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GC’s Sarah Gardner: “Gambling is normal, but harm must not be”

| By Robin Harrison
Sarah Gardner, deputy chief executive of the Gambling Commission, highlighted progress towards a more sustainable gambling market from both the regulator and the industry in a speech earlier this week.
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In her address to amusements and high street gaming association Bacta’s Annual Convention, Gardner said the Commission had emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic “more focused than ever before on our remit to make gambling fairer, safer and crime free.” 

Faster progress towards raising standards for all consumers would be achieved in partnership with the industry, rather than by punishing its failings, she added, going on to highlight the successes of industry working groups formed last year.

This collaboration between the igaming industry and regulator has delivered enhanced due diligence checks on high value customers, age-gating for social media ads and limits on slot spin speeds, among other safer gambling improvements.

“This is the relationship we want with industry in the pursuit of ever fairer and safer gambling,” Gardner said. “We want to get to that, we want to get to a place where the level of harm caused by gambling is reducing, helped by a constructive and collaborative relationship with industry.”

Gambling, she continued “is normal”, pointing out that more than 40% of the population had gambled in some form over the past month. The industry, valued at over £14bn, is the size of British agriculture, with £450 lost by gamblers per second in the 2019-20 financial year.

“For millions this is the cost of having a good time.”

But for hundreds of thousands, Gardner went on, the cost was problem gambling and harm. “People suffering from financial, mental and physical harm because of either their own gambling or that of their loved ones or friends. It’s real, life-changing and can happen to anyone.”

There was evidence of that harm being reduced, with 0.3% of the population classed as problem gamblers, down from 0.6% in September 2020. The moderate risk rate also fell, from 1.2% to 0.7% over that same period.

“We cautiously welcome these numbers but it’s important to remember that these are a churning, changing group of people as well. There is nothing static about who is suffering harm.” Public Health England estimates the cost of that harm to be £1.27bn a year, she added.

“So gambling is normal, but harm must not be,” Gardner said. “We will continue to work to drive the levels of harm down.”

There were still too many operators not abiding by the Commission’s rules, which would hinder the sort of constructive relationship the regulator wants to build with operators. These failings were not historic – “they are happening now and they are causing harm”.

Turning to the government’s review of the 2005 Gambling Act, Gardner said the white paper that will set out potential changes to regulation was “getting closer”, without giving a firm date. 

As it approaches, the Commission’s goal is to develop a single customer view for online operators, she continued. This will require operators to improve the sharing of information to better protect players, while the Commission is working to ensure access to “robust, comprehensive data”. 

“Further investment will be essential for the Commission to both realise the potential and manage the risks that come from regulating an industry where technology is changing all the time” she said. “However, all the investment in the world will not deliver a more effective Gambling Commission if the data we receive from operators is lacking.”

For the sector that Bacta represents in particular, she picked out three topics as the most important. First was age verification, and while Gardner praised amusement operators for raising the minimum age for Category D machines to 18, but warning that far more needs to be done to prevent underage play. 

Similar to the online sector, a new code on responsible game design is being developed in partnership with Bacta. The need for rapid progress could make the process “a little bumpy” she admitted, but argued it was necessary. 

Finally Gardner gave her backing to cashless solutions for amusement and high street gaming operators, describing digital wallets as “a big step forward” for safer gambling. “For example, this technology provides a format where players can set limits on their spend and keep track of their machine spend over time. So we want to hear from any operator trialling them or using them on how it’s going.”

Gardner concluded by saying the British gambling industry – and the Commission – had endured a difficult two years, and that there may be further challenges in the next two years. 

“Whatever else changes, the work to make gambling in Great Britain fairer, safer and crime free continues,” she said, however. “We are more focused than ever on our core purpose and our desire to collaborate with all of you who share the same ambition continues. 

“The evidence suggests that we are on the right track. So let’s keep on going together.”

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