I was driving and listening to the radio when the UK’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport stood up in Parliament to introduce her government’s long-awaited Gambling Act Review, grandly entitled High Stakes: Gambling Reform for the Digital Age.
This announcement actually came as a shock, the UK has been waiting for so long that the fact it was actually happening was surprising.
It is 18 years since the current Gambling Act was introduced. That was 2005, just a year after Facebook and podcasts were launched, but a year earlier than Twitter, four years earlier than Bitcoin and a full five years before Instagram. To suggest that UK gambling laws may have been bypassed by the aforementioned Digital Age might be an understatement.
Better late than never
A full 28 months have passed since Boris Johnson’s government first announced this review. Since that time, the country has seen two Prime Ministers resign, one after just 50 days in the job, and no less than four ministers in the role that Ms Frazer has occupied for the past 12 weeks.
The analogies are numerous – gambling legislation is like the children’s party game Pass the Parcel; nobody wants to be in possession when the music stops. Do not be surprised if there is some more of this stalling to come.
However, let us not be cynical, the anticipation is over, and we all have a clearer idea of how UK gambling will be regulated in this age of 24/7 internet access and almost total smartphone ownership.
But light on substance
It would be fair to say that whilst the final arrival of the white paper was a welcome surprise, which was where the surprises ended. Most of the content was as expected. And this is the point where we must all take a breath because for many, the conflict between vested business interests and personal opinions relating to societal good might possibly conflict.
My immediate reaction, sat behind the wheel in traffic, was that considering the many months taken, the review is light on substance. A week later, this view has not changed. Maybe this is because it contains so little that was unexpected, or maybe it was because there is a sense that the industry can simply shrug its collective shoulders and move on, largely unaffected.
Five prominent points to pick out
The main points, as most already know, are as follows: the introduction of affordability checks for players, a consultation on slot game stake limits, a tightening of thresholds for new player account applications, a mandatory statutory levy to be paid by operators to fund research, education and treatment (RET) for gambling harms and the one surprise inclusion, the appointment of an independent gambling ombudsman for resolution of disputes between players and operators.
Support for the Gambling Commission
As stated in the white paper, the government’s appointed regulator will undertake a review on updating design rules for online games, looking at ‘intensifying features’ that can enhance player risk. In addition, further restrictions on VIP schemes will be introduced. Other areas to be specifically explored include expectations for licensees operating white label casinos for a third-party brand, regulations for prize draws and competitions and contactless payments.
Land-based restrictions to be eased
Given that Ms Frazer used the phrase “Las Vegas in your pocket” to describe the now ubiquitous nature of the online gambling opportunity in Britain, it came as no surprise to see an easing of restrictions on the land-based sector. UK casinos will be permitted to offer sports betting on their premises and limits on the number of slot machines allowed in larger casinos will be eased, at a 5:1 ratio for slots to table games. Smaller casinos will be able to host extra machines on a pro-rata basis, with the number determined by their size and non-gambling floorspace.
Online gaming has changed the business model for the land-based sectors, placing far greater emphasis on the ‘experience’ and associated entertainment options. In terms of gaming, the playing field will never again be levelled, but measures as these must be viewed as positive and helpful.
The one that is not going to go away
During the days leading up to the announcement, UK media coverage centred around the sponsorship of Premier League football clubs by betting brands. The Premier League headed some of this off with its voluntary decision to remove such sponsorship from shirt fronts in three years’ time, but I believe that this particular issue is one that is not going to go away.
Speaking on national radio, well-known gambling expert Prof. Mark Griffiths said that expenditure on marketing activity by gambling companies had increased by 600% over the past decade. He also spoke of the exposure to, and vulnerability of, ‘screenagers’.
“Then only question that matters,” he said, “is what will these new measures do to help?”
There is a UK General Election in almost exactly 12 months’ time. No doubt preparations across the UK industry are underway for what is likely to be a change in government, and the real possibility that the newcomers will answer Professor Griffiths’ question with a resounding “Not enough.”