021, showed that the problem gambling rate was down from 0.6% to 0.3%, and that the number of those at moderate risk has fallen from 1.2% to 0.8%. In countries such as Italy, Norway and France, those rates are much higher and there are more black markets, either because online gambling is illegal, there is a state monopoly or there are such high tax rates for the companies registered there. I accept that the black market is not a big problem in the UK at the moment, but that is because we have a well-regulated structure for gambling. We can regulate it better and I hope we do so through the review, but we must be mindful that that risk is out there.

I will now talk a little about Bet365 and what it is doing. The Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and I visited Bet365 last week. The company has been at the forefront of the industry in trying to address the issue, and has gone above and beyond current regulatory guidance. As I have said, it is rooted in north Staffordshire and did not offshore its sports betting to Gibraltar when most other firms did in order to avoid tax. It has always paid its fair share of taxes, and Denise Coates has always paid her fair share of income tax and not sought to avoid that, despite the headlines that come with that every year.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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This is a caveat, but Denise Coates paid herself a billion pounds over the course of four years. If I earned a billion pounds, I would make sure I paid my tax as well.

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Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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I must say, I am pleased that people have come here to talk on behalf of the gambling industry. Too often, we talk in a silo and do not hear what other people have to say. I am glad they have come here, spoken out, expressed themselves so eloquently and read their Bet365 briefing so beautifully.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis
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That’s not true.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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It absolutely is true. I was sat here beside you and watched you read it.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis
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The hon. Gentleman refers to a briefing that I was reading. I was, indeed, reading a briefing that was presented to the Minister when he visited to explain what the industry was doing, which is forming part of the gambling review. I do not see why it is bad to get a briefing from companies sharing what they are doing. What the hon. Gentleman said is ludicrous.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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As I said, a briefing from Bet365—that is exactly what it was.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis
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For the Minister.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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It does not matter who it was written for; it is a briefing from Bet365.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis
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You have never had a briefing from anyone else.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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We will cover that in a minute; we are wasting time.

It is simply not true that 66% of Norwegian gambling is on the black market. I am not trying to replicate Norway. In Norway, gambling is state monopolised, and because of that they use the internet a lot to gamble. In fact, the 66% relates to people using online gambling. It is not black market gambling as we understand it.

On whether the whistle-to-whistle ban works, Stirling University carried out a survey during five football matches with a whistle-to-whistle ban and recorded 2,000 gambling marketing references. It is clearly not working or protecting the people it is supposed to protect.

The all-party parliamentary group on gambling related harm has spoken to all the chief executives of the big gambling firms. We have listened to what they have to say. We have spoken to gamblers who gamble every day and do not have a problem with gambling—we are not trying to step on their toes. If they want to gamble and they are comfortable, they can gamble. We are not prohibitionists. We have spoken to people who control the provision and support for people with addiction. We have spoken to academics, to addicts and to people whose lives have been destroyed by the gambling industry. That is the rounded, responsible way to go about forming a view on this topic, not to sit here and read a briefing from a gambling firm. A number of figures have been chucked around, and they came straight from the PoliticsHome article by Michael Dugher, chief executive officer of the Betting and Gaming Council.

I am not accusing anybody in this room—absolutely no one—but I do know that among those who support the gambling industry, a number of elected MPs are well funded by the industry to do so, while among the people who are fighting to reform gambling and make it a safer environment for all our constituents, no money changes hands.

The film “Erin Brokovich” tells the true story of a campaign against the practices of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which had illegally dumped hexavalent chromium—deadly toxic waste—and poisoned the residents in the area. For most people, it is inconceivable that directors sitting in the boardroom of a large and successful company would allow such damage or behaviour in the full knowledge of the harm that they are doing, but that case is not unique. Large corporations have a history of putting profit over people, be they the tobacco giants, which have a long history of denying the health risks of smoking, or the logging companies that ruthlessly exploit the Amazon rainforest for personal gain.

In that respect, industry and politics share the same dynamics. The power to make decisions that affect the lives of many are often made by a few people who sit at the heart of the process. Just like Prime Ministers and senior members of the Cabinet, chief executives and company directors make choices that can have huge impacts on people’s lives, for good and for bad. When they act in their own self-interests, they can heap misery on many others. The damage that they cause may not be apparent to them—they can confine themselves to their ivory towers—but plenty of people who witness that harm are prepared to testify if listened to. Throughout history, a catalogue of people have been willing to turn a blind eye to injustices in return for the opportunity to feather their own nests. When chief executive officers are driven solely by the pursuit of massive personal wealth and the privilege that it brings, the plight of others can easily be ignored or underestimated.

