David Clifton: Licensing Expert – The future is within the industry’s power!

David Clifton

For the first time that I can recall, all four major UK political parties have featured gambling reform within their respective General Election manifestos. As a result, it’s clear that, regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s voting, the industry’s regulatory landscape will experience some fundamental change in the not too distant future.

Online is the clearly declared focus but the land-based sector should most certainly not regard itself as immune from change as the following manifesto excerpts illustrate:

Conservative: “We will continue to take action to tackle gambling addiction …. also, given how the online world is moving, the Gambling Act is increasingly becoming an analogue law in a digital age. We will review it, with a particular focus on tackling issues around loot boxes and credit card misuse.”

Labour: “A Labour government will curb gambling advertising in sports and introduce a new Gambling Act fit for the digital age, establishing gambling limits, a levy for problem gambling funding and mechanisms for consumer compensations.”

Liberal Democrat: “There are 340,000 problem gamblers in the UK including some 55,000 children aged 11 to 16. The Liberal Democrats will introduce further measures to protect individuals, their families and communities from problem gambling. We will:

  • introduce a compulsory levy on gambling companies to fund research, education and treatment of problem gambling
  • ban the use of credit cards for gambling
  • restrict gambling advertising
  • establish a Gambling Ombudsman.:

Scottish National Party: “Having led the campaign against Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, the SNP will continue to tackle problem gambling, pushing the UK Government to treat it as a public health matter and tackle it with a joined-up strategy. We will press for greater devolution of gambling regulation to the Scottish Parliament and press the UK Government to stop underage gambling on video games. We will support changes to charity lottery law to reduce bureaucracy and maximise returns to good causes and we will support a full public health inquiry into gambling-related harm.”

Experience has shown that when legislative change has been on the cards previously, whether for example in relation to formulation of what is now the Gambling Act 2005 or the lobbying efforts for each of the subsequent triennial reviews, a tendency towards internecine warfare within the UK gambling industry, with each sector fighting its respective corner, has unwittingly resulted in too many self-inflicted wounds and, ultimately, less than the desired result in most cases.

Indeed, just two years ago, speaking at the annual GambleAware conference, Gambling Commission Executive Director Tim Miller criticised industry leaders for “throwing stones at commercial rivals” and called on them to “stop acting in a spirit of frustration and start acting in a spirit of collaboration”.

The encouraging news is that call has been heeded, so let us hope that, this time around, the newly launched Betting and Gaming Council will prove that the industry can speak to government with a united voice despite some sectors not yet having chosen to join forces with other members of the BGC.

The challenge is that it will be an uphill task for the industry to correct misapprehensions of the type evidenced not only by cross-party MPs in the Gambling Related Harm APPG, whose Online Gambling Harm Interim Report I wrote about in last month’s Licensing Expert article for SBC News, but also comments made by NHS Chief Executive Simon Stevens who sparked numerous adverse media headlines when he unjustifiably described last week’s publication adult gambling behaviour statistics within the Health Survey for England as “a stark reminder of how common gambling is in our society, and how easy it is to become addicted”. I say “unjustifiably” because the NHS survey data contains no data on gambling addiction; to the contrary, it contains some encouraging signs that gambling industry efforts to address gambling-related harms are taking effect.

Michael Dugher, the newly appointed Chief Executive of the BGC (who will take up that position in Spring next year) seems to have something of a reputation for plain-speaking. As Dugher will be aware from his experience both as a shadow minister and, since May 2017, as CEO of UK Music, when confronting the above challenge, it will be essential that a constructive and convincing evidence-based argument is presented to government on behalf of the industry.

With that in mind, it will be so much better when that time comes if further signs can be displayed that safer gambling principles are truly embedded within the compliance culture of all UK licensed gambling operators.

Acceptance by the whole industry of a new Code of Practice regarding the treatment of VIPs and associated inducements to gamble, planned by the BGC for release at about the same time as Dugher takes up his role, should hopefully be regarded as one such sign. Not only that but in last week’s SBC Webinar entitled Betting and Gaming Council – Committed to Change, the BGC Interim Chief Executive Wes Himes indicated that steps are also being taken to address the other two “opportunities” flagged up by the Gambling Commission’s CEO, Neil McArthur in his CEO Breakfast Briefing speech at the beginning of October, namely (a) an effective industry code for game design and (b) use of ad-tech for social responsibility purposes to actively target ads away from vulnerable audiences.

Just in case any readers are of the view that it is only UK licensed gambling operators who are under the regulatory cosh insofar as safer gambling requirements are concerned, it is worth pointing out that, within the last month, the International Association of Gaming Regulators has published its 2018-19 survey, providing what it describes as a “comprehensive survey report and profile of gambling and gaming regulation across the world”. The survey shows problem gambling to be the top regulatory concern of international regulators, with 88% of those who responded to IAGR’s survey confirming that they are tackling the issue.

Problem gambling is a subject that features strongly in the Gambling Commission’s Assurance Statement requirements. Such statements require larger operators to provide responses to a series of questions that have been designed to constitute a self-assessment of the risks to the licensing objectives posed by each operator’s business, how well it is managing those risks, where it needs to improve and how it intends to do so. The deadline for affected operators to submit their completed Assurance Statements is Friday of this week, 13 December.

Although such statements do not (yet, at least) have to be submitted by smaller operators, it would be no bad idea for both smaller B2C operators and B2B suppliers to study the Assurance Statement templates (that can be accessed here) in order to see what they might learn by posing those very same questions to themselves.

So – back to where I started. Regardless of the outcome of the General Election, 2020 looks set to be another interesting and challenging year for all involved in the UK gambling industry. I sincerely hope that sufficient confidence exists on the part of each sector of this industry to justify the belief that what now seems to be an inevitable review of the current gambling legislation should be regarded not as a threat but instead as an opportunity to get across, not only to government but to the public at large, the strongest possible evidential message that UK licence-holders are amongst the most responsible gambling operators and suppliers in the world. If that can be achieved, at long last some well-deserved appreciation might serve to stem the tide of constant condemnation that has faced the industry in recent years… It must not miss this opportunity to regain public trust.

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David Clifton – Director – ‎Clifton Davies Consultancy Limited

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