The Betting & Gaming Council has come under fire for allegedly misrepresenting a report into the risks of illegal gambling sites, casting doubt on the accuracy of some of the arguments being advanced by the body.
The Council, which represents the UK gambling industry as the main lobby group for the sector, was grilled over claims that a study it had commissioned identified a surge in illegal betting activity during the Qatar World Cup in 2022.
Michael Dugher, chief executive of the Betting & Gaming Council (and the former Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), said the findings should steer government away from “blanket intrusive affordability checks”, in reference to measures being considered at the time to compel gambling operators to carry out affordability tests on players.
However, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Foster cast doubt on the integrity of the claims derived from the report and wrote to MPs on the select committee for culture, media and sport ahead of Dugher’s appearance earlier this month. In his letter to MPs, Lord Foster said he did not think the BGC had been “fully accurate” in its interpretation of the report’s findings—claims the BGC strongly denies.
What the report said
The furore centres around an unpublished report conducted by gambling analysis firm Yield Sec, at the behest of the BGC, to analyse the prevalence of illegal betting sites within the UK market, and particularly around the time of the Qatar World Cup. The report was never published, but a copy was leaked to The Guardian.
In its findings, the report said that while there had been a rise in illegal betting during the Qatar World Cup, black market betting was still accounting for a tiny proportion of betting activity—as little as 1% of total UK betting volumes, with penetration for illegal betting sites described as ‘low’.
According to Lord Foster, the BGC’s representations of the findings had not been accurate in reflecting the true scale of the problem posed by illegal gambling sites, which he said reflected a broader pattern of “instances when the BGC has not been entirely accurate” on matters relating to gambling industry regulation.
In particular, he referred to claims in a tweet from Dugher in December 2022 that the BGC had “fully and publicly supported” a ban on the use of credit cards to fund gambling–despite a Gambling Commission report saying no online gambling operators backed the move during consultation.
The BGC also quoted figures of a 97% reduction in the number of gambling ads seen by children, a statistic which The Guardian said requires “caveats the BGC failed to make clear on several occasions.”
The allegations were robustly denied by the BGC, which said it had reported the findings of the study accurately.
“The Yield Sec study was commissioned to analyse the scale of the growing, unsafe, unregulated gambling black market online and its findings were accurately reported.”
A select committee showdown
On Tuesday 11th July, Michael Dugher and Wes Himes, the Director of Standards and Innovation at the BGC, faced questions on black market gambling, amongst other things, in front of the select committee.
Responding to questions on the extent of the problem, Himes said the statistics showed the number of gamblers moving to illegal betting sites had risen from 210,000 to 460,000, highlighting that these sites offer no protections currently built into UK gambling laws.
Describing a “growing unsafe, unregulated and unlicensed black market”, Michael Dugher said he felt some ministers had been dismissive of his suggestion there was no enforcement answer to what is effectively an international problem. Instead, he said it was important to understand the reasons behind gamblers betting in the regulated sector being driven to the unregulated sector—something he suggests could be due to missteps in regulation.
Dugher advanced the argument that overregulation can have unintended consequences, urging MPs to consider whether steps to tighten gambling restrictions, such as introducing affordability checks, could actually end up pushing more gamblers away from regulated gambling sites into the black market sector.
The accusations from Lord Foster position the BGC as representing a less than accurate picture when it comes to suggestions for tightening UK gambling regulation and their possible unintended consequences—allegations the BGC refutes.
In a statement on the matter, the BGC said it had worked to develop “scores of new safer betting and gaming measures, including ensuring our members devote 20% of all TV and radio advertising to safer gambling messaging—backed by our groundbreaking Take Time to Think campaign.”
While government, and the select committee, are keen to explore new ways of regulating gambling companies in the UK, the BGC acting on behalf of the industry is understandably keen to ensure these remain proportionate and effective for addressing gambling harms.
The real solution is likely to lie in a compromise between the two positions, one that best meets the needs of player protection and harm prevention, without having disproportionate effects on the gambling industry the BGC represents.
Whether the BGC figures were accurately reported or not, it looks clear that both sides will need to continue to work together to evolve the regulatory landscape for the licensed gambling sector.