The gambling firms must be today’s equivalent of the tobacco firms. They have taken vast amounts of money, generated massive profits and paid their elite employees huge salaries, while ruthlessly pursuing punters and squeezing every penny out of them. The health and welfare of their customers is not a priority. Games are designed to be addictive. The exponential growth of online casinos has removed the human touch, and punters are reduced to being part of the machine.

Gambling online can be done 24/7—cooling-off periods no longer exist, and chasing losses goes unchallenged. People who have self-excluded are often approached and tempted back to gambling. Free bets in VIP rooms are lures to hook often vulnerable people and draw them back into the fold. People have turned to crime to feed their addictions, families have been left broken, and people have committed suicide. In attempts to divert criticism, the public relations departments of the gambling industry are quick to point out the charitable organisations that they support. In fact, if those who run the gambling industry paid themselves less and their employees more, that money would be spent in local communities, where the benefit would be felt—less charity, more fair distribution of wealth.

The gambling industry also funds research into addiction and support for sufferers, and picks up the tab for the Gambling Commission, which regulates the industry, but it is not right that those who cause the harm have financial control of the research, education, treatment and regulation. The link between industry money and those services must be broken, and funding must be channelled through the NHS in the form of a smart statutory levy. The UK gambling industry employs more than 45,000 people and directly contributes more than £4 billion to the Exchequer. Those are impressive numbers, but the money spent on gambling does not yield as much tax revenue as money spent in the retail or food sectors, and we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that some of those jobs and much of that profit are the result of gambling-related harm.

I am not a prohibitionist, but I recognise that the gambling industry has to change; it must take responsibility for its products and its punters, and it must recognise the damage of addiction and play a part in reducing it. The industry has run amok since 2005, but in this digital age it is now time to grow up and act responsibly.

Oral Answers to Questions

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Thursday 24th March 2022

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Nadine Dorries Portrait Ms Dorries
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We ruled out wider legislation in statute, but a Joint Committee to undertake post-legislative scrutiny of the Online Safety Bill would be established by a Standing Order and is under consideration. This is a groundbreaking, globally leading Bill, and there is expertise in both Houses. There cannot be too much ongoing scrutiny of this Bill.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan  (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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T2.   The gambling industry currently makes a voluntary contribution to the cost of the education, health support and research required to address gambling-related harm. The then Secretary of State, the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), said in 2019 that“the Government reserve the right to pursue a mandatory route…if a voluntary route does not prove effective.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2019; Vol. 662, c. 1072.]In other words, the 2019 voluntary agreement is conditional on its being effective. With the gambling review imminent, how do we know whether the current voluntary contribution is effective?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his tireless campaigning on this issue. We are very conscious of the debate on the voluntary levy and the effectiveness of treatment. I have met and discussed this with clinicians such as Dr Matt Gaskell from the Leeds gambling centre and, of course, Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones from the London clinic. I assure the hon. Gentleman that his question is under active consideration.

Jack Ritchie: Gambling Act Review

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Monday 21st March 2022

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes a point I will be reflecting on throughout my contribution. I was saying that the industry promotes this idea of blame on the individual, but when the coroner looked at the evidence at Jack’s inquest he pointed the finger at us, saying:

“Jack didn't understand that being addicted to gambling wasn’t his fault.”

The coroner went on to blame a failure of diagnosis, of treatment and of regulation. That is hugely important, because it resets the approach we have to adopt. It finally moves us away from the vulnerable individuals model of regulation. I welcome the fact that a few days later the Minister recognised that, by saying that

“everyone is at risk of developing”

a gambling disorder.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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The coroner also said that the services available to Jack were “woeful”. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that until we ringfence a statutory levy that can properly fund, through the NHS, the help, support and education that is required, the services will continue to be woeful and more young men such as Jack could be forced into taking their own lives?

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and pay tribute to the work he does on this issue. He is absolutely right about that and it is a point to which I will be returning.

I joined Liz and Charles to hear the coroner’s verdict on the last day of the inquest. They had secured the first article 2 inquest into a gambling suicide, examining whether any arm of the state had breached its duty to protect Jack’s life. The coroner found multiple failures spanning three Departments, those responsible for regulation, for education and for treatment. These are failures we have the opportunity to address in the review of the Gambling Act 2005. I know that the Minister shares the concern. He has met Liz and Charles, and others, and he has spoken powerfully on the issue, but there will be powerful forces trying to stop him, just as there were when we took on the tobacco industry.

As I said, Jack was still at school when his addiction started, and the coroner highlighted the following:

“The evidence was that young people were the most at risk from the harms of gambling yet there was and still appears to be, very little education for school children on the subject.”

