Former FOBT Backer Now in Charge of the UK Gambling Act Review

  • Minister for Media and Data John Whittingdale is now in charge of the government’s review
  • DCMS Minister Nigel Huddleston had to hand over the reins because of his high workload
  • Whittingdale previously supported the expansion of FOBTs and questioned their dangers
  • A DCMS department spokesperson reiterated that the minister supports evidence-based changes
  • Changes stemming from the review are unlikely to come into effect until 2022
businessman handing over car keys
Conservative Party minister John Whittingdale, who has previously supported FOBTs, is now heading up the UK government’s review of the Gambling Act. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Taking over the reins

Minister for Media and Data John Whittingdale is now in charge of the UK government’s review of the Gambling Act after taking over the gambling and lotteries brief. The Conservative Party minister has a track record of opposing stricter gambling industry regulation. This includes previously favoring the introduction of fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) at amusement arcades and service stations.

change was reportedly necessary in order to lessen Huddleston’s workload

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Minister Nigel Huddleston was in charge of the Gambling Act review since it began in December 2020. The change was reportedly necessary in order to lessen Huddleston’s workload, which had been increasing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following reports of Whittingdale’s appointment, gambling reform campaigners voiced their concerns. They referred to his track record of voting against stricter regulations and remarks that downplayed FOBT-related dangers.

Previous support for FOBTs

In 2012, a report from the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee suggested introducing FOBTs to venues such as amusement arcades, service stations, and bingo halls. Whittingdale was the chair of this committee at the time, with the proposal ultimately proving to be unsuccessful.

Subsequent studies laid out the dangers of FOBTs in increasing instances of problem gambling, labeling these machines as being as addictive as “crack cocaine.” During an industry conference, Whittingdale undermined these reports, saying: “I’m not so sure they’re even the cannabis of gambling.”

In 2014, he claimed during a House of Commons debate that the chances of losing significant money through FOBTs was “virtually impossible.” A future UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) study on the subject found that FOBT users lost over £1,000 ($1,392) on at least 233,000 occasions during a 10-month period. These links to problem gambling eventually led to a reduction of the max allowable stake on FOBTs to £2 ($2.79) from £100 ($139.30), taking effect on April 1, 2019.

Whittingdale has also rallied against other gambling sector restrictions. In 2011, he voted against a push to not allow retail betting stores to open on sites previously occupied by banks. A couple of years later, he voted against a proposal to require gambling companies to ban individuals who are self-exclusion registrants.  

Mixed reaction to the appointment

Reacting to the news of Whittingdale’s appointment, Labour Party MP and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Gambling Related Harm Carolyn Harris expressed her concerns. She said: “I very much hope he will be focused on the evidence and not influenced by aggressive industry lobbying.”

Co-founder of the Gambling With Lives charity Liz Ritchie spoke about the importance of getting the legislation review right. She said that families who have impacted by gambling-related suicide will hold Whittingdale accountable to preserve lives in the future.

The Department for DCMS, in charge of overseeing the legislation review, also commented on the appointment of Whittingdale. A spokesperson stated that the minister is fully supportive of a comprehensive and evidence-based review of gambling legislation.

Finally, UK gambling industry body the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) congratulated Whittingdale on his appointment. BGC chief executive Michael Dugher spoke about knowing Whittingdale from his time in parliament, stating that the minister “is a formidable politician who brings a wealth of experience and knowledge.”

The ongoing review

The current gambling legislation in the UK has been in place since 2005, with minimal changes made since then. The goal of the government review is to bring legislation into a digital age.

Any changes stemming from the review are unlikely to take effect until next year. A comprehensive process is in place to take a broad look at the gambling sector and to gather opinions from a wide range of groups.

Many significant changes are supposedly under consideration as part of the review. One of the more controversial proposals is the possibility of significantly reducing advertising from gambling companies. This could include ending the ability for gambling companies to engage in sports sponsorships. Another potentially significant move would be cutting the maximum allowable stake for online slots down to £2 ($2.79).