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Expert Reports Call for Radical Changes to British Gambling Regulation

Is Government Listening?

 

Summary

 

I analyse three recent high-level reports on British gambling regulation: from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm, the House of Lords Select Committee, and the Social Market Foundation. Each is highly critical, both of malpractice by the gambling industry and of ineffective regulation. Among recommendations the reports agree upon are: a mandatory levy on the industry with funds dispersed by bodies such as Research Councils and the NHS; setting up a gambling Ombudsman; significant reductions in gambling advertising; checks on individuals’ ability to afford gambling losses; and all existing and new gambling products only to be licensed if they can be shown to be safe. These and other suggestions are radical changes which amount to calls for commercial gambling, especially online gambling, to be seen in a very different way from that envisaged by the architects of the 2005 Gambling Act: not as an ordinary entertainment commodity, but as an extra-ordinary product which is dangerous to public health. This is very similar to the recommendations for change I made in my recent book, The Gambling Establishment: Challenging the Power of the Modern Gambling Industry and its Allies. Government is committed to a review of the Gambling Act and the review is expected to be announced shortly. That is very much to be welcomed. But there is a danger that the review will not be broad enough. It must take heed of the consensual recommendations of these three important reports and reconsider the fundamental basis of regulation.

 

Introduction

 

In their manifestos before the general election of December last year (2019), all the main political parties made specific mention of the need for gambling policy reform. Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos went furthest. Both said they would make mandatory the levy on the gambling industry, currently only voluntary, which funds research, treatment and prevention. Both would also put greater restrictions on gambling advertising, ban credit cards for gambling, and create a gambling Ombudsman. The Labour Party, which had produced its own review of problem gambling, went furthest in promising a new Gambling Act. The Conservatives, who then formed the Government, would, they said, carry out a review of the existing 2005 Gambling Act which they described as increasingly looking like ‘an analogue law in a digital age’. We expect the review to be announced shortly.

 

Between June and August this year (2020), in anticipation of the review, there appeared three highly significant and authoritative reports on the subject from national bodies. Each addresses the need for policy reform. They are: the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm, ‘Final Report on Online Gambling’ (the APPG report; not confined to online gambling despite its title); the report of the House of Lords Select Committee on ‘The Social and Economic Impact of the Gambling Industry’ (the Lords report); and the Social Market Foundation’s ‘Gambling Review and Reform: Towards a New Regulatory Framework’ (the SMF report).

 

Other significant, recent reports, but with narrower remits, include the Advisory Board for Safer Gambling’s ‘Progress Report on the National Strategy to Reduce Gambling Harms’, and the Public Accounts Committee’s and the National Audit Office’s reports on gambling regulation.

 

In my recent book, The Gambling Establishment: Challenging the Power of the Modern Gambling Industry and its Allies, which came out in October last year (2019), I also made a number of recommendations for British gambling policy reform. I summarise here the main recommendations made by the APPG, Lords, and SMF reports, comparing their recommendations with the ones I made.

 

The publication of these three high-level reports (and others) within a few weeks of each other is remarkable. It goes to show what an urgent matter British gambling policy reform is considered to be. What is even more remarkable is how radical their proposals are. Ahead of its review of the Gambling Act, Government is getting strong and consensual advice from the experts.

 

What the three reports all agree on

 

All three reports agree on the need for two basic changes which I called for in The Gambling Establishment and which academics in the field asked for in a recent letter to the Secretaries of State for Health and for Culture, Media and Sport. They are: a mandatory levy on the gambling industry in place of the current voluntary levy; and change to the current system for allocating funds for gambling harm-prevention, treatment and research in order to guarantee the independence from industry influence which is currently lacking (all three would also like to see the national gambling prevalence surveys reinstated).

 

But there is much more. All three are highly critical of the present way in which gambling is regulated and believe the Gambling Commission should be reviewed, modified or replaced. All recommend setting up a gambling Ombudsman. All argue that the main piece of gambling legislation, the 2005 Gambling Act, should be substantially modified; indeed, the APPG believes it needs to be completely replaced with new legislation.

 

All three reports deal with one of the central problems created by the 2005 Act: how to make legislation and regulation future-proof. My recommendation was that any proposed new form of gambling, mode or type of venue, should be subject to a full social, health and economic impact assessment. All three reports agree with this, in one way or another. In fact, they all want such assessments to be applied, not just to new forms of gambling, but also to existing ones. This might be done, as the Lords suggest, by amending the Act to give Ministers power to approve any activity which has the characteristics of gambling, only if it falls below a certain harm indicators threshold; by having an immediate independent review of how online products are regulated and tested for safety, with all products having to be proven as safe before they can be marketed, as APPG recommend; or, as the SMF say, by establishing a new category for remote gambling content like those of B, C and D land-based gambling content, subject to regular review, encompassing a full range of existing and new online content.

