Stakes are high for the future of gambling

1 May 2020

DRD Analyst, Ross Ewing takes a look at the future of gambling.

The gambling industry in the UK is poised for change. Next week almost all gambling adverts will be stopped on TV and radio as the industry responds to coronavirus lockdown concerns.

There is growing unrest amongst politicians and the government over the current Gambling Act 2005, with the prevailing view being that the current Act does not provide adequate protections as the industry increasingly focuses its business (and finds most of its profits) online.

The Conservative Party manifesto committed to a full review of the Act and this had been expected to begin in 2020. The ongoing Covid-19 crisis will almost inevitably delay the review, but that is not guaranteed. As people spend more time at home, there is concern amongst some parliamentarians that this will lead to a further rise in problem gambling online. Such pressure could force the government to proceed with the review sooner rather than later.

Conversely, however, reports from the industry suggest that social distancing measures have not seen the predicted spike in gambling. The Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) – the newly formed ‘standards body’ for betting and gaming, representing 90% of all UK betting shops, online gaming businesses and casinos – has reported up to a 60% drop in gambling activity from its members.

Leading the anti-gambling lobby in Parliament is the cross-party Gambling Related Harm group of MPs. With Carolyn Harris MP (Labour, Swansea East) as chair and Sir Ian Duncan Smith MP (Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green) as vice chair, the group is regularly on the airwaves and leading the conversation in Parliament against liberalisation of gambling law.

Interestingly, the APPG recently wrote to the BGC and the government, as a result of Covid-19 lockdown measures, calling for the gambling industry to take five steps to help problem gambling during the crisis. Broadly, these can be viewed as the achievable overall aims of anti-gambling campaigners in Parliament. Those steps are:

  1. Commit to implement deposit limits for the duration of the crisis.
  2. Implement a £2 stake per spin limit on slot content online to reduce the harm that this highly dangerous content can have.
  3. End VIP accounts which encourage high levels of expenditure.
  4. End gambling advertising and sign-up offers for bonuses.
  5. Companies should make their data available to ensure independent research can be undertaken to assess the scale of harm being caused by the industry at this time and the need for further harm prevention measures.

Even with the agreement to suspend gambling adverts during the lockdown, there is likely to be significant support within Parliament to make the further changes outlined above permanent, as any steps the industry itself takes are never viewed as enough.

The review of the Gambling Act would be the beginning of the legislative process to achieve that, but a full, new Act would take many years to hit the statute book once the various consultations are factored in, and from reports we’re picking up the Department is starting to cool on the idea. Instead, smaller regulatory changes introduced by statutory instrument may be more likely in the nearer future.

The Gambling Commission is also keen to show its teeth amidst criticism that it is not fit for purpose. The Commission has recently set out its key priorities for 2020-21, including its aim to introduce new regulatory requirements by the end of September. This followed Commission chief executive Neil McArthur pledging a review of online slot stakes within six months at a hearing of the Gambling Related Harm APPG in February of this year.

Nevertheless, the impending threat of a new Gambling Act has kicked the industry into action over the last few years. The establishment of the BGC, beefing up its personnel and positioning itself as a self-regulatory standards body, rather than an industry lobbying tool, shows that it is alive to concerns that span across the entire spectrum of gambling activity, both online and in traditional bookmakers.

That can be seen in recent initiatives such as the self-imposed whistle-to-whistle bans on gambling adverts during live sports – just one example of the industry seeing which way the wind blows and taking pre-emptive steps to move ahead of regulations.

The long-term impact of Covid-19 on our lives and on business is not easy to predict. However, it’s not difficult to imagine that health and corporate social responsibility will be major themes in the future. A challenge for the gambling industry will be to show that it too has prioritised the mental health of its customers and is able to demonstrate that it is taking positive steps in supporting communities and sport more broadly.

When the Review of the Gambling Act does eventually take place, gambling will be in the spotlight like never before and powerful stories of addiction will no doubt tilt the needle towards more stringent regulation, especially covering online gambling. But if the industry can once again get ahead of the curve and adopt new rules that prove to work effectively, the changes from government will be better targeted and won’t prove to be a drastic shift from what the sector itself has already adapted to, at least for the next few years. The BCG’s recent takeover of the assets and responsibilities of Senet Group, the responsible gambling body that led on the self-exclusion and ‘When the fun stops, stop’ campaigns, is a sign that that is already happening.

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