I recently attended a half day seminar on The UK Online Gambling Industry. The seminar was organised by the Westminster eForum which 'aims to provide [an] environment for policymakers in Parliament, Whitehall and regulatory agencies to engage in timely discussion on public policy relating to technology with key stakeholders'. As I expected, most of the speakers and the bulk of the audience was made up of people who work in the online gambling industry itself. It was an opportunity for me to eavesdrop on their discussions and to ask one or two questions myself. I came away with further insight about how the industry thinks and how it is going about making the case for further expansion of online gambling. There were several themes which recurred throughout the seminar.
One was the repeated call for 'harmonisation' of online gambling regulation across Europe. This came from the Secretary General of the European Gaming and Betting Association and from several other speakers. The picture was painted of a fragmented patchwork of different regulations in different countries, itself a reflection of very different laws, certain forms of gambling being prohibited in certain countries, others in others. Countries such as France and Belgium, and Germany is another, were depicted as 'resistant' and 'protectionist', possibly flouting EU law, unlike Britain, which was repeatedly cited as being the leader in online gambling in Europe, where the industry was 'fiercely competitive, successful, well-established’, a model for the rest of the continent. Europe was at an important juncture. The aim should be the creation of a 'proper functioning online gaming market’, with ultimately the establishment of a European regulator. Concern was expressed that the UK might back down from its position as 'the arch free marketeer', bringing in ‘over-regulation’ and a level of taxation which might throttle innovation and stifle growth of the industry.
Perhaps none of that is surprising. The British online gambling industry has been given every reason to think that its innovation and expansion is welcome and encouraged. Its assertive stance towards Europe is therefore only to be expected. It is nevertheless very concerning. Of even greater concern, however, is the way government and its appendages are complicit in allowing the industry to call the tune regarding the acceptance of gambling expansion in Britain and by British companies across Europe and beyond. The Chief Executive Officer of the Responsible Gambling Trust (RGT), Marc Etches, spoke positively about the way in which RGT was 'reuniting' the two functions of raising funds for gambling treatment and research, and commissioning them, which previously had been separated, and suggested we should be proud of the fact that the British gambling industry was contributing around £5 million a year. I suggested that combining the two functions was exactly what should not be done if obvious conflicts of interests were to be avoided, and we should hardly feel pride that the industry was raising such a meagre amount. He avoided my question about what percentage of total gambling industry profits £5 million represents – I believe it to be approximately a tenth of one per cent. The Director of Strategy, Research and Analysis at the Gambling Commission, Matthew Hill, was equally positive about RGT. The previous arrangement had simply not worked he said – why? I wonder – and the new arrangement was less bureaucratic and would save money. He welcomed the fact that it was industry led. Indeed, in some of his remarks he seemed to go further, suggesting that the Gambling Commission welcomed the general principle of industry led regulation. It was even hinted that the rise of online gambling – still quite new – had created an anomaly whereby 'terrestrial' gambling was tightly regulated in terms of such things as maximum stakes and maximum prices, whereas this was not the case with online gambling, and that in the future the latter might be the model, leading to the stripping back of regulations and further liberalisation.
What seems to be lacking in all this is a recognition that the product being traded is a dangerously addictive one. Henrietta Bowden-Jones, Founder and Director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic, was a lone speaker pointing out that pathological gambling was an illness, but that perspective was not represented in the thinking of the speakers from the industry. For example, there was no acknowledgement that the different regimes in different European countries were partly a consequence of differences in cultures and traditions and reflected valid concerns about the need to protect citizens from the likely harmful consequences of exposing them to new forms of gambling. There was repeated reference to 'consumer protection', but this was never defined and I presume it refers more to consumers being well-informed about products and being given a choice of fair and attractive products rather than to an awareness of the inherently dangerous nature of the products themselves. Indeed, the usual assumptions about where responsibility for gambling problems lies were on display at the seminar – Britain has a low rate of gambling problems it was said (a third to a half a million adults is hardly a low rate), they are 'vulnerable' people who often have other issues, whereas online gambling itself is fun and entertaining. Speakers variously described online gambling as 'at the vanguard of e-commerce', 'a service like any other' and 'no more problematic than many other activities in life which involve risk'.