Monday, June 17, 2024

Gambling Act review white paper: One year on

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It’s been almost a year since the Gambling Act Review white paper was published. As a milestone document that promised to overhaul gambling regulation in the UK forever, the review signified a whole new direction for the industry. But twelve months on, has the review actually contributed to raising standards?

After much delay, discussion and a fair share of industry lamentation, the Gambling Act Review white paper burst onto the scene on 27 April 2023. The 268-page document meticulously outlined new proposals for the industry, ranging from suggestions for improvement to complete overhauls and new policies.

The white paper’s aftershocks reached every area of the industry. It shook up online casino, land-based gaming and horse racing in particular.

There will be “very little space” for non-white paper policies going forward, said Tim Miller

To give credit where it’s due, the GB Gambling Commission hit the ground running with putting the review’s proposals into action, in the form of consultation rounds. The first set of consultations opened in July and focused on aspects of safer gambling and sustainability. This included one of the white paper’s most formidable proposals – financial risk checks, more commonly known as affordability checks.

Just days after the white paper’s release, Tim Miller, the Commission’s executive director for research and policy, admitted that there would be “very little space” for the regulator to consider non-white paper policies in the next few years. With all this manpower over the last twelve months, where do we stand now with the white paper’s proposals for safer gambling and sustainability?

Operator-player relationship

Much like how money makes the world go round, the relationship between operators and players turns the industry on its axis. Anything that might jar this relationship could have devastating consequences and should be approached with caution.

Enter the white paper, a document that could inflict these consequences with ease. Victoria Reed, founder of Better Change, argues that the industry’s regulatory standards are already high. But she adds that a balance must be struck when adding more stringent regulation.

“This is already a heavily regulated industry so I would argue that standards are generally pretty high when compared with other industries,” Reed says. “But the nature of our business is heavily influenced by technology and customer trends – therefore, there is never time to rest on our laurels and think we have got it all figured out.”

The balance is especially true when it comes to ensuring sustainable play.

“Many operators online already have additional controls for 18–24-year-olds and some carry out financial checks if there is a cause for concern,” Reed continues. “It makes sense that there will be some form of regulation around these, but it is important that the balance between public freedom of choice and the government intervening in the interest of public health is a sensible one.”

Gambling Act review
Victoria Reed believes a careful balance must be struck when implementing the white paper’s policies

Clear front-runners for sustainability success

Matt Zarb-Cousin, co-founder and director of external affairs at Gamban, says it won’t just be players that benefit from the change in relationship with operators. He believes operators will perform better under higher standards, with sustainability as the coveted prize.

“I do think there are some things in [the white paper] that will fundamentally change the relationship between operators and their customers and, to that end, I think that operators will have to have more of a rethink about their approach and how they’re represented,” he explains.

“The operators that will do the best under a system where there’s a higher bar of compliance, and it’s no longer possible to derive as much revenue from people with gambling problems, are the ones that are set up in a sustainable way.”

In Reed’s view, promoting sustainable play and safer gambling must come from a preventative standpoint. This is something that the white paper, she believes, doesn’t adequately do.

“We see “safer gambling” very much as the practice of gambling safely. Therefore, the act of restricting, limiting, banning, blocking and even stigmatising gambling has no place in safer gambling,” she says. “As a result of this we see very little in the white paper that for us constitutes safer gambling – instead we feel the measures such as stake limiting and financial risk checks are more aligned to player protection.

“This is, of course, important and we feel there should be adequate resources for those who have experienced gambling harm, but instead of pulling people out of the river, our role at Better Change is to stop them falling in in the first place.”

Affordability checks top concern for industry

Better Change’s ethos revolves around supporting Positive Play through education and reform. This is with the intention of getting to players before they might begin to struggle. Stand-out aspects of the white paper, such as affordability checks, claim to want to do that.

If implemented correctly, these proposals would walk a fine line – one where a sustainable, safe level of gambling is encouraged before the player reaches a crisis point. This might just be the solution to sustainability that the industry has been reaching for.

