By Jake Pollard
There have been numerous calls for calm and cool heads in the often-heated debate around gambling regulations in Great Britain. Things are reaching a crescendo, especially due to the highly emotive nature of topics under discussion – addiction, debt, children being exposed to gambling an early age and, in some tragic cases, suicide have all been linked to the industry by its critics.
The highly critical – and occasionally unjustified – media coverage that has followed the industry in recent years, adding to an already toxic situation.
The recent claims that the Prime Minister and his senior adviser Dominic Cummings want to see action taken and have vowed to get involved in the upcoming Gambling Act review adds to the sense that trouble may be brewing for operators.
The reasons for the antagonism between the pro- and anti-gambling sides are longstanding. The amounts of money involved, the (at times devastating) impact problem gambling can have on those affected, the industry’s business models or the simple fact that gambling is an easy sector to oppose when it comes to public opinion and support.
Over the years the industry’s response to criticism has also been poor; the fixed odds betting terminals saga being the most high profile setting during which the industry, through its trade body at the time the Association of British Bookmakers, came across as particularly tone-deaf to the public mood and the image it was projecting.
The Betting and Gaming Council has replaced the ABB and is much more proactive in committing to improving responsible gambling practices and ensuring player safety.
Opening communication channels?
However, the criticisms and calls for further-reaching reforms from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gambling-related Harm (APPG-GRH), the House of Lords’ Select Committee on the Social and Economic Impact of the Gambling Industry and campaigning groups such as Clean Up Gambling, have not abated. In fact, they are even more adamant and claim the changes implemented by BCG members are largely cosmetic and don’t go far enough.
In such a volatile context it is worth asking if the industry is being criticised no matter what it does. After all, the BGC has coordinated efforts to cut down on levels of advertising, step in if customers show signs of excessive play, and most recently agreed to implement changes to game design, including slot spin speeds.
The news that former MP and deputy leader of the Labour Party Tom Watson has joined Paddy Power and Betfair parent Flutter as an advisor has also been criticised, with some pointing to his past criticisms of the bookmaker and the industry in general. Some might also argue it a good thing that a major operator is hiring a former politician – and a critical one at that – to oversee efforts to raise standards.
As for the reasons behind him joining Flutter, it seems obvious Watson will play a key role in channelling the industry’s lobbying efforts during the Gambling Act review. Flutter is often mentioned as one of the more forward-looking companies when it comes to gambling reform. And if the group’s senior executives are unable or reluctant to make public calls for change, then Watson, behind the scenes and with his political contacts, can do that work in a constructive and potentially more productive manner.
With regards to Flutter itself, it will surely look even worse if the group goes on to ignore his recommendations just because they are inconvenient or costly. In addition, Watson will bring a perspective that many in the industry will not be familiar with, which could broaden horizons and help it shape a more effective policy platform.
It’s also interesting to note that Watson’s arrival at Flutter answers this observation by James Noyes, author of the Social Market Foundation report that set out a blueprint for regulatory reform earlier this summer: “If there is no leader there is the risk of polarisation and binary debates that don’t address the underlying problems. We can talk of wanting a broad church, but if there is no senior politician saying: ‘I’m going to own this and make sure it’s done sensibly’, there is a risk of a lack of consensus and no bridge building,” says Noyes.
An environment in which operators are speaking more constructively with politicians would be positive, while more frequent communication with former problem gamblers and campaigners would surely also improve things. So it was encouraging to see this tweet from Alex Massey, founder of Gamvisory, in which he praised a senior executive for getting in touch with him:
“I’ve always said I’d talk to anyone. And today, for the first time since launching Gamvisory, I talked to an industry director,” he wrote on social media. “I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by what his company are doing. Could they do better? Absolutely. But they’re miles ahead of others.”
The APPG-GRH does not say it explicitly but both its report and that of the Lords effectively call for statutory legislation to push reforms through.
The APPG-GRH believes the BCG’s initiatives do not go far enough. It described the ten pledges setting out the standards expected of BGC members at the start of novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic as “very weak”, already part of operators’ Licence Conditions and Codes of Practice (LCCPs), or calling more clarity on how they would actually work in practice.
“The APPG noted our concerns that all these fell well-short of what was required to properly protect people,” it said in a statement at the time.
The House of Lords report welcomed the gambling industry’s willingness to change and for more effective controls in relation to protecting consumers, “but we are far from convinced that this is due to a disinterested openness to change” it said.
“The increase in the voluntary levy (to treat problem gambling) gives every appearance of being an attempt, so far successful, to delay the imposition of a mandatory levy.”
The Lords report goes on to say that all reforms to prevent potentially excessive levels of play, such as the ban on credit cards introduced in April, have been imposed on the industry rather than instigated by operators.
It added: “We believe that, particularly in the case of online gambling, such voluntary changes as there have been are the reaction to the industry’s recent realisation that the tide of opinion is turning against it. If change is to be reliably sustained, this will come only by government action and by continuing pressure from the public, the press, and of course the Gambling Commission.”
Reading those reports it seems like the argument will boil down to whether the industry can convince lawmakers that it can self-regulate effectively or if those calling for reform can persuade the government to write them into law.
Despite the calls for dialogue, the one constant seems to be how little of it there is. However, talk to those involved in the debate and their respective starting points don’t seem that distant from one another. As an overriding aim, all want to see a reduction in the rates of problem gambling in the UK and are committed to enhancing responsible gambling measures through education, communication and treatment.
