Help! I have become an ‘issue’

The Advisory Board for Safer Gambling is struggling to deal with ‘the Dan Waugh issue’

24th January 2024
Dan Waugh

Dan Waugh asks whether self-appointed experts can be trusted to act with integrity when it comes to regulating gambling.

Recently, I made the curious discovery that I am an “issue”. Now, I have been called many things in my time – some not fit to print – but never before have I been labelled an ‘issue’. It is the Advisory Board for Safer Gambling (ABSG) that I have to thank for addressing this gap in my CV – a body that provides advice to the Gambling Commission and, as I have discovered, indulges in conspiracy theories about Big Oil and little old me.

I first learned about “the Dan Waugh issue” – couched amid more general disparagements of my character – when I was granted access to a set of heavily redacted ‘informal notes’ from meetings of the ABSG. The advisory board had taken exception to a critique that I had co-authored on a Public Health England (PHE) report on ‘the economic and social cost of [gambling] harms’ (addressed in previous articles on Cieo). The PHE report estimated ‘the annual economic burden of harmful gambling to be about £1.27 billion’ – a figure underpinned by its speculation that there were 409 deaths by suicide ‘associated with problem gambling only’ in 2019. The ABSG described this claim as a ‘catalyst towards action’, but initially failed to subject it to critical analysis. Had it done so, it would have realised that PHE’s analysis was undermined by factual errors, mathematical mistakes and questionable calculations. For this reason, I wrote to the board, asking for a meeting to discuss my concerns; but was rebuffed on the grounds that my views were ‘already in the public domain’ – a curious basis for indifference.

Engagement with others proved at least a little more fruitful. The Gambling Commission admitted that it did not understand PHE’s calculations (later, it would describe them as not being based on reliable data) and a small number of MPs and peers took an interest, taking up the matter with the government through parliamentary questions. In this way, I came once again to the attention of the ABSG, whose members took exception to this scrutiny of PHE claims; and likened it to the suppression by Big Oil of research on climate change.

The board suggested that the ‘overall goal’ of those questioning the PHE evidence was ‘to undermining [sic] the evidence base’. When the ABSG chair, Dr Anna van der Gaag, finally reviewed the PHE report (at the request of the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities – or the OHID – which had succeeded PHE), she noted that PHE’s approach had – as we and others had argued – led ‘to an over estimation of the numbers and therefore the final cost calculations’. What followed was revealing. Dr van der Gaag suggested that whether the PHE estimates were accurate or not was beside the point, so long as they met the needs of ‘people and families harmed by gambling’ – a remarkable claim from someone who is, in effect, the Gambling Commission’s lead scientific adviser.

In August 2022, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), announced that the PHE report would be reviewed and the “specific calculations and modelling assumptions” would be published. Twelve months ago, the PHE report was withdrawn (although the promised calculations were never published – possibly because the DHSC had realised by this point just how problematic they were). The OHID report that replaced it is similarly beset by methodological issues and mathematical errors as well as a number of issues of governance. In response to concerns about reliability, the Gambling Commission excluded both the PHE and OHID findings from its advice to the government – although other organizations have been less scrupulous.

The “Dan Waugh issue” highlights a number of problems with the way that gambling policy is deliberated. First, is the suggestion that the ABSG – whose responsibilities include ‘helping the Commission deliver an evidence-based approach to gambling policy and its regulatory approach’ – may not be morally neutral or rigorously evidence-based. Given the influence that the ABSG wields over policy (including the shaping of new regulations prior to consultation), the suggestion that it lacks impartiality is troubling. The advisory group may be in breach of its own corporate values – notably the first, ‘integrity – we are honest, we listen to others and consider carefully diverse views’; and the third, ‘excellence – we are committed to high standards’.

The second problem is that a set of parallel ‘informal notes’, documenting the real business of ABSG meetings, have been hidden from view. The official meeting notes, published on the Gambling Commission website are usually anodyne to the point of irrelevance. It seems that the board’s real business is recorded in secret ‘informal notes’ – hardly in keeping with the ABSG’s second corporate value, ‘transparency – we are open’. Given the glimpses of what really goes on in those meetings, it is surely in the public interest for the informal notes to be made public. In this way, the conduct of the ABSG – whose members are bound by the Nolan Principles on Public Life – might be subject to appropriate scrutiny.

The third and final observation is that the behaviour of the ABSG appears symptomatic of the deterioration of the public policy debate on gambling – among many other topics. Some stakeholders find it far easier to impute impure motives or stoop to ad hominem slurs than to engage in grown-up discussion about often complex matters. The words of the late Professor Peter Collins go to the heart of the matter:

The great debates about wars in Iraq and the great British Brexit debate showed clearly the extent to which people have lost the ability to address complex issues intelligently. As a result of bad education, especially at universities, they no longer have any sense of obligation or ability to do justice to the best that can be said against the view that they themselves are initially and instinctively disposed to hold. Instead, They congratulate themselves uncritically and pre-scientifically on being possessed of the one true faith about matters of doctrine and morals and deplore those who disagree with them as heretics to be deplored, despised, ostracised, sacked and generally persecuted.

In recent months, government plans for a statutory levy on gambling have been accompanied by calls from the Public Health Establishment for the exclusion of gambling companies and connected parties from any involvement in research or policy discussion (including scrutiny of claims from Public Health). These demands are typically justified by the need to protect the process from undue influence; but they indicate a lack of self-awareness – or even hypocrisy – when so many of those who advocate exclusion have themselves distorted research. The ABSG’s problematizing of valid scrutiny raises significant questions about how far self-appointed experts may be trusted to act with integrity under the forthcoming levy; and emphasises the need for vigilance and effective governance from the DCMS and HM Treasury, who have been tasked with overseeing the system. Until then, I am proud to be an ‘issue’.

Dan Waugh is a partner at the global strategic sports and leisure advisory firm, Regulus Partners.