Talking Horses: racing’s affordability checks debate divides Westminster

<span>Punters watch from the stands at Plumpton on Monday while MPs gathered to debate an online petition against affordability checks.</span><span>Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images</span>
Punters watch from the stands at Plumpton on Monday while MPs gathered to debate an online petition against affordability checks.Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

The days when parliament would adjourn on Derby day to allow the honourable members to attend Epsom have long since passed, but the sport of kings made a much-anticipated return to the Westminster spotlight on Monday.

MPs gathered to debate a petition that calls on the government to “abandon the planned implementation of affordability checks for some people who want to place a bet”. A total of 103,386 individuals have signed the petition, which was launched by Nevin Truesdale, the chief executive of the Jockey Club, in early November.

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Many of those signatories will have learned about the petition via the sport’s trade paper, the Racing Post. It has been running a ferocious campaign against the checks – which would be triggered by losses of as little as £125 in 30 days or £500 in a year – for many months and described Monday’s event as “a huge day for the future of racing in Britain”.

In a debate that extended for its full scheduled length of three hours, and drew contributions from around two dozen MPs of all parties, racing’s burning issue of the moment was examined thoughtfully, carefully and occasionally with humour, as several members admitted to unsuccessful second careers as racing punters. But there was a consistent acknowledgment, too, of the potentially terrible consequences of gambling addiction, and the extent to which online gambling has increased its risks.

The MPs’ contributions varied in both tone and substance, but broadly fell into one of two groups. The first were opposed to the proposed checks, either on principle or because of the possible damage to racing as punters stop betting or are driven to illegal markets.

Conor McGinn, the former Labour and now independent MP for St Helens North, led this side of the debate. “This is a bad policy by any objective measure,” McGinn said. “It is an example of massive government overreach … and an infringement on individual rights.” The reliance on net losses as a gauge of affordability, he added, was “a terrible measure” which took no account of the huge range of incomes and circumstances among gamblers.

Another independent MP, the former health secretary Matt Hancock, suggested a “carve out” for racing to exempt it from the checks, as is the case with gambling on the national lottery. “We are falling into the trap that because something has to be done, and this is something, then this has to be done,” Hancock said.

The second group of contributors, which included several members of the Gambling Related Harm APPG (All-Party Parliamentary Group), could be described as in favour of affordability checks but also focused on online gaming – casino products and slots, for example – as the main cause for concern.

Paul Blomfield, the Sheffield Central MP whose constituent, Jack Ritchie, took his own life as a result of gambling addiction, accused the industry of mobilising racing to try to head off the checks entirely. “They are using it as a wedge issue,” Blomfield said. “Don’t let horse racing be used to undermine checks that are needed.”

Ronnie Cowan, the Scottish National Party member for Inverclyde, was perhaps the only contributor happy to suggest that he saw knock-on effects for racing as a relatively minor consideration in the debate. “What price a life?” he asked, before responding to several contributors who pointed out that a £500 loss over a year amounts to £1.37 per day.

“For some people that could make the difference to putting money in the meter or food on the table,” Cowan said, adding: “If the checks say they can afford it, they can afford it.”

As the debate concluded, Stuart Andrew MP, the minister with responsibility for gambling, made it plain that affordability checks are still on the way, and insisted that these will be a significant improvement on “the onerous, ad-hoc and inconsistent checks” that gambling firms are carrying out at present, “often without explanation and asking customers to supply data manually.”

The promise of “frictionless” checks would be delivered, Andrew said, “without burdening customers” in all but a handful of cases. Many in racing remain unconvinced. But while the checks are policy, the detail is now down to the Gambling Commission. Truesdale left the debate still hopeful that the process will prove to have been worthwhile.

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“There was significant engagement and interest and I’m told that’s a lot of people for a Westminster Hall debate,” he said. “There’s also people who were not here but were mentioned, like [former chancellor] Nadhim Zahawi and [former home secretary] Priti Patel, so I think there’s a significant groundswell of support for our cause.

“No one’s against solving problem gambling issues but it’s got to be done proportionately and that came through very, very clearly, which I think was good for us, and there were a lot more speakers in favour of where we’re coming from.

“Stuart Andrew laid out his stall at the end about it being frictionless, if he can make that work remains to be seen. The detail is what is important, it’s about implementing it sensibly and proportionately and that is absolutely up to the Gambling Commission now.”