Gambling rakes in £15bn, but regulator Andrew Rhodes is relaxed

Gambling rakes in £15bn, but regulator Andrew Rhodes is relaxed

Betting man: Andrew Rhodes’ interest in betting has become ‘more professional’ since he became boss of the gambling watchdog

Andrew Rhodes likes a flutter. The boss of the Gambling Commission – which oversees bookies, casinos, amusement arcades and the National Lottery – has just had ‘a bit’ of success at Cheltenham, landing two winners on the opening day.

He didn’t go to the popular horse racing festival, even though many of those he regulates were at the week-long jamboree. Nor was he watching it on TV from his office in Birmingham. He’s too busy for that. But Rhodes, 47, makes no secret of his passion for a punt.

‘I’m not a big gambler but it’s something I’ve been doing for a long time,’ he says in his lilting Welsh accent. ‘I’ll never make a living out of it, but I’m moderately successful.’

His interest in betting has become ‘more professional’ since he became chief executive of the gambling watchdog two years ago.

He can’t play the National Lottery because of his role in granting and managing the licence that Czech-owned Allwyn has just taken over from Camelot. He can’t even gamble in betting shops or play slot machines.

‘There’s often a sad scene on the South Wales coast where my kids might be on the 2p machines and Dad is sitting on a bench outside like he’s some sort of miscreant.’

His profile among the gambling fraternity also makes him an occasional target. He recalls: ‘I remember going into a William Hill betting shop in Manchester and someone recognised me and set upon me with their views. It was unexpected but we had a nice chat.’

There would have been lots to discuss. Bet365 boss Denise Coates has caused a stir after paying herself £271 million – even though the gambling giant swung into loss last year. The sector rakes in £15 billion a year, but Rhodes does not see himself as a profits regulator.

‘The industry can make as much as it wants as long as it is according to licensing objectives, if it’s not targeting vulnerable people, if it’s not from crime or because terms and conditions are unfair.’

Anti-gambling campaigners say a lack of regulation has allowed betting to proliferate, especially online, leading to spiralling rates of harm, addiction and even suicide, especially among the young.

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MPs recently called for children to be shielded from ‘bombardment’ by gambling ads at football grounds. One study found 7,000 gambling messages on billboards, shirt sponsorship and in TV ad breaks in six matches on the opening weekend of the season.

The industry disputes any direct link between sports advertising and gambling harm. It also opposes affordability checks – screening of punters’ bank accounts for signs of gambling distress. But the Government’s gambling strategy outlined last year wants stricter rules. So where does Rhodes stand?

‘Our focus is to ensure any advertising is ‘responsible’ so gambling is not presented as ‘a way to solve problems, make money or relieve stress’, he says. ‘But it is a difficult topic, as is sports sponsorship.’

What about a link between advertising and gambling harm? Again, he hedges his bets: ‘Nobody’s really been able to show a causal link between advertising and problem gambling. We know advertising has a greater effect on people who have already got a problem with gambling.’

Where would he be on the spectrum between a free-for-all on one hand or prohibition on the other?

‘My role is to be impartial and not to have a strong opinion in either direction,’ he insists, adding his approach is always led by the evidence. He warms to his theme.

‘The UK probably has the most liberalised gambling industry in the world,’ he says, insisting bans would drive operators underground with no protection for punters and ‘rampant criminality’. He notes that 44 per cent of the adult population – 22.5 million people – gamble at least once a month.

Gambling has long been a widespread leisure activity, and the vast majority of people don’t have problems, Rhodes says. He accepts some have ‘horrendous issues’ leading to ‘awful consequences’ – though one of the biggest problems is predicting who will succumb.

Rhodes was the first in his family to go to university – in Swansea – where he then joined the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.

He went on to become chief operating officer at the Foods Standards Agency and operations director at the Department for Work and Pensions before leading the Gambling Commission. Its job is to ensure gambling is fair, open and clean. It will also collect the planned £100 million levy on operators – 1 per cent of gross profits – to treat gambling addiction. 

It resembles the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in acting as judge, jury and executioner, issuing licences, enforcing compliance, imposing unrestricted fines and removing operators’ right to trade.

‘In the last three years we’ve taken action against 46 operators to the tune of £103 million in penalties. We’re taking serious action to ensure they follow policies and iconwin procedures,’ says Rhodes. Some firms appealed, but ‘none have succeeded’, he notes, adding: ‘We’ve a lot of success taking down illegal Facebook lotteries.’

Like the FCA, Rhodes’ brief covers money laundering. He says: ‘Gambling has always been quite susceptible. There’s still a lot of cash in gambling. That is why there are stringent controls on source of funds.’

One reason he wants to see fewer gambling ads at football grounds is he and his teenage son are ‘massive’ Swansea City fans and go to a lot home games so ‘it’s quite a tricky issue’.

He also chairs the Championship club’s charitable foundation and played a key role when The Swans replaced gambling firm YoBet with the local university as shirt sponsor in 2020. He says: ‘I was chief operating officer at Swansea University at the time so I was at the other end of that deal!’

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