The government has come under fire for its “outrageous” failure to back a mandatory levy on betting firms to increase funding for addiction treatment, in defiance of a call from the industry’s regulator.
Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, accused the government of “dragging its heels”, after the sports minister, Mims Davies, said in a speech that the existing voluntary levy “does work”, moments after the chair of the Gambling Commission said the opposite.
The row came as Ladbrokes’ owner, GVC, the UK’s largest gambling company, broke ranks with the industry by announcing proposals to protect problem gamblers, including an end to TV ads and football shirt sponsorship.
GVC’s chief executive, Kenny Alexander, called on rivals to follow suit as he announced a number of measures he said would “do more to protect the vulnerable”.
Among the most eye-catching proposals is a total ban on gambling ads attached to sports broadcasts, except for horse racing. The suggestion goes further than existing industry plans for a pre-watershed “whistle-to-whistle” ban.
GVC also said it would voluntarily end all sponsorship deals that promoted its brands on football shirts or on pitchside advertising hoardings, matching a policy proposed by Labour in 2017.
The company sponsors the shirts of two clubs, Sunderland and Charlton, both in the third tier of English football. It also sponsors the Scottish Premiership and will retain that deal, although it will donate pitchside hoarding space included in the agreement to responsible gambling messages.
It said curbing ads would “allow fans to watch their favourite teams without seeing any incentives to bet” and called on football governing bodies and the gambling industry to do the same.
Alexander said: “While the vast majority of our customers enjoy our products responsibly, it is high time that the industry did more to protect its customers from potential harm. As the UK’s largest gambling company, and owner of Ladbrokes and Coral, we at GVC are doing exactly that.”
GVC, which is based in the Isle of Man, also pledged to channel 1% of its gambling revenue into research, education and treatment projects by 2022, 10 times the voluntary levy of 0.1%.
While GVC has volunteered to increase its contribution, the industry has been accused of not paying its fair share, including by the charity GambleAware, which collects the proceeds of the voluntary levy and backs a new mandatory one.
The Gambling Commission chairman, Bill Moyes, said on Thursday that “hard cash” via a mandatory system was required to increase funding for research, education and treatment from about £12m to at least £70m a year.
But the sports minister said the current system worked and “continues to have support from government and industry”, although she said tougher options would remain on the table.
Watson said: “It’s outrageous that this Tory government is ignoring its own statutory adviser’s call for a mandatory levy on gambling companies to fund support for problem gamblers.
“Both the regulator and the industry agree that the current levy system needs to change to increase the level of support, but true to form, this government is dragging its heels.”
The Scottish National Party MP Ronnie Cowan said he was disappointed the government was yet to back a statutory levy. And the Bishop of St Albans said the government’s position was “extraordinary and surprising”.
Davies, whose predecessor Tracey Crouch resigned over delays to curbs on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), said she expected the industry to make “faster progress” on tackling harm caused by betting.
She said: “Protecting people from harm should be at the heart of every gambling business. Addiction can ruin lives and it is vital that those who need help are given the right treatment at the right time.”
Both Moyes and Davies were speaking at the launch of the commission’s three-year strategy to reduce gambling-related harm, focusing on prevention, education and treatment and support for problem gamblers.
Moyes said the regulator hoped to deliver a “seismic shift” in harm prevention and would not hesitate to take regulatory action against betting firms that cross the line.
The commission has increased the level of financial penalties on firms that breach their licensing obligations in recent years, amid a string of scandals involving problem gambling.