6 November, 2023

UK lotteries: The black sheep of the family

Gambling Insider looks into the complicated history of the UK Government’s state lotteries and the struggles to regulate them, from 1694 to 2024

Since the UK Government published its Gambling White Paper back in April, endless proposals, consultations and publications have followed. However, there was a particularly strong reaction to the open consultation on the statutory levy on gambling operators, that was published on 17 October 2023, when it was revealed that despite a mandatory levy being imposed across all gambling licence holders, one particular entity seemed to be excluded: The National Lottery. 

In the proposal, the UK Government said: “We have concluded that charging a levy to the National Lottery under separate powers would be disproportionate and therefore do not plan to consult on this issue.”

The reason for this was that The National Lottery already makes ‘significant’ voluntary contributions to Research, Prevention and Treatment (RPT) causes. Of course, this received immediate scrutiny, the most prominent critic being the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC). 

Brigid Simmonds, BGC Chairman, said: "The National Lottery’s contribution to GambleAware over the last three years has been approximately 0.01 per cent of its annual Gross Gambling Yield (GGY). This equates to an average donation of around £440,000 ($539,000) each year on GGY  of  around £3.5bn.”

Unfortunately, it seems that despite a National Lottery existing to some degree since the late 1500s, the UK still doesn’t really know how to confidently handle the wider perception of it.

The first UK lottery was recorded back in 1567 when Queen Elizabeth I wanted to finance the repair efforts for UK harbours. According to letters written at the time, the public didn’t really know what to make of it.

At the moment, all eyes are on the National Lottery and alleged special treatment from being excluded from the statutory levy

The notion of the Government using ticket sales to fund a project was found to be too strange to the people of England, which ultimately led to its failure. 

Almost 100 years later the first ‘successful’ lottery was introduced. In 1694, the Million Lottery was launched to fund the Central Government – and its upcoming war against France. The proceeds from the initiative would be used in several wars later on, including the Nine Years War and the American War.

This was a much easier concept to sell to the public and seeing the financial opportunity this scheme had afforded the Government, all other lotteries were banned in 1699. This effectively gave the UK Government a monopoly on the lottery business.

Considering this success, the first abolishment of the UK Government lottery may be a surprise to some. Once Napoleon was defeated in 1815, the lotteries were no longer required to fund the war and, subsequently, they were dissolved in 1826.

The general consensus among the public and Government alike was that, as there was no impending war-based crisis, there was no need for a nationwide lottery. 

Of course, this was also during a time of changing public perception. After a gambling boom in the early 1800s, the idea that gambling was immoral grew in popularity. This culminated in the Gaming Act 1845 being published, which deemed any ‘game of mere skill’ unlawful, including bowling, tennis and archery.

It seems that this ‘immoral’ sentiment was difficult to shake off, even over 200 years later when the National Health Service Lottery was cancelled in 1988, before it even got to do its very first draw because of legal reasons.

It wasn’t until 19 November 1994 that the National Lottery as we know it was unveiled to the public, with Noel Edmonds presenting the first draw from the operator, Camelot Group. Those familiar multi-coloured balls entered the clear glass contraception and seven numbers were selected at random; 30, 3, 5, 44, 14, 22 and 10.

These past 30 years have seen the National Lottery explode in popularity, with Camelot reporting sales reaching £8.19bn in 2022/23. Of course, this led to an entire episode in itself, when it was revealed that Allwyn would be taking over the fourth National Lottery licence for 2024 – the first operator change since it was launched with Camelot back in 1994. Allywn then duly acquired Camelot. 

This brings us back to the present – lotteries have been organised in the UK unofficially for over 500 years and a state lottery was even held in 1694. It seems surprising, then, to see that going into 2024, there are still public debates on how the lottery should best serve the public.

Those in lottery don’t tend to see themselves as part of the wider gambling sector. But, quite simply, they are kidding themselves.

While we (thankfully) no longer require a state lottery to fund war efforts, or to repair the nation’s harbours, this has let the National Lottery fall into a grey area of intentions. What is the purpose of it, other than to give players the chance to claim a win of a lifetime? 

In its 2022/23 financial year report, Camelot reported that the National Lottery raised £36m a week for projects and communities across the UK, with a further £3.11bn raised for society through good causes, lottery duty and retailer commission.

Of course, countless projects can only exist and thrive through the funding provided by the National Lottery, which is objectively a positive impact on society.

But we cannot completely avert our eyes from the full scope of the impact the lottery has. The lottery has always been viewed as separate from traditional gambling, as the delayed nature of the win is very different from casino games.

However, it’s undeniable that the ‘chance’ of the win is still a risk. The National Lottery requires specific gambling licences to operate, so should it be exempt from a statutory levy that is applied to ‘all Gambling Commission operating licence holders?'

With the landscape changing to bring more accountability to the industry, across all kinds of operators, it will be interesting to see how this aspect is handled by Allwyn when the licence goes live in 2024. At the moment, all eyes are on the National Lottery and alleged special treatment from being excluded from the statutory levy. 

How long will said special treatment continue?