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Sturgis’ review of Gambling Commission’s survey stoking the fire

| By Kyle Goldsmith | Reading Time: 6 minutes
The Gambling Commission (GC) recently lauded its Gambling Survey for Great Britain (GSGB), after it was endorsed by Professor Patrick Sturgis in an independent review. However, that backing is far from comprehensive, even from Sturgis himself.
Industry Forum Gambling Commission

Sturgis, a professor at the London School of Economics, did label the study “exemplary in all respects”. However, as has been the case in the past with the GC, its tendency to produce unreliable statistics was a noticeable theme for Sturgis, who cast doubt over the accuracy of the GSGB, which is due to be published this summer.

Sturgis said: “Until there is a better understanding of the errors affecting the new survey’s estimates of the prevalence of gambling and gambling harm, policymakers must treat them with due caution, being mindful to the fact there is a non-negligible risk that they substantially overstate the true level of gambling and gambling harm in the population.”

Hardly the glowing endorsement the GC has made out, Sturgis’ concerns reflect a wider lack of trust in the commission’s work. David Brown, a UK industry veteran of 50 years, highlighted the GC’s misrepresentation of affordability checks statistics in an interview with iGB in 2023.

GC’s relationship with statistics

In the wake of Sturgis’ review, gambling advisory business Regulus Partners stated there was “little to dispel” the concerns over the GSGB’s potential statistical inaccuracies, believing the “inconvenient truth” had been glossed over.

Among the previous data faux pas that Regulus pointed out were the GC’s withholding of information on consumer views of affordability checks, as well as the chair of its Advisory Board for Safer Gambling implying statistical accuracy was unimportant.

GC chief executive Andrew Rhodes has promised to make a stand against the commission’s perceived lack of care on statistics, although Regulus described Rhodes’ campaign as a “notably flaccid and lopsided affair”.

Melanie Ellis, a vastly experienced gambling regulatory lawyer and partner at Northridge Law, concurs with the concerns of both Sturgis and Regulus, highlighting the significant differences in the GC’s prior data when compared to NHS surveys on gambling.

While Ellis feels it’s too late for the impact of potential inaccuracies to directly affect the implementations of key white paper measures, she says it could play a wider role in the public debate over the issue of gambling harms.

“The new official problem gambling rate could be used to justify adjusting these [white paper measures] in the future,” Ellis declared. “The GSGB’s statistics will soon become official statistics and inevitably influence the public debate.

“It may be that the results are accurate while previous studies were not, but an around tenfold difference in problem gambling rates at least warrants further research, tests and experimentation to establish the accuracy of the new data before the commission even considers it becoming official statistics.”

Loss of trust in the GC

One of the biggest consequences of the GC’s patchy history with statistical accuracy is the loss of a key component when it comes to regulatory boards – trust.

Ellis echoes Regulus’ view on the GC’s “marginalisation of legitimate concerns” related to the GSGB, placing particular emphasis on the commission’s failure to publish the full data from the survey’s pilot and experimental stages, saying such a move misses the chance to “engender trust”.

So, how does the GC go about restoring that trust? In Ellis’ view, complete transparency, much like the GC asks of operators, is the only way the commission can re-establish the faith that has dissipated in recent times.

“I would like to see the commission acting in a reciprocal way to its expectations of operators, which include working in an open and co-operative way and being open and transparent in its dealings with its licensees,” Ellis continues.

“This would include publishing all information and data which could have a material impact on a licensee’s business.”

Pressure is growing on the GC and Ellis believes that must be kept on to ultimately force it to change its ways. Regulus also states the GC is at a crucial juncture, where its choices will decide whether it can restore the trust it has lost.

“It’s important that the commission completes the additional research and evaluation recommended by Professor Sturgis,” Ellis said. “I would recommend to operators and other stakeholders that they hold the commission to account on this, by pressuring it to be open about the outcome of that process.”

GC “taking control” of problem gambling data

There are other ethical considerations for the GSGB too, such as the GC’s decision to neglect the NHS Health Survey and instead produce its own data on gambling harms.

Gambling Commission
the gambling commission is choosing to neglect the “gold standard” nhs health survey

Regulus highlighted the GC’s choice to ignore the NHS Health Survey’s perceived status as the “gold standard” as a source of official statistics, which could lead to the “distortion” of public policy and generally harm the UK industry.

Ellis feels the GC’s neglect of the NHS Health Survey is a sign of the commission’s plan to “take control” of problem gambling data, despite there being evidence that the NHS survey is more accurate.

“The NHS Survey has much higher response rates than the GSGB,” Ellis added. “Further, Professor Sturgis’ report highlights findings that people are more likely to take part in a survey specifically about a topic relevant to them, which means the commission’s survey is likely to over-recruit highly engaged gamblers compared to the NHS survey, skewing the results.”

Regulus also said Sturgis was unlikely to have been made aware of the GC’s lack of regard towards statistics in recent years and therefore didn’t factor them completely into his review. As a result, a useful opportunity to hold the GC to account for such concerns had fallen by the wayside.

Slot stake limits

On Friday, the UK government announced new maximum stake measures for online slots, with those aged 18-24 to be limited to £2 per spin and over-25s £5. The measures will come in from September.

In response, Regulus said the one-size fits all approach makes “little sense”, given its ignorance of data that allows online operators to intervene in a way that land-based casino does not offer.

Regulus believes the move will drive at-risk customers onto the growing black market, stating: “Customers are already voting for higher limits by shopping around.

“We believe that the risk to channeling is actually higher than the c. 7% that the £465m slots-specific disruption suggests.”

Regulus also cited the loss in industry revenue and the resulting tax that the measures will bring, which it estimated at £460m and £100m respectively.

Regulus’ declaration that the black market is growing has basis. Data published by Yield Sec revealed the number of illegal operators increased “fourfold” between 2021 and 2022. That number then doubled again during 2023.

According to Yield Sec, this means that illegal gambling now makes up 4% of the UK’s online gambling market share and gross gaming revenue (GGR).

“Anti-gambling agenda”

For those who believe the GC has an anti-gambling agenda, this week will have done little to stem those feelings.

It’s a point of view that Ellis understands, commenting: “The commission has unfortunately created an impression that it picks and chooses what it publishes to support its agenda.

“Its determination to press ahead with these survey results, despite real concerns that they significantly overestimate rates of problem gambling, fuels criticism that it now has an anti-gambling agenda.”

These are uncertain times for the UK market and the GC’s perceived shortcomings are doing little to ease the reservations of punters and operators.

We already knew 2024 was going to be a crucial year for gambling in the UK. Based on the GC’s actions over the first couple of months of it, the choppy waters don’t look like calming any time soon.

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