The UK coalition government's minister in charge of racing and betting tells GamblingCompliance that horse racing's tangled financial problems need to be resolved before bigger questions around the funding of sport can be answered.
With the sale of Tote looming and the UK Government yet again forced to intervene in the dispute surrounding the funding of horse racing, we spoke to John Penrose about his first few months as the Coalition Governments new Gambling Minister.
In terms of what’s changed, I guess that the biggest thing I think that everyone has noticed so far is our declaration of intent on the Tote. While I appreciate that other Governments have made declarations of intent we are rather hopeful that we are going to turn it into action this time which I appreciate again, many other people have said as well, but we are making some progress and you will have seen some announcements which were made over the course of the last couple of months, we have got some more lined up in the fairly near future. So we want to make progress on that but we have also made our intentions clear on the levy, trying to make sure that we depoliticise the process of dealing with the levy and that’s I think is important because its kind of a weird anomaly frankly, in the 21st Century to have a process which requires a political intervention between two private sector organisations or two private sector industries racing and betting, but if they can’t agree on what ought to be a normal sort of commercial discussion then they get to appeal to the Secretary of State which is, I can’t think of a single other area where that happens anymore, so we want to deal with that. So those are the two sort of fundamental things. So quite a lot of change, one thing you will have noticed that I haven’t mentioned is any desire at all to reopen the 2005 Gambling Act or anything like it. I think everyone was in the industry and probably in the political classes was bruised enough by that. I don’t think I have yet to met anybody who is talking about any desire for a fundamental re-examination of the way that the industry is regulated or governed, it’s you know there may be some important minor tweaks, but that’s really where we are.
Is there an obligation for gambling to contribute to further sporting levies or for example sporting integrity measures?
That’s is if you pardon me saying so a very big question, and I think that what we need to focus on at the moment is two things, one is dealing with the 50th Horse Race Betting Levy Determination, I don’t get to do that because I am conflicted from it, so that is one of the delights of my job that I get to focus on the underlying structure of the levy and trying to fix that, and Jeremy Hunt and Hugh Roberts in between them have to deal with this determination, I am delighted that it is that way round. I think we need to sort out the horse race betting levy first and we need to get that right and we need to get that stable and we need to find a successor arrangement or whatever kind which is fair to all sides. If we can get that right then you know we can start to ask and answer the question about whether or not there is anything there which would be applicable to other industries or not. But please don’t read anything into what I have just said about we are not starting with a preconception that it should or it shouldn’t there are too many things to fix on the horse race betting one first before you start about worrying about other industries.
Given that you said the 2005 Gambling Act doesn’t need to be revisited, what do you think the current consultation on remote gambling will show us and do you think there are changes that need to be made there?
You are right to pick me up on that because why I said I don’t think there is any appetite anywhere for a whole sale reopening of the 2005 Gambling Act, a number of people both within the industry and in consumer groups, problem gambling, all these people are saying that they very concerned about the impact of remote gambling and to be fair the 2005 Act was conceived in an era when remote gambling was happening but it was nothing like the scale it is now and given the way things are going in another couple of years time it will have grown exponentially some more I am sure. Yes we need to look at this very very carefully, I think an awful lot of people in the industry and outside it are starting from the presumption that something does need to be done, again I am afraid I am going to have to ask you to allow me to keep my powder dry for a bit longer just because we need to make sure that we’ve looked at the results of the consultation properly, we’ve also had some more detailed consideration about what the implications might be and precisely what might be done, but that’s the one area where I think there is some unfinished business and I think that we’ve just got to look at that very very carefully and watch this space I guess to the point.
The recent spending cuts have affected almost all areas of the economy, how will they affect the gambling industry?
Well, I guess the industry is slightly at arms length and probably blessedly so at arms lengths from the spending cuts process. If only because the Gambling Commission rightly for any Regulator is at arms length from Politicians you wouldn’t want to have politicians politically inferring with or potentially medalling with peoples livelihoods in an important industry. So the Gambling Commission is rightly at arms lengths from me or any other Politician, and it’s affectively self funded by the industry. So that shouldn’t be their operations shouldn’t be affect. That said, what we have done is we’ve in conjunction with almost any other public body of any kind, we are asking the Gambling Commission to become a great deal more efficient and ask them to go away and look at how they are going to do that, not just in terms of the amount of you know what they do for the money they have got, which is obviously funded by the industry, so the industry I am sure has a stake in making sure that it’s money is a) minimised and b) be spent effectively, but also in terms of the what they call a regulatory footprint, the amount of red tape, the amount of regulation, can we achieve a safe outcome for the industry and have a properly responsible industry with slightly less regulatory top hamper in the process.
The only part of the Gambling Commission that received Government funding was the Prevalence Study. This is recently been cut, why is the Government cutting spending on problem gambling?
The current Prevalence Study will be completed on time, any changes won’t affect it, and it is due to report in February as you probably know. We are lucky at the moment, perhaps not lucky, perhaps it’s because we have had a properly regulated gambling industry in the past, Britain has an internationally pretty low level of problem gambling, I mean, any level is too high but actually comparatively we do pretty well. We don’t want to put that at risk, so we are discussing at the moment ways of making sure that either the Prevalence Study or its equivalent happens on an ongoing basis so we continue to audit that. I need to make some announcement in due course, but there are plenty of other ways of achieving that outcome without necessary spending tax payers’ cash on it. Part of the quid pro quo of any industry like gambling is that, done properly and done in a respectable and responsible way which the vast vast majority of the industry absolutely is, then it causes no problems and it provides a bit of harmless fun for a very large number of people. In the small number of cases where very occasionally you get operators who are not behaving responsibly but even when they are behaving responsibly you do get some people who are predisposed and became problem gamblers, that is kinda of a mess that wouldn’t exist without the industry and therefore the industry I think it ought to be the people who fund and deal with managing that, managing the consequences, providing the help and support to people who are in trouble and actually the industry to its credit I don’t think has ever questioned that and has always said they think that is appropriate and they want to be responsible, there are some very very sensibly minded people in the industry and they accept that and have done for a very long time and I am sure they will in the future.