If put into place in its current form, affordability checks would see those who lose £1,000 within 24 hours or £2,000 over 90 days face checks.

It’s difficult to overstate just how vehemently opposed much of the industry has been in regard to affordability checks. A petition formed against its implementation reached 100,000 signatures and went on to be discussed in parliament in February 2024.

Although controversial, Melanie Ellis, a gambling regulatory lawyer and partner at Northridge Law LLP says that these affordability check proposals “represent an improvement on the current position”.

“There is significant confusion among operators as to what steps they should be taking to assess affordability and/or financial risk and when they should take those steps,” she says.

Gambling Act review
Affordability checks and the proposed mandatory levy will make a real difference if put in practice correctly, says Zarb-Cousin

“We have to bear in mind, though, that the proposals are relatively limited in scope and will not simply replace operators’ current procedures.”

Potential benefits for all

Ultimately, players gambling in an unsafe way diminishes the possibility of sustainable play – something that will cause both operators and players to suffer.

“The more you lose, the more likely you are to be addicted to gambling,” Zarb-Cousin says. “If there can be mechanisms by which harm is prevented, then everyone benefits.

“Even the sector benefits, because you don’t end up having customers that lose all the money they have access to in that moment, self-exclude, never come back.”

But putting affordability checks in motion could bring about a whole new set of unforeseen challenges. And with the Commission ready to pilot the affordability checks scheme, the effects of this could be seen very soon.

Reed emphasises that affordability must be implemented on a case-by-case basis.

“A framework for financial risk assessments needs to be on an individual basis as opposed to a blanket one-size-fits-all approach,” she stresses. “We have to be careful of prejudice against gambling versus other leisure spends causing an unnecessary stigmatisation of our industry.

“This will affect trade and it will prevent those who genuinely need help from accessing it.”

If enforced properly, affordability checks – as well as the proposed 1% statutory levy on gross gambling yield – could make a real difference for those suffering from gambling harm.

“Affordability checks, if they’re done properly, and the levy will make a big difference,” says Zarb-Cousin. “The quantity and the resources that will be able to go into treatment and prevention campaigns – all of this will make a big difference.”

Ensure improvements going forward

In the last twelve months, the headline proposals outlined in the white paper have seen a fair amount of movement. But does this constitute a raising of standards?

No, says Reed. In fact, it may have been detrimental to the Commission’s roll-out of Research, Education and Treatment (RET) funding this past year.

“The uncertainty around funding created by the proposed change to a mandatory levy has severely impacted the delivery of programmes funded by organisations on the Gambling Commission’s list of approved organisations, for the receipt of voluntary funds donated by the industry for the Research, Education and Treatment of gambling harms.”

Clarification must be delivered on the mandatory levy in particular, she notes, or risk more damage in the year ahead.

“The white paper has already had a huge impact on the delivery of Research, Education, Prevention and Treatment in our industry and I am sad to say that unless we address this, I see little to no progress in the coming year.”

Has the white paper contributed to raising standards?

Meanwhile, Zarb-Cousin is hopeful that stand-out aspects of the white paper will be in place in September or October this year. He estimates that the affordability checks pilot would conclude around then.

The white paper’s stricter proposals could see players move to unlicensed operators, says Melanie Ellis

Even more expectantly, he projects that the new levy system could be up and running this time next year. This would be a fitting timeline, one that would mark two years since the white paper’s release.

For Ellis, the more controversial aspects of the white paper might drive players to black-market providers – the exact opposite of standards raising.

“There is a risk that some proposals, such as the stake limit for online slots and restrictions on bonuses and incentives, could lead to a significant increase in the number of customers turning to unlicensed operators, where they may not be offered tools to control their gambling or interventions if they display indicators of harm,” she explains.

The Gambling Act Review white paper has contributed somewhat to a raising of standards – even if only in the generation of discussion and debate on what the industry can do better.

To ensure the white paper is enacted in a way where both operators and players can benefit, sustainability must sit at the forefront of these conversations. De-prioritise sustainability and the industry could see itself back at square one.

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