 

All three also deal with the excessive price (excessive ‘losses’) which many gamblers are paying for their engagement with commercial gambling. I recommended fixed, mandatory, per-day, per-week or per-month loss levels. The three reports have favoured an alternative approach: ‘affordability checks’ (although the detailed SMF proposal recommends combining this with an absolute £100 per-month, £23 per-week loss limit for everyone, unless the affordability check suggests a person can afford more).

 

What, in addition, APPG and the Lords agree on

 

Some other matters, including gambling advertising and treatment for gambling disorder, were outside the remit of the SMF report. But the other two reports make strong recommendations in these areas along the lines I suggested.

 

APPG and the Lords deal with advertising and both recommend radical changes. APPG want a complete ban on gambling advertising. While not recommending a complete ban, the Lords want to see some major reductions: advertising in or near most sports venues (with horse and dog racing to be exceptions) and any advertisements offering inducements to start or to continue gambling, should be banned.

 

Both also recommend moving further towards 18 becoming the legal age for all gambling and both want to see proper regulation of social media ‘loot boxes’ and the like.

 

Both recommend further development of, and greater operator commitment to, comprehensive self-exclusion schemes. And both welcome, and want to see more of, methods such as banks’ ‘gambling block’ initiatives, that can limit the ease or immediacy of accessing funds for gambling.  

 

Both (and the important statement on this by the Advisory Board for Safer Gambling) also highlight the need for much more treatment for gambling disorder, with the NHS playing a far greater role than hitherto (although the lack of mention of the impact on family life and the need for support for affected families is regrettable).

 

Both APPG and the Lords also refer to education about gambling and its potential for harm, both reports stressing the need for proper evaluation of long-term impact.

 

One vital issue that only the SMF deals with

 

If it is accepted, as I and many others now believe it should, that gambling is a commodity dangerous to health, and that the dominant perspective should be a public health one, then the lead Government department should be the Health Ministry, not the one responsible for Culture, Media and Sport. Unfortunately, the SMF report is the only one to deal adequately with this. They make a detailed and well-thought out proposal for a departmental ‘gambling quartet’, with the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department of Health and Social Care, and DCMS sharing responsibility. The Lords are also critical of DCMS, but disappointingly they conclude that it should continue to be the department with primary responsibility.

Why these proposals are so radical and encouraging  

 

There is a chance now for Government to put this right. There is cross-party political support for change and attitude surveys suggest that change would be popular with the public. What is needed now is a fundamental rethinking of our basic approach to gambling legislation and regulation. I agree with the APPG view that what is needed is a comprehensive new Gambling Act. It should replace the ordinary business/ordinary commodity ideology with an alternative dangerous consumption/public health perspective.

 

As I argued in my book, since the change to gambling legislation in 2005 we have been conditioned to accept a way of thinking about the place of gambling in society which was historically completely novel. The central element of industry and Government thinking on the subject, which is written in to the Gambling Act, is the notion that the commercial provision of gambling should be thought of simply as a legitimate business like any other, providing an ordinary entertainment commodity. The truth is, as we all know now, nearly 20 years later, that modern gambling is clearly no ordinary commodity. The recommendations of the three expert groups I have considered here, backing up the conclusions I reached in my own review, reject that ‘ordinary business’ rhetoric. The picture they paint is of an extra-ordinary business, not just one plagued as it has been by widespread malpractice, but one which cannot be regulated like other businesses, let alone self-regulated. Advertising its products at most sports events should no longer be permitted, the new reports say, and possibly all advertising should be banned. Consumers’ financial positions should be checked and this information shared amongst operators to ensure gamblers can afford the price they are paying. The use of credit cards to pay for gambling, blocks on payments for the purpose of gambling, and the provision for gamblers to self-exclude themselves from multiple venues, should all be strengthened. It should be recognised that gambling gives rise to widespread harm, often amounting to gambling disorder, which it should be the responsibility of the NHS to treat, like any other disorder. These are not signs of an ordinary commodity or an ordinary business. These are clear admissions of how extraordinarily dangerous many of these ‘products’ really are.

 

The forthcoming review of the 2005 Act is very much to be welcomed. But there are also reasons to be worried. There is a danger that the review will not be broad enough. It must look at the fundamental basis of regulation. Nothing less will do. It won’t be enough to consider some details such as whether ‘loot boxes’ in computer games should be regulated as gambling, or whether football sponsoring companies’ logos should appear on players’ shirts.

 

I would say to the Government that, if we don’t want commercial gambling to continue to be seen as an example of what was once called ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’, we need to do something to alter significantly its place in society. Radical change would be very popular with the voting public, as all the attitude surveys suggest. Britain might then even be seen as a world leader in developing a sensible and just way of regulating gambling globally. At the moment, no one is looking to us for that lead, such is our reputation for having got it wrong since 2005.

 

Jim Orford, Emeritus Professor of Clinical and Community Psychology, the University of Birmingham/Visiting Professor of Gambling Studies, King's College London/author of, The Gambling Establishment: Challenging the Power of the Modern Gambling Industry and its Allies, published by Routledge, October 2019

 

 

 

 

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