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UK – White Paper ushers in major reform of gambling laws to protect vulnerable users in smartphone era

By - 27 April 2023

With a focus on betting via smartphones technology, the UK’s long-awaited White Paper on gambling reform will see a new stake limit for online slots introduced with the default maximum stake of between £2 and £15 per spin, subject to consultation.

The measure will help prevent runaway and life-changing losses and level the playing field between the online and land-based sectors. As it stands there is no limit on bets for online slots whereas in-person slot machines in pubs, arcades, bookmakers have a limit of £2 and casinos have limits of up to £5.

Casinos will also get a boost in the UK with greater ‘parity’ between online gambling and bricks-and-mortar casinos. Under the plans, some smaller casinos currently limited to 20 gaming machines will be able to install 80. High-end casinos will be able to offer credit to wealthy overseas visitors in an attempt to attract more ‘high rollers.’ 

Regulatory restrictions on casinos will also be reduced, making it easier for them to gain planning permission. 

Elsewhere in the paper, statutory gambling operator levies will be introduced to ensure that operators help fund treatment services and research, including through the NHS. ​Currently the size of the contribution is not mandated and not all betting companies pay their fair share – some have paid as little as £1. It is likely to be set at one per cent of net revenue and could raise £140m a year for education, treatment and research

There will be frictionless player protection checks to protect those most at risk of harm before unaffordable or harmful losses are incurred. Termed as ‘passive’ checks, they would see a need to check on customers losing £125 over a month or £500 within a year. Those checks would mostly look for county court judgements or other credit ‘black marks’.

“Around eight in ten players will never undergo checks. Checks will happen in the background against information already available online, so those who are checked will not notice,” the paper states. “These checks will happen instantaneously, and will not impact gameplay, unless there are signs of financial harm where people may have declared bankruptcy, or are racking up debts to fund their gambling.”

‘More detailed’ checks will be carried out for higher-spending customers, with a spend of £1,000 a day or £2,000 over three months and will be closer to formal credit checks.

The paper states: “Only about three percent of the highest spending accounts will have more detailed checks, similar to those carried out when people buy products through online credit agencies or sign up to some mobile phone contracts.”

There will be extra powers for the Gambling Commission to enable it to tackle black market operators through court orders and work with internet service providers (ISPs) to take down and block illegal gambling sites.

Rules will be introduced to prevent bonus offers harming vulnerable people – for example, looking at how free bets or spins are constructed and targeted to stop them being harmful. The paper states: “Bonus offers, such as free bets or spins, can drive harmful behaviour and trigger people to spend more than they intended. The Gambling Commission will take a closer look at how bonuses are constructed and targeted to prevent them being used in harmful ways and its work will inform new rules to stop dangerous practices.”

The White Paper aslo looks to close loopholes to make sure under-18s cannot gamble either online or via cash fruit machines, and includes bringing football pools betting in line with National Lottery play for over-18s only.

A new industry ombudsman will be set up to deal with disputes and rule on redress where a customer suffers losses due to an operator failing in their player protection duties.

There will also be a review of the current horserace betting levy to make certain racing continues to thrive. The paper explained: “The knock-on impact of the gambling White Paper on the horseracing industry will be minimal, but there will be a review into the current horserace betting levy to make certain racing continues to be appropriately funded for the future.”

These are the most comprehensive reforms to the gambling sector since the Gambling Act was introduced in 2005, and delivers on the 2019 manifesto commitment to review this act.

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said: “We live in an age where people have a virtual mobile casino in their pockets. It has made gambling easier, quicker and often more fun, but when things go wrong it can see people lose thousands of pounds in a few swipes of the screen. So we are stepping in to update the law for those most at risk of harm with a new levy on gambling operators to pay for treatment and education, player protection checks and new online slots stake limits.

“This will strengthen the safety net and help deliver our long-term plan to help build stronger communities while allowing millions of people to continue to play safely,” she added.

Gambling Minister Stuart Andrew said: “Technology has completely transformed how people bet. Everyone has the freedom to enjoy a flutter on the horses or football through their phones, anytime, anywhere – and most people do so without any issues. But for some people the availability of 24/7 online betting has compounded or created problem gambling, which can lead to life-changing financial loss and in the most tragic cases suicide.

“The legislation covering the gambling sector was written in 2005. It needs updating to reflect how we live today. The measures we are announcing will protect at-risk players, while allowing the millions who bet regularly to do so unhindered,” he added.

