Labour commits to regulating remote gambling by revising our 'analogue' legislation
The Campaign for Fairer Gambling writes following a new gambling policy announcement by Tom Watson who seeks to ensure that online gambling limits are commensurate to offline gambling in betting shops and on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs).
Labour’s deputy leader and Shadow Culture Secretary Tom Watson announced a new gambling policy in a speech to the IPPR last week, which responded to what was described as the “public health emergency” of gambling addiction by committing to the introduction of limits to online gambling that are commensurate with the offline world. It is currently possible for the minister to either increase or reduce the maximum stake on gambling machines in bricks and mortar venues, a power that was utilised by the Government recently in its decision to cut the maximum stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) from £100 to £2 a spin.
However, no such provision exists for similar products online, primarily because the Gambling Act was passed in 2005, which was legislation informed by Sir Alan Budd’s review published even longer ago in 2001. Internet gambling was only getting started and smartphones didn’t exist, which is why our “analogue” legislation contains more references to betting by post than to gambling online. As The Guardian reported, the current legislation is “unfit for a digital age”, and as well as committing to introducing the principle of limits to stake, speed and spend to online gambling, Tom Watson also launched a consultation on skins betting and loot boxes aimed at video gamers. The Guardian quoted him saying: “I don’t want gaming to become a gateway to gambling.”
Campaigning for a reduction in the maximum stake on FOBTs required forcing a paradigm shift in the gambling establishment’s understanding of what caused addiction. The bookmakers peddled the “responsible gambling” agenda, while arguing that “problem gambling” was caused by the individual and had nothing to do with the product. This enabled them to argue against restrictions on products, such as reducing the maximum stake. To be successful in campaigning against FOBTs, we had to win the argument that products and their environments also had a significant impact on levels of harm.
By endorsing the campaign for a reduction to £2 a spin, both major political parties have accepted the new paradigm that limits on products can prevent or reduce harm. The Government’s decision to opt for £2 was not resisted by GambleAware, nor by the Gambling Commission. It is therefore a logical next step that the principle of similar limits is also now applied to online gambling, so where land-based machines are categorised A, B, C and D, Labour now proposes a new Category E for the remote sector.
The Royal Society for Public Health, which recently launched the Gambling Health Alliance, welcomed Tom Watson’s announcement. There has also, notably, been very little push-back from the remote gambling sector. As public perception of the gambling industry continues to slide, operators may recognise that their presence in the British market faces an existential threat, which can only be overcome by the enforcement of new regulations designed to protect the public, such as Labour’s policy of limits. Only by reducing gambling-related harm can the sector begin the rebuild trust with the public, so operators have to look beyond public relations exercises and unsustainable business models that rely on the majority of their gross revenue coming from people experiencing gambling problems.
As Jonathan Ford argued in an opinion piece for the Financial Times - “Why the party is over for online gambling” - operators are currently “heavily dependent on a small percentage who spend more than £1,000 a month”, and according to HSBC’s extrapolation of the data, “this small, high-spending minority accounts for more than half of overall revenues”. If such unsustainable practices continue, the FOBT stake cut will mark only the start of political interventions into the gambling market.