Gambling has always been part of society. Of course, in the not too distant past it was an activity of the wealthier classes: most people simply had no money to gamble with. It has been generally classed as a leisure pursuit. The word has the same roots as ‘game’; hence ‘gaming’ and gambling’ can be used equally. The roots of the word ‘game’, going back 800 years include the meanings ‘joy, fun, pleasure, merriment’.

When gambling became a working class leisure activity, various groups in society frowned upon it as immoral, similarly to alcohol consumption. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has produced a useful brief history of gambling in the UK:

Gambling in the UK: a short history


The era of prohibition


Until comparatively recently, UK governments showed mainly prohibitionist attitudes

to gambling. In the 19th century, all forms of lottery were made illegal (Lotteries Act 1823), ‘betting houses’ or offices were prohibited (Betting Act 1853), and anti-gambling sentiment found national expression through the formation in 1890 of the National Anti-Gambling League (NAGL).

For the first half of the 20th century, little changed – betting was banned in all public places (Street Betting Act 1906), NAGL campaigns to ban betting on horse racing courses were very nearly successful, and two Royal Commissions recommended that betting offices remain illegal (1933) and all ‘gaming machines’ and technologies be prohibited (1951).


A more liberal position: 1960–1990s


From the 1960s onwards, a more liberal position towards gambling emerged, gradually shaping the activity and industry we know in Britain today. The Betting and Gaming Act

1960 liberalised gambling law, legalising betting shops and creating an expansion of commercial gaming in locations such as restaurants, bingo halls and members’ clubs. The Gaming Act 1968 created the Gaming Board for Great Britain to oversee and regulate the gambling industry, and made changes to restrict gambling to licensed premises (partly to tackle illegal gambling in private residences). Followed by a relaxation of restrictions on local lotteries in 1975 (Lotteries Act) and allowing televisions in betting shops in the mid-

1980s to show live and recorded racing and other sports (Betting, Gaming, and Lotteries(Amendment) Act 1984), this shift culminated in the introduction of the National Lottery in 1994 (National Lottery etc. Act 1993).

Deregulation: the 1990s


The success of the National Lottery resulted in subsequent demands from the rest

of the gambling industry for a ‘level playing field’. This led to increasing deregulation of thesector: Sunday racing (with on- and off-course betting in shop outlets), gaming machines being increasingly allowed in pubs and fast food outlets, casino opening hours being extended and membership restrictions being relaxed, and the removal of limits on prizes for ‘national bingo’ (played across the country).


The new law: the millennium


The Gambling Review Board 2001 recommended abolishing the principle

of ‘unstimulated demand’ for casinos and other gambling establishments (allowing their expansion), the legalisation of larger prizes, tighter controls on gaming machines, and the setting-up of a Gambling Commission. These recommendations led to the Gambling Act 2005 (which became fully operational in 2007). Depending on the viewpoint taken, this resulted in overdue modernisation or overwhelming liberalisation of gambling. Besides the National Lottery, Britain now has a large and innovative gambling sector covering betting outlets, gambling machines, casino, bingo, liberal internet gambling regulations, fixed-

odds betting terminals, betting exchanges and spread betting. Gambling is now more freely advertised, and gambling contracts (and debts) are now legally enforceable.

2014: new codes of practice


Following public, media and political debate about problem gambling and fixed-odds betting terminals, and the clustering of betting shops on town centre high streets, the gambling sector has introduced new codes of practice, which may become mandatory later in 2014

Click here for the full report on ‘The Hidden Addiction’ by the Royal College of Psychiatrists from which this brief history is taken. Notice that although the gambling sector has introduced some new codes of practice since 2014, the debates still go on.

A Gambling Commission Report of February 2017 provides the following recent headline findings about gambling behaviour in the UK during 2016:

  • 48% of respondents have gambled in the past four weeks (a 3% increase on 2015), this figure drops to 33% when you exclude those that have only played the National Lottery
  • of those surveyed, 53% of men (50% in 2015) and 44% of women (41% in 2015) have gambled
  • 17% of people that gambled did so online, with 97% of online gamblers gambling at home (unchanged from last year)
  • use of mobile phones or tablet devices to gamble has increased by 10% since 2015, to 43%
  • 23% of gamblers have read terms and conditions
  • 68% of 18-24 year olds have been prompted to gamble by adverts and posts on social media 
  • 0.7% of those that have gambled in the past 12 months identified as problem gamblers (compared to 0.5% in 2015), with 5.5% identified as at-risk gamblers
  • 6% of gamblers have ever self-excluded, an additional 37% of gamblers are aware of self-exclusion, an increase of 8% from 2015
  • gambling on gaming machines in bookmakers has remained stable at 1.5% (compared to last year)
  • 67% of respondent’s think people should have the right to gamble whenever they want
  • 78% of respondents feel there are too many opportunities to gamble nowadays, whilst 69% feel gambling is dangerous for family life
  • Following our work with the Competitions and Markets Authority into unfair terms and conditions, respondents were asked why they felt terms were unfair. The top three areas of concern were:
    • having to wager a certain amount before you can claim prize/winnings
    • unfair limits on the availability of/qualifying for a free bet
    • it being too difficult to win or in the companies favour.

© Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Image © Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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