What might we expect the next UK Gambling Act to look like?

A review of the 2005 Gambling Act that took place in 2021.

What might we expect the next UK Gambling Act to look like?

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If you’ve been keeping up with gambling-related news over the past year, the chances are you will have come across at least one reference to the ‘review of the Gambling Act’. The term often appears tacked on to the end of articles as an afterthought, with a development described as something that might be looked at ‘as the government continues its review into the Gambling Act’.

And yet, however important this ‘review’ may sound, and however much it is discussed, we still haven’t actually seen it appear yet.

A review into the Gambling Act 2005 was officially announced by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport last December.

The government was supposed to set out its list of proposals for reform (or ‘White Paper’, to use the official terminology) in March, but nothing has been announced yet. The latest update from Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy (or Gambling Minister) Chris Philp was that it would appear “in the coming months.”

So just what is at stake here, what changes can we expect to see as part of the review, and will it prove effective in the long run?

The current Gambling Act

The law now known as the Gambling Act was officially approved by Parliament in April 2005 and came into force two years later. The Act’s stated aims were to protect consumers and overhaul safety practices in order to better reflect the playing environment. It effectively launched the modern UK gambling industry.

Fast forward sixteen years and this piece of legislation is under the spotlight again. Prior to the 2019 general election, the Conservatives committed in their manifesto to a review of the 2005 Act, which was described as an "analogue law in a digital age." So when we hear talk of this ‘review’, it means a complete overhaul of the laws that govern gambling in the UK.

What has changed since 2005?

As with most things, the rapid development of the Internet has brought about changes to the way the gambling industry operates.

The growth of online casinos has raised all kinds of issues that have shown themselves to be problematic for the industry and for the general public. Every few months a story appears about a website having its licence suspended — often for failing to adequately protect its customers.

It’s abundantly clear, then, that the current legislation covering gambling needs a rethink. Issues relating to safer gambling are likely to be central to the review.

Dealing with gambling harm: public health vs responsible gambling

Over the many months since the review of the Gambling Act was announced, thousands of people have had the opportunity to submit evidence. The government has been reviewing this evidence to help develop its proposed reforms.

The issue of ‘gambling-related harm’ is sure to be a central part of any discussion about gambling and the law — it’s a large part of the reason for the government launching the review in the first place.

Within the House of Commons, All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) — loose gatherings of MPs from different parties — come together to discuss areas of shared interest. The APPG for Gambling-Related Harm, chaired by Labour MP Carolyn Harris, has been particularly busy discussing what steps the government should be taking as part of the review of the Gambling Act.

In a report published last year, the APPG made a distinction between two different ways of dealing with gambling-related harm: the ‘public health’ approach and the ‘responsible gambling’ one.

A public health approach, according to the report, essentially means treating problem gambling as an issue that affects the whole population. This means examining who is affected by the problems at the moment and making changes accordingly.

A responsible gambling approach — the kind that the group says is currently favoured in the UK — instead encourages individuals to make their own choices about how to gamble safely.

The APPG argues that the current responsible gambling approach is unsustainable because it takes the focus away from the addictive nature of gambling, essentially excusing gambling operators of any wrongdoing and making any problems the customer’s fault.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the APPG argues that the government must take a public health approach to gambling reform.

The ‘When the fun stops, stop’ slogan that has become synonymous with gambling advertising reflects the responsible gambling approach: it is the players’ duty to recognise when their habits become problematic.

The slogan, which was adopted in 2015, has long been criticised for being ineffective, and it’s easy to see why: gambling addicts aren’t suddenly going to be able to stop gambling at the sight of an advert.

Earlier this year the BGC stopped promoting ‘When the fun stops, stop’ in favour of ‘Take time to think’, which seems like a more considered approach on the surface — but again, the onus is placed on the player. It’s clearly not worth pouring resources into campaigns like this if they only have a negligible effect.

The latest government announcements

On 8th December, Gambling Minister Chris Philp spoke at the GambleAware conference, where the theme was ‘Collaboration in the Prevention of Gambling Harm’. Philp’s speech shed some light on the government’s progress with the review.

