In the previous instalment, we looked at the primary aims of anti-gambling charities and if or how the government’s Gambling White Paper answered them.
Top of the priorities put forward by organisations like Clean Up Gambling, GamSafe and others were a statutory levy on gambling operators to pay for research, education and treatment, as well as affordability checks to determine the financial risk of bettors.
The latter proposal received a significant boost earlier this month when the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) confirmed that the regulation would not fall foul of data protection law provided it is done “transparently and proportionately”.
The body confirmed it has been working on developing the checks’ framework with the Gambling Commission.
The ICO’s Executive Director of Regulatory Risk, Stephen Almond, said of the proposal: “Problem gambling has devastating consequences for people’s finances, relationships and health and we are keen to see the financial sector share data to protect people from unaffordable losses and spiralling debt.”
Almond also issued a shot across the bows for gambling operators, adding that the use of data by gambling operators for commercial gain would be “strictly outside of the purposes for which the data is being shared”.
This point echoes the concerns of anti-gambling charities around the extent to which gambling firms have been allowed to influence government policy and use customer data to date.
Further Consultations to Come
Most if not all of the propositions in the White Paper that anti-gambling groups pushed for in an effort to wrest influence from gambling firms will undergo a consultation phase; a delay that gives gambling firms time to lobby and dilute measures that could damage their bottom line while anti-gambling groups try to fight them off.
Giving evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in May, Anna Hemmings, Chief Executive of GamCare, said it is “critical” the consultation “moves at pace”.
Matthew Hickey, Chief Executive of charity Gordon Moody, said a delay in publishing the White Paper had a significant impact on the charity’s operations.
He said: “While the White Paper was going through its various different reiterations it made it a very difficult year for us and for other organisations in the sphere to actually deliver services.”
Mr Hickey continued that his organisation, which treats serious addicts who are often suicidal, has seen treatment applications double since before 2020 to 1,000 a year.
Just this week, a coroner called for Betfair and parent company Flutter to take action to prevent further deaths after a gambling addict took his own life in 2021 as a result of a gambling disorder.
“We still have business as usual going on on a daily basis and we still have an increase of people coming forward,” Hickey said.
What’s the Timeline for the White Paper’s Further Consultations?
Most of the processes named in the White Paper are scheduled for summer 2023, beginning this month, with some extending to 2024.
The Gambling Commission last month said it anticipated consultations on several major legislative points — age verification, remote games design, direct marketing and cross-selling, and financial risk and vulnerability checks — to begin during July, lasting until October.
A second batch of consultations will reportedly open in the autumn covering topics such as socially responsible inducements and gambling management tools.
The first of these latter points slated for the autumn is one that has mostly stayed out of the headlines but is central to the outcome of the stronger regulations that anti-gambling pressure groups are striving for.
A consumer ombudsman has been called for by several groups, including Clean Up Gambling, in order to deal with disputes and provide appropriate redress where a customer suffers losses due to operators’ social responsibility failure.
To date, this has been a significant gap in gambling harm provision. The White Paper states that around 2,000 customer complaints are made per year to Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) providers and the Gambling Commission relating to social responsibility breaches, gambling harm, and safer gambling.
However, these are currently “out of scope” for ADR, and the Commission cannot require operators to repay individual customers, meaning customers have no choice but to pursue potentially costly and uncertain court action.
From the operators’ perspective, the ombudsman is a very real concern if they are found to be lacking in safeguarding against gambling harm moving forward. The White Paper fails to state whether complaints can be backdated once the body is expected to become operational in 2024, with the potential that this could lead to an even higher complaints count.
Stake Limits Remain a Major Sticking Point
The final major battleground of the White Paper legislation for pro and anti-gambling bodies is the stake limit.
We have covered in some detail the proposals outlined in the legislation, but how do they sit with both sides of the debate?
From the anti-gambling side, the concept is stronger than the substance.
A limit of between £2 and £15 per spin is outlined for over-25s, while under 25s will have options of a £2 limit, a £4 limit, or an approach based on individual risk.
Matt Zarb-Cousin of Clean Up Gambling outlines that, given FOBTs are capped at £2 a spin and most land-based machines are £1 or less, “there is no justification for stakes online in excess of £2” and describes a £15 spin limit as “inconceivable”.
Gambling bodies have been relatively quiet in speaking out or rebelling against stake limits, perhaps because the legislation only proposes limiting stakes for slot games only, which it deems an example of the most extreme gambling activity.
Should the £2 limit progress, however, it would have a significant impact on the industry’s bottom line or gross gambling yield (GGY).
Gambling Commission figures suggest that more than 87% of slots consist of stakes up to £1, 96% up to £2, and 99% up to £5.
However, they also reference data from Morgan Stanley and NERA Economic Consulting that respectively estimated a £2 fixed limit on online slots would reduce online slot GGY by 22% and 23%.
A report by law firm CMS Law-Now points out that, by the Government’s own estimates, a universal limit set at £8.50 (the midpoint of the range consulted on) would reduce online slots GGY by between £135 million and £185 million, representing 4% to 6% of online slots GGY.
The report continues: “that there is no mention by the Government as to how (if at all) any imposed stake limits would keep pace with inflation, which could further compound the commercial impact of the reforms.”
What Now for Anti-Gambling Pressure Groups?
Now that the imminent landscape for the White Paper’s progression through the consultation process is slightly clearer, anti-gambling pressure groups and the gambling industry itself will need to fight their respective corners to ensure their wants are enshrined into law.
What seems more distant is the challenging reality that these two sides will need to work together to tackle the UK’s significant problem gambling issue while simultaneously keeping a multi-billion pound industry profitable, significant in size, and safe.