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Stick or twist? Looming review fuels debate about gambling regulation

3 min read

The government’s plan to update regulations for gambling must balance campaigners’ calls for more stringent safeguards and stakeholders’ warnings that additional measures could stifle the industry and fuel black market betting.

In 2020 the government announced it was gathering evidence for a review of the Gambling Act 2005 because it wanted to ensure the regulatory regime for the industry was able to protect people amid an explosion of online betting operators in recent years.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s confirmation that the gambling white paper will be released “in coming weeks” has intensified debate among campaigners who want more safeguards and stakeholders keen to ensure any new measures do not damage the industry or encourage unlicensed betting.

The Betting and Gaming Council (BGC), the main industry body, has urged the government to take an evidence-based approach and argued the sector is already doing its bit to promote safe gambling.

campaigners argue the industry could do more to protect people from the financial and mental health dangers of problem gambling

In recent years, the government has introduced measures to make betting safer, including reducing the maximum stake to £2 on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals—electronic machines that offer games such as roulette —, banning gambling with credit cards, and introducing stringent online betting age and identity checks and voluntary controls.

But campaigners argue the industry could do more to protect people from the financial and mental health dangers of problem gambling, which the NHS and other groups like GamCare seek to tackle.

“Priority policies that we expect to be in the white paper include a strong clamp down on gambling advertising; proper affordability checks…a statutory levy that will remove industry influence over research, education and treatment; stake limits to bring online products in line with games in betting shops; and the creation of an ombudsman to ensure consumer redress,” Will Prochaska, strategy director at Gambling with Lives, a charity set up by families bereaved by gambling-related suicides, told The House.

The gambling sector has pushed back. Representatives of some of the largest gambling firms told officials from the Treasury and Revenue and Customs in October that tougher rules could jeopardise more than £3bn in taxes the industry pays every year and fuel black market gambling, according to media reports.

They pointed to a 2021 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, commissioned by the BGC, that showed that the number of customers using unlicensed betting websites had grown by almost 200,000 in two years.

However, the Gambling Commission—which regulates the industry—has argued the black-market danger is overstated.

“This is not the overwhelming risk it is sometimes painted to be, nor can it be the excuse for not addressing some of the extremes we see in the regulated industry,” Andrew Rhodes, chief executive of the Commission, said in a speech in April.

Carolyn Harris, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling-Related Harm, told The House: “The great irony is that the current and real threat is not the unlicensed market, but licensed operators in the UK offering totally inadequate consumer protection.”

Michael Dugher, the chief executive of the BGC, has urged the government not to “pander to the anti-gambling lobby” after Gambling Commission figures showed the rates of problem gambling had fallen to 0.2 percent in the year to March 2022 from 0.4 percent in the year to March 2021.

“These latest figures… will no doubt come as a profound disappointment to anti-gambling prohibitionists and it should be a warning to ministers to ensure future changes are carefully balanced, proportionate and targeted,” he said in a statement in May.

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