Philp stated: “The government gambling-related harm to be a health issue and a public health issue, and preventing harm is an essential objective of our gambling regulation. It’s our duty in government and more widely to prevent people from being led down a path to a dark destination.”

These remarks seem to signal that the government’s approach will be closer to the public health one than the responsible gambling one, placing gambling harm within its broader context as a societal issue.

Affordability checks: for your own good?

One particular area that Philp drew attention to in his speech was affordability checks — a well-known responsible gambling strategy, whereby operators have to examine customers’ spending habits before approving transactions.

In practice, this would mean that if a player made a loss of, say, £100 over a one-month period, then they would be required to provide information to prove that they could afford to spend more over the next month. This would likely be through submitting a copy of a monthly payslip or bank statement.

Last May, the Gambling Commission issued a call for operators to start monitoring their users’ data with more frequency as part of a general recommendation to protect customers during the first lockdown.

Going forward, Philp said, affordability checks need to be enforced more effectively without becoming intrusive. He seemed to suggest that the solution to this problem could be digital, with operators and banks working together to monitor customers’ activity.

This would be part of what is called a ‘single-customer view’ approach, meaning different operators sharing information on players in order to gain a general picture of their spending.

Some may argue that this is an intrusion by the government on players’ individual liberties, but on balance, if the government is serious about getting problem gambling under control, it needs to force operators to get serious about recognising the signs of gambling harm.

Those who see affordability checks as an unnecessary infringement will undoubtedly be cross to see a development like this. Nonetheless, as Philp acknowledged, it’s clear that “there is a level at which it is appropriate” in the case of high-risk players. As part of a public health approach to gambling harm, steps like these clearly need to be taken.

Cuts to advertising?

The role of gambling-related advertising within sport may also be subject to new changes as part of the review.

There is no doubt that the so-called ‘whistle-to-whistle’ ban introduced in 2019, aimed at reducing public exposure to gambling-related advertising, had a substantial effect. Data shows that it led to a 97% decrease in the number of children exposed to gambling ads. Many might argue that the case for expanding this ban even further, to cover other sports and more times of the day, is even greater because of this success.

On the same day as Philp’s speech, the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) issued a call for further protection for children against gambling harms, calling for it to be put “front and centre” of the upcoming White Paper. This might entail further restrictions on advertising.

However, with the economy still recovering from the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, some might argue that now is not the time to call for further bans. Earlier this year, the FIGC (the Italian FA)  wrote to the country’s government pleading for gambling advertising to be re-legalised in a bid to raise much-needed funds after the pummelling that the sport took as a result of the pandemic.

The association also called for 1% of the money raised by advertising to be injected back into local communities through a ‘Football Savings Fund’ which would help to promote grassroots sporting activities across the country.

Whatever happens, a total ban on gambling-related advertising, as was the case before 2005, looks unlikely. But perhaps the government could take inspiration from the FIGC’s proposal for a Football Savings Fund: schemes like these could really help with the ongoing economic recovery from the impacts on the pandemic.

Loot boxes: a definitive answer

Loot boxes have long proven a sticking point in debates about gambling legislation. On an international level, there seems to be no universally agreed position on them, which is evident from the different positions various national governments have taken on the matter.

To recap quickly: loot boxes are randomised rewards that players of a game can pay real money for, only finding out what the prize is after having bought it — effectively a form of gambling since players are spending money on something that they know nothing about.

Some countries like the Netherlands and Belgium have taken the decision to ban loot boxes outright, with both nations outlawing them in 2018. Earlier this year in Brazil, a group of activists filed a series of lawsuits against several major video game companies, arguing that loot boxes were technically in contravention of national laws about gambling.

According to one journalist, at the time of the Belgian government banning loot boxes, gamers were mostly in favour of the changes.

The UK government clearly flagged reform to loot box legislation as a priority when, in September 2020, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport launched an official two-month call for evidence, during which members of the public and video game developers were invited to share their thoughts on the connection between loot boxes and gambling.

In the UK, the evidence for loot boxes constituting a form of gambling seems abundantly clear. The debate has received so much exposure that it’s difficult to imagine that the White Paper won’t cover loot boxes and classify them as a form of gambling. This will come as good news for groups that have spent considerable time campaigning for a change like this, like the Royal Society for Public Health with its #LidOnLoots campaign.