According to research by the University of Bristol, 55,000 children aged 15 and under have a gambling addiction. That is shocking and it is not by chance, as a generation of gamblers are being hooked before they understand the harm. The industry cannot legally aim its advertising at children, but that is the effect. In 2020, Ipsos MORI and the University of Stirling found that 96% of 11 to 24-year-olds had seen gambling marketing in the previous month and were more likely to bet as a result. Nowhere is this more pervasive than in sport and, particularly for young people, in football. Gambling advertising on shirts, in stadiums, on TV and on social media has merged sports and gambling into a single integrated leisure experience. The industry knows what it is doing, and so do the public, over 60% of whom want a total ban on gambling advertising. We could at the very least return to the approach before the 2005 Act, so I hope the Minister will share his thinking on that, particularly in relation to children.

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Chris Philp Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Chris Philp)
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I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this important and moving debate, inspired by a young man, Jack Ritchie, whose life was tragically lost as a result of gambling addiction. I join him in paying tribute to Jack’s brave and determined parents, Liz and Charles, who as he says are with us this evening and whom I have had the privilege of meeting on at least three occasions since becoming the Minister responsible in this area, about six months ago, for their campaigning and work to bring something constructive and positive from their son’s tragic death. They have pursued their campaign with great vigour and have succeeded in getting the attention of Government and Parliament, as this evening’s debate clearly demonstrates.

The coroner’s report into Jack’s tragic death is very powerful, and I will turn to its contents in a moment. Clearly, the coroner’s report lays out, as the hon. Member said very eloquently and powerfully, a number of inadequacies and failings. I have in front of me a copy of the coroner’s Regulation 28 report, which says that

“the system of regulation in force at the time of his death did not stop Jack gambling at a point when he was obviously addicted to gambling.”

That was a point that the hon. Member cited in his speech. The second point that it makes, under its section “Matters of Concern” says:

“The warnings Jack received were insufficient to prevent him gambling.”

The record of inquest, a separate document, says:

“The evidence was that gambling contributed to Jack’s death.”

It makes it very clear that there was a link between the two.

I thank the senior coroner for the South Yorkshire West area, David Urpeth, for the time and trouble that he took in preparing this thoughtful report and in writing to us. He said in his report:

“I issue this preventing future death report in the hope that Government finds the concerns raised informative and of assistance, especially at a time they are considering the whole issue of gambling and its regulation.”

We do find the report informative and of assistance, and I am grateful to the coroner, to the family, Liz and Charles, and to everyone who played a part in that inquest for their work in bringing this report to the attention of the House and to the attention of Government.

It is worth putting it on record that there have been some positive changes since 2017, but, clearly, these do not go far enough. Just for the record, it is worth emphasising what those changes are. Clearly, this House voted a couple of years ago, after a powerful public campaign, to reduce the stake on fixed odds betting terminals—the B2 machines—from £100 down to £2 because of the overwhelming evidence that they were causing and fuelling gambling addiction. Gambling on credit cards has now been banned, online slot games have been made safer by design, the age limit for the National Lottery has been increased to 18, and there are tighter restrictions on the VIP scheme. In addition, there are currently two, about to be five, and there will be 15 gambling addiction treatment clinics funded by the NHS long-term plan, but, as I will say in a moment, these measures are not enough by a long chalk and we need to go further.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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I welcome all those measures, but the Government have brought every single one of them to the table kicking and screaming. They have all been from pressure groups outside looking in and saying, “You must change this.” What I want to see is the Government leading by example, particularly when it comes to the entire review of the Gambling Act 2005.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I hope that he has heard me speak on these topics relatively frequently, including just a week or two ago, and I hope that he will gather from those comments that he has heard me make—families will say the same thing, as I have spent time with many families over the past few months—that there will not be any kicking or screaming required when it comes to the Gambling Act review, which is now imminent. The evidence that we have seen, including from this coroner’s report and from many other sources, makes the case that we need to go significantly further to make sure that people are appropriately protected.

As Members will appreciate, I cannot pre-announce all the proposals on which we are working that will form part of the White Paper, the Gambling Act review. Clearly, a great deal has changed in the 17 years since 2005 when that Act was passed, not least the explosion of internet gambling, which was not really a phenomenon back in 2005. Since then though, it has exploded. It now represents about half of all gross gambling yield. The nature of the online games, the fact that people can access them 24/7, the fact that frequency of play is very high, and the look and feel of some of the features make them significantly more risky than other forms of gambling, such as gambling in person at a racecourse, playing bingo or playing the National Lottery. All those things can be addictive, but the online games have a much higher risk.

