John is probably the only Horseracing and Gambling Minister ever to own a Cheltenham Gold Cup trophy, from when his wife’s horse Cool Dawn won the race in 1998. It meant he was unusually well-equipped to serve as Minister from 2010 to 2012, covering everything from the National Lottery, which continued to grow strongly during his tenure, through to casinos and horseracing as well.
Britain is viewed as one of the world’s safest and best-regulated gambling environments, and its firms are seen as responsible and commercially successful in an increasingly global industry, while British horseracing is some of the best in the world. Between them the sectors employ tens of thousands of people, so they’re very important to our economy as well.
John was highly praised for his work by the industry, with BACTA, the voice of the British Amusement Industry, saying that: "John Penrose has proven an effective, responsive and available minister, both for our sector and tourism generally." and The Telegraph writing that: "Anyone employed in horse racing or its affiliate service industries owes a debt of gratitude to Gambling Minister John Penrose." [Link]
John helped guide the industry through some major and very important changes, including:
- Launched new laws to protect British punters using foreign-based online gambling websites, so they will have the same rights as they’d expect in a High Street bookmaker’s shop.
- Delivered a pre-election manifesto pledge to increase the share of National Lottery profits going to the traditional good causes of Sport, Heritage, Arts and Community (Big Society) organisations. Three years later, each one was getting more than £50 million extra annual funding than before.
- Launched new proposals to replace the ‘Horserace Betting Levy’, a 50+ year old mechanism for funding horseracing which is increasingly out of date as betting goes online and offshore. The proposed alternative would get politicians out of the process entirely, putting an independent trust in their place where racing and gambling firms can work together in partnership instead.
- Persuaded gambling firms and their opponents to co-operate together in launching the Responsible Gambling Trust (RGT), a heavyweight independent centre for research into the causes of problem gambling and how best to treat it.
- Sold the Tote, a publicly-owned bookie which successive Governments (including those run by Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) had tried and failed to dispose of. The Tote was sold for a much higher price than expected (£265 million all told) and the net proceeds were split 50/50 with the racing industry.
- Delivered a second manifesto pledge to change rules affecting ‘B3’ slot machines, which had been killing jobs and driving seaside arcades out of business. After this, John was described as ‘the Champion of British tourism’ by BACTA, one of the industry’s most influential bodies.
- Launched the first ‘triennial review’ of slot machine stakes and prizes for almost a decade, to strong approval from the industry.
But even though the gambling industry is relatively well-run, it polarises opinion sharply. Some people view gambling as an entirely normal leisure pursuit which, like alcohol, is perfectly legitimate unless done to excess. Others feel equally strongly that it’s inherently dangerous and immoral as well. And there isn’t nearly enough reputable and academically solid research into what causes problem gambling, how the risks can be reduced, or how the symptoms can be successfully treated either. As a result, arguments tend to be won by whichever side shouts loudest, rather than creating a rational debate based on facts and evidence. This makes it very hard to change anything, or to be sure whether any particular set of plans will actually improve things or not.
As a result, while John feels that the changes to the Horserace Levy and the Tote will be critical for the future of British horseracing, creating the Responsible Gambling Trust is probably the most important long-term initiative for a healthy gambling industry. Only once the RGT is producing a stream of academically reputable and intellectually heavyweight evidence and research into problem gambling will we be able to move the industry forward rationally and safely, rather than being pushed around by fears and prejudice instead.