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Coronavirus has raised the stakes for online gambling reform, now government must act

Through your smartphone or tablet, you can place much larger bets on faster paced versions of traditional gambling games, without any restrictions or safeguards, writes Jeff Smith MP. | PA Images

4 min read

The Government cannot continue to delay and must take urgent steps now to reduce online gambling harm while vulnerable people are at risk.

It would be an understatement to say that our lives have been radically altered by technological change since 2005. Back then, Apple had yet to invent the iPhone, Twitter didn’t exist — and if you wanted to place a bet, you generally had to go to the bookies. 

Nowadays, of course, most of us can access countless ways to gamble with a quick click or a swipe on our phones.

Developments in data analytics have also given the gambling industry insights into our gambling habits it couldn’t have dreamt of 15 years ago. 

But if the ease and prevalence of online gambling has changed beyond sight, protections for consumers have not. In fact, the UK’s gambling laws haven’t been properly updated since 2005, when the then Labour government introduced the Gambling Act.

Online gambling remains a largely unregulated wild west, in which vulnerable people are at risk of financial and psychological harm

It’s not surprising, then, that gambling laws are hopelessly inadequate for the present day.

The Gambling Act didn’t anticipate the rise of smartphones, social media or online data-mining. It contains more references to the postal service than to the internet and does not use the word ‘digital’ once.

The upshot is that online gambling remains a largely unregulated wild west, in which vulnerable people are at risk of financial and psychological harm.

That’s brought home by new research published by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (on whose advisory board I sit), which reveals the particular risks that people with mental health problems face with online gambling.

It shows that experiencing common symptoms of mental health problems — such as impulsivity and low mood — can make it difficult to stay in control of online gambling, or to resist the urge to bet. 

Those challenges are compounded by the ease and availability of online gambling, and by the ubiquity of online gambling ads.

In a survey of over 230 people with mental health problems, 85% of those who have gambled online said that they feel it’s impossible to avoid seeing online gambling adverts. Many say they feel bombarded and overwhelmed and find it harder to control their gambling as a result.

Another major issue is that while there are spending limits for slot machines in the bookies, and for some other offline gambling activities, no such limits exist online. Through your smartphone or tablet, you can place much larger bets on faster paced versions of traditional gambling games, without any restrictions or safeguards.

Money and Mental Health heard stories of already vulnerable people maxing out their overdrafts and credit cards, running up serious debts, and experiencing serious psychological harm as a result of online gambling. 

Throw the pandemic into this mix — and the ensuing economic shock it will bring — and it’s not hard to see how the scale of online gambling harm could escalate.

Many of the key factors highlighted in the report as driving people to gamble — such as low mood, debt problems and the need for escapism — are likely to be exacerbated by difficult times ahead. 

Last month, led by my colleague Carolyn Harris MP, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm published its report, the culmination of a year-long inquiry.

They concluded that far greater regulation of online gambling is needed to deal with the harms that can be caused by the industry, and called for a new, fit-for-purpose Gambling Act to be introduced, among other recommendations.

Recent reports by the Lords Select Committee on the Gambling Industry and the Public Accounts Committee reach similar conclusions.

All signs point to a clear need for government action, to protect people from online gambling harm in the coming months and years. 

Before the last election, the Prime Minister promised a review of the Gambling Act but this has been put on hold indefinitely due to the pandemic.

Updating the Act is a big task that will take time, but that doesn’t let the Government off the hook — it can still take steps now to reduce online gambling harm in the immediate term.

A good start would be to introduce limits on online gambling stakes, similar to those that exist for some offline gambling activities. That would go a long way in reducing the risk of people running up serious losses. 

It should also take action to address the harm that online gambling ads can cause. Gambling firms voluntarily pulled TV and radio advertising during the lockdown, but left online ads in place.

If the industry won’t act in times of crisis, then the Government needs to consider measures to suspend gambling advertising during the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s time online gambling laws are brought into the 21st century.

The Government cannot continue to delay while vulnerable people are at risk. 


Jeff Smith is the Labour MP for Manchester Withington and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on mental health.


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