It’s high time the government took a stand on loot boxes and recognised that they are to all intents and purposes a form of gambling.

No more VIPs

Online casinos often like to show off their VIP programmes. These are essentially reward programmes, whereby players who spend more money can gain access to special perks. These are usually things like weekly or monthly bonuses, a dedicated account manager, or faster payouts. Sites often offer different VIP levels, with bigger and better bonuses available the more VIP points you get.

But, if the rumours are to be believed, such programmes might soon become a thing of the past. Opposition to VIP schemes hinges on the idea that they effectively groom players to spend more money by promising them exclusive perks the more they play.

Looking at the behaviour of certain operators in recent years, the case for banning VIP programmes becomes clear.

In 2017, 25-year-old Chris Bruney committed suicide after making a net loss of over £30,000 in online bets. It later emerged that over the five days before his death, Bruney had gambled away in excess of £119,000, but instead of suspending him, the website that he had been a member of had granted him VIP status and plied him with special offers.

In 2018, it emerged that Ladbrokes had lavished gifts on one particularly high-rolling player, who was showing serious signs of gambling addiction, in exchange for them agreeing not to report the operator to the authorities.

Since last year, sites have had to perform extra checks on players before allowing them to become VIPs. According to the BGC, this has led to a 70% drop in the number of VIP accounts set up since.

Perhaps banning VIP status on online gambling sites will help to stop gambling companies preying on the vulnerable. Last month’s debacle involving Sky Vegas, when the operator was found to have messaged self-excluded players to target them with new offers during Safer Gambling Week, shows that this problem is unlikely to disappear without major changes.

Banning VIP schemes outright might disappoint some, but it will probably end up doing the industry and players a world of good.

How much of this will actually become law?

If you’re thinking that some of these proposals seem particularly bold or extreme, bear in mind that the government is still only at the preliminary stage. The White Paper won’t automatically become law once it appears: it’s only a set of proposals. After it has been announced, it will be subject to debate by Parliament, and likely undergo more changes. Not every proposal will end up featuring in the next piece of legislation.

In fact, a particularly prominent example of this came to light when the current Gambling Act was being debated when a proposal for a network of so-called ‘supercasinos’ was dropped in 2007. The initial idea was for a network of 17 very large Las Vegas-style casinos to be built across the country in a bid to support regional economies.

The first of these new casinos was due to open in Manchester, but the plans ultimately fell through after being rejected by the House of Lords. 

So bear in mind that not all of the proposals outlined in the White Paper will necessarily end up passing into law.

Behind the scenes...

There’s another more sinister reason why the proposals might end up being watered down.

We’ve often seen that, in the gambling industry, the lines between gambling operators pushing for genuine change and trying to get good publicity can get very blurred indeed. Often companies tend to like making the right noises whilst doing very little to actually improve things.

So it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that, over the course of the review, industry leaders have been cosying up to politicians. It was revealed earlier this year that Tory MP Lawrence Robertson, who until July was part of the APPG on Gambling-Related Harm, had been hired as an advisor by the BGC in October 2020. 

For doing just ten hours of this ‘advisory’ work per month, Robertson was paid £24,000. Examining his parliamentary records, you’ll find that he has since made speeches criticising harsher gambling laws. You don’t have to be too much of a cynic to wonder what’s really going on here.

Things get even more interesting when you consider that Michael Dugher, Chair of the BGC, served as an MP himself from 2010 to 2017. Someone in his position will definitely still have a network of useful contacts in Parliament.

So how effective will a new Gambling Act be?

At this stage, it’s probably too early to comment on the effectiveness of whatever piece of legislation gets announced. Clearly there is a strong appetite for change among both the general public and industry leaders.

Many will say that tighter regulation might drive players into the arms of unregulated, black-market operators. There may be an argument to be made here — but surely, looking at the issue as a whole, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that further regulation is needed. If things don’t change, then who knows how long the vicious cycle of scandals, failures and damage to consumers’ wellbeing will continue?

We can hope that changes to the law will have a positive effect and help to protect the public — just as long as operators are prepared to meet them halfway and abide by the rules.

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