Matt Zarb-Cousin heads up the Clean Up Gambling (CUG) pressure group and says that despite what gambling executives may believe, “CUG is not anti-gambling, we believe it is better if it is legal and regulated”.
“[And] in order for it to be regulated properly we think it needs to take into account some of the principles that regulate offline gambling such as stake limits in slots in casinos,” he adds. “It should take into account the reality that some products are more addictive than others.”
Zarb-Cousin cites the House of Lords report that stated that 60% of the industry’s profits come from 5% of players “who are already problem gamblers, or are at risk of becoming so”.
He also points to polls commissioned by CUG that show support for an outright ban on online gambling. However, he adds, CUG “doesn’t support such a ban, because we don’t think people would be protected by such a measure”. Such figures are striking, although critics have questioned how they are reached and the methodology behind them.
On the other side of the debate, Gary Follis, director of public affairs at the Betting and Gaming Council, says: “Some people want bans on certain parts of the industry and some are prohibitionists, but I think that’s a minority.
“I don’t think there is any desire for prohibition among your average MP or observer, but we recognise that we have more work to do. That is what we are doing with our work to improve standards. Historically there might have been some reluctance to do that, but that’s not the case now.”
If the stated aims are not that different, the way to achieve them is. As a summary of Clean Up Gambling’s key policy aims, Zarb-Cousin says he would like to see “the same stake and prize limits online as they are for offline machines, £100 cap on affordability, an independent ombudsman to resolve disputes, restrictions on advertising with the possibility of a complete ban and a statutory levy for treating problem gambling”.
For his part Gary Follis says the BCG would agree to an “ombudsman that is independent, can judge complaints and if it doesn’t conflict with other regulations”. On advertising he says the Lords report is unclear whether advertising contributes to increasing rates of problem gambling.
He adds that he would be more concerned “with outright bans of any type that would weaken the ability of licensed companies to compete with offshore operators and would have a significant financial impact on sports clubs and federations”.
Follis also points to the BGC’s ‘whistle to whistle ban’ on advertising around live sports broadcasts, introduced in Summer 2019, which “has led to a 97% drop in gambling adverts seen by children, and that 20% of all BGC members advertising is now made up of responsible gambling messaging”.
As for stake limits on online slots, Follis says: “When you introduce bans and restrictions such as those it’s like squeezing a balloon: the activity will go up somewhere else.”
Room for compromise?
If the pro- and anti-gambling camps are at opposite ends of the spectrum as to how they might achieve those aims, is there some actual dialogue behind the scenes between them that we are not privy to?
“The industry is happy to talk about suggestions and ideas, but all too often they close ranks and say they can’t support the various proposals, and that tends to be uniform across the board,” says Zarb-Cousin.
“I think it’s a mistake, because it’s important to work constructively. For example, the £100 affordability cap wouldn’t impact the majority of gamblers, but the BGC’s stance suggests it is not serious about reducing harm and as a result there won’t be much scope to engage with them in good faith. It feels disingenuous to oppose such proposals while at the same time claiming to agree with the need for reform.
“The BGC also needs to look at whether it is a standards or trade body, because if it’s a standards body it seems to be as quick as its slowest members. Members that don’t meet the standards it sets should get kicked out, and that never happens. In terms of communication, its tone and aggressive rebuttal on certain proposals is reminiscent of the ABB (Association of British Bookmakers), which refused to accept reality and ended up with £2 stakes (on FOBTs).”
The least that can be said is that Zarb-Cousin doesn’t pull his punches; but reading his and Follis’s comments there seems to be little room for compromise, although this might change with Watson’s new role at Flutter.
Stephen Ketteley, head of the gaming and betting practice at the law firm Wiggin, says regulations, operators and all stakeholders “should prevent players from spending more than they can afford. No one disagrees on that, the question is how do we get to the stage where regulations can ensure that, while enabling the sector to be commercially viable”.
“We are at a really key juncture in the history of the industry and as we discuss all the measures it can take to identify and address gambling harm and risk, the overarching discussion is also about what gambling regulation should be designed to do,” Ketteley continues. “Because there are some tragic stories of addiction and problem gambling, does that mean everyone who reaches £100 a month in deposits should be subject to affordability checks that dive deep into their personal life? What happens to those who spend more than that and don’t want to be subject to those checks? What is the role of personal responsibility in problem gambling? Are there failures at every level: among operators, banks, payment companies and individuals?”
The issues Ketteley puts forward are also about how much onus is placed on operators to ensure a fail-proof system of player safety. After all, if all the responsibility is placed on the gambling company, where is the line drawn between personal and corporate responsibility?
Such questions will keep on returning and once the terms of reference for the GA review are announced, battle lines will be drawn and months of campaigning to be expected.
The BGC has been a lot more proactive than the ABB ever was in proposing responsible gambling measures and increasing levels of player safety, but the most common criticism it gets is that its proposals are just tinkering at the edges.
Whether it succeeds in persuading lawmakers that it has done enough to ensure high levels of player safety will determine how far reaching the reforms will be.
Tom Watson’s arrival on the scene may help mitigate against the hardest reforms, but he might also persuade BGC members into conceding more ground than they have been willing to up to now and thus help find a middle ground. In the meantime, even if the atmosphere between the different sides in the debate is unlikely to improve in the public realm, Flutter’s recent moves might point to more constructive initiatives behind the scenes.