Of course, when the 2005 Act was conceived, that was not appreciated or understood, but it is appreciated and understood now. That is why the gambling review will take the significant additional steps needed to protect people like Jack and to protect everybody who is gambling. We want to be proportionate in taking those steps—we do not want to prevent people who want to gamble on a leisure basis from doing so or put unreasonable obstacles in the way—but we do need to take action.

Another piece of evidence we should all consider in making the case for action is that of the failures being committed today by gambling operators. For example, just a couple of weeks ago one of the major operators —I think it was 888—was fined £9.4 million by the Gambling Commission for a series of failures. Those failures included allowing someone to lose £37,000—not to gamble £37,000, but to lose it—in a very short space of time without any checks or intervention. Obviously, that is an unaffordable amount for almost anybody. It also allowed an NHS worker to have a loss limit set at approximately 90% of their monthly salary.

There was another case where a gentleman was eventually jailed, I think, because he had stolen £15 million to fund a gambling addiction. How can it be possible that someone can be allowed to lose £15 million without appropriate checks? It is just absurd. A further fine was levied against a major gambling operator, which I think was owned as part of the Flutter Entertainment group, which had sent marketing material actively promoting gambling products and promotions to recovering addicts.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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The Minister is correct to point out that 888 was fined £9.4 million for its tardiness, but the point behind this is that the operators decide what rules they implement, because they are governed by their own body, the Gambling Commission, which they fund. 888 is a gambling firm—a bookmaker. It will have weighed up the odds: “Fine me £9 million? I’m making £29 million. I’m making £200 million. If you’re going to fine me £9 million for breaking the rules, I’ll do that anyway.” 888 is a bookie. That is what it does.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The reason I highlighted those failings was to make the point that proportionate reform is needed. I agree with him that it is no good the Gambling Commission’s identifying some of those cases after the event—and it by no means identifies all of them; these are just the cases it finds. They are just the tip of the iceberg. The fact that these examples were found after the event is further evidence of the need for appropriate reform. It needs to be proportionate, as I say, but reform is needed.

One area where we can go is using data. I mentioned that online gambling is one of the areas that carry higher risk, unlike betting at a racecourse, for example, which carries a risk, but a significantly lower one. Data should and will enable the Gambling Commission to do a much better job at identifying what the operators are really doing and getting a complete picture of whether they are intervening when people’s gambling patterns of behaviour indicate that there is a problem, which clearly did not happen in Jack Ritchie’s case.

I take the point about the single customer view that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central made. We are watching that extremely carefully and will be commenting further on that in the White Paper. I also take his points about timing and about the need for it to be effective and appropriately overseen and governed.

I also take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of affordability checks. They need to be proportionate and pitched at the right level, but they have a really important role in making sure that some of the situations that I have mentioned, and situations like Jack Ritchie’s, do not occur. The data is available if operators properly use it and if the Gambling Commission has proper access to it to deliver that result. That should be a very significant area of attention in the Gambling Act review that is coming up very shortly.

I repeat my thanks to the hon. Gentleman for convening this debate and for speaking so powerfully and eloquently on this topic. I look forward to working with him, with the shadow Minister and with other colleagues across the House on this issue, which I think commands cross-party support. As we seek to reform our country’s gambling legislation through the review, we do so with cases like Jack Ritchie’s in mind. I know that all of us in this House will be profoundly and powerfully conscious of our duty and our obligation to protect young people like Jack Ritchie and many, many others to make sure that we learn the lessons from his tragic death and so protect our fellow citizens. I conclude by saying once again how grateful we all are for the campaigning and courage of Charles and Liz in bringing this important issue to the attention of the Government and of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Oral Answers to Questions

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Thursday 10th February 2022

(2 years ago)

Commons Chamber
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Julia Lopez Portrait Julia Lopez
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend raises an important point about social media platforms potentially becoming gatekeepers for radio stations. We are looking closely at this issue to ensure that radio stations can have their own data, protect their listenership and so on. I offer him reassurance on that point.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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T3. This Sunday I shall be taking part in a walk with members of The Big Step to highlight the issue of gambling advertising in football. The campaign recognises the harm that gambling does every single day, and the part that football advertising plays in grooming children and normalising gambling among adults. With a gambling Bill seemingly getting further and further away, are there any measures that will be in the final Act that could be implemented now, rather than waiting to dot every i and cross every t? Will the Secretary of State meet me and other members of the all-party parliamentary group for gambling related harm to discuss the matter further?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for his question and for the meetings that we have had with the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). He is right to raise this serious issue, as people are suffering harm from gambling addiction. The review is getting very close now—he will not have to wait much longer—and the issues that he is raising will be squarely addressed. I am happy to meet him and the other members of the APPG at any time; if they just get in touch, we would be happy to organise a meeting.