Affordability checks are even worse than you might think - and here's why
Who should decide what an individual can afford to spend on betting: the Gambling Commission, or the individual?
In a sane world, this column would end there. Yet this absurd question lies at the heart of the betting regulator's affordability review, which seriously proposes that punting losses of perhaps as little as £100 a month should prompt demands for evidence that you can afford to risk such a sum.
Here is Carolyn Harris MP, a vigorous proponent of restrictions on betting, explaining it on Sky Sports Racing this weekend: "If someone is regularly hitting £100 on a bet or in a period of time, then they need to show they can afford it. If they can prove they can afford it, then no issue."
Nothing to worry about, then. Just a perfectly normal proposal that a non-governmental quango staffed by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats – not even civil servants – will determine a loss level at which you and I should be subject to checks on our personal finances. Just a demand that in order to continue betting if a couple of £25 each-way punts go awry, we must share payslips and bank statements with our bookie.
Well! Most punters would tell any betting operator asking for such invasive details of one's financial affairs to go whistle, but imagine for a second that you would subject yourself to such an illiberal and demeaning process. How would your capacity to bet be assessed? The Gambling Commission's consultation document gives some clues, and its suggestions should horrify punters and anyone who cares about the rights of the individual to manage their own affairs without overweening state interference.
First, it is essential to note that while proponents of affordability checks would have you believe these can take place seamlessly and without any inconvenience to punters by utilising information betting operators already hold or can access from credit agencies, the Gambling Commission states this is not the case, noting "we would want to be clear that it is still likely that operators will need to collect information directly from customers".
So, let's say you are a daily £10 punter and after a fortnight of middling-to-poor results you hit the prospective £100 threshold for affordability checks. You reluctantly and with grave reservations hand over your most sensitive financial documents for review. How does the operator decide if you are barred from betting for the rest of the month and subject to punting restrictions for evermore?
According to the Gambling Commission, the "most relevant" way of assessing your capacity to bet before "beginning to experience harms" is through assessing what it calls discretionary income. This is what you have left each month after spending on essentials like taxes, bills, food and housing. Crucially, however, the commission adds it "would not be expected that anyone could spend their entire discretionary income on gambling without experiencing harms".
As such, the Gambling Commission is not just suggesting your financial affairs should be subject to the sort of scrutiny you might find uncomfortable coming from your spouse, never mind Sky Bet, but that the sum of money you have left after meeting all obligations and purchasing all essentials still cannot be used as you see fit. This is a naked admission that this is not about affordability, but about prohibitionism and control.
Worse still, this proposal would affect a vast swathe of punters. While the Gambling Commission misleadingly suggests that in any given month just nine per cent of non-slots bettors finish with a net loss of over £100, the more relevant statistic is how many ever hit a £100 loss. Let us be honest, most punters have managed that on day one of Cheltenham.
So if we accept, as seems likely, that the great majority of enthusiastic recreational punters will hit the proposed threshold at some point in the course of their betting year, the question is how many would then have restrictions imposed.
According to YouGov statistics quoted by the Gambling Commission, nine per cent of British adults have no discretionary income, 25 per cent have less than £125 a month and another 20 per cent have under £250. If we remember that the commission believes only a portion of discretionary income should be permitted for betting, we are left with the conclusion that almost one in every two punters should anticipate being restricted to losing less than £50 a week (and in some cases much less), while one in ten could be barred from betting entirely.
The implications of this for racing, for punters and for basic civil liberties are appalling to contemplate. Problem gambling is a scourge that must be continually battled, but this is not a reasonable, proportionate or intelligent response to that serious issue. Instead, it is a monstrous violation of our rights and privacy that will deter millions of responsible citizens from betting and impose draconian restrictions on countless more. It thereby threatens the very future of horseracing.
The Gambling Commission's consultation ends on Tuesday. Respond to it, write to your MP, and join the growing chorus of outrage at this illiberal proposal.
Have your say
Those wanting to make their views known as part of the consultation can do so until February 9 by clicking here for the full version or here for a short survey. We would also welcome your views at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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