Chief Executive of the Gambling Commission, Andrew Rhodes, said: “The review is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver positive change for gambling in Great Britain and for all people impacted by it. Everyone at the Commission welcomes today’s publication of the White Paper and is determined to work with government and partners to make these changes a reality.

“Given the correct powers and resources, the Gambling Commission can continue to make gambling safer, fairer and crime free. This White Paper is a coherent package of proposals which we believe can significantly support and protect consumers, and improve overall standards in the industry. As the detailed implementation of the review now begins, we will also be reiterating to all operators that the Commission will strongly maintain its focus on consumer protection and compliance.”

Minister for Public Health, Neil O’Brien said: “Without the right support in place gambling can easily become harmful – especially for at-risk players – leading to devastating impacts on people’s savings, relationships and health. Today’s white paper is a huge step towards protecting people from the damaging impacts of gambling. A statutory levy will help problem gamblers access the right care at the right time, complementing our commitment to provide NHS gambling addiction treatment clinics in every region across the country.”

Today’s White Paper and proposals follow a call for evidence and are based on nearly 16,000 written submissions sent to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) during the process.

They build on the government’s recent work with the Gambling Commission and others to ban the use of credit cards in gambling, introduce tighter age verification checks for betting online and cutting the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals to £2 per spin.

The white paper follows the Premier League’s voluntary decision to ban gambling advertising from the front of clubs’ shirts from the end of the 2025/2026 season, and the White Paper includes proposals for all major sports governing bodies to sign up to a cross-sport Code of Practice on gambling sponsorship. It will be designed to improve standards where gambling sponsorship is prevalent in sport similar to what is in place in the alcohol industry.

The white paper will support the ‘land-based’ gambling sector including casinos, arcades and bingo halls, while maintaining safeguards to protect vulnerable groups. Bingo halls, seaside arcades and casinos create employment, generate tourism and provide entertainment. Outdated and overly restrictive rules on gaming machines will be reformed so casinos and arcades can have more machines. We will consult on the protections needed for gaming machines to be able to accept cashless payments directly.

The emeasures were generally welcomed.

Peter Jackson, CEO of Flutter Entertainment plc, commented: “We welcome the publication of the White Paper, which marks a significant moment for the U.K. gambling sector. Whilst we will need to review the detail of the proposals, we believe proactive change will lead to a better future for our industry. As such we have introduced industry-leading safer gambling controls via our ‘Play Well’ strategy over the last few years, including setting mandatory deposit limits for customers under age 25, reducing online slots staking limits to £10 per spin and making material investments in our safer gambling operational capabilities. We will continue to constructively engage with the Government and Gambling Commission as part of any subsequent industry consultation processes, with a focus on providing support to the minority at risk of gambling harm without interfering disproportionately with the enjoyment of the vast majority.”

Jette Nygaard-Andersen, CEO of Entain, added: “The UK Gambling Act Review is an important step towards having a robust regulatory framework that is fit for the digital age and creates a level playing field for all operators. We welcome the clarity that it will bring to the industry and customers.

“In leading the industry on player protection, we have already implemented a comprehensive range of actions to protect our customers, such as our industry-leading Advanced Responsibility and Care safer gaming programme, personalised online slots staking limits, and the implementation of an affordability model across the UK.  We are also extremely proud to have led the industry in 2019 by voluntarily agreeing to increase our levy donations to one per cent of our UK gross gaming revenues.

“As a global and diversified business that operates in over 40 territories around the world, all of which are regulated or regulating, we are firmly in favour of regulation that preserves the market for the vast majority of customers who enjoy recreational betting and gaming, whilst also ensuring appropriate protection to all players.”

Matt Zarb-Cousin, director of the campaign group Clean Up Gambling, said: “We welcome acknowledgement that gambling laws are out of date and there needs to be significant reform. It’s important the government gets detail right on things like affordability checks and stake limits. The consultation needs to take all evidence into account.” 

Fiona Palmer, CEO of GAMSTOP, said: “Online gambling has changed out of all recognition since the 2005 Gambling Act, and we welcome any changes that protect vulnerable individuals, especially younger consumers who make up a significant percentage of our consumer base. In March 2023, GAMSTOP recorded its highest ever monthly registration figures since our inception in 2018, which shows that problem gambling remains a serious issue.

“We are particularly concerned about the targeting of vulnerable individuals by illegal sites not registered with GAMSTOP. More than 365,000 people have excluded themselves from online gambling and it is worrying that they are being deliberately targeted when they are at their most vulnerable,” she added.

“We are pleased that the Gambling Commission is to be given greater powers to deal with this issue, which we highlighted in our evidence to the DCMS. We are encouraged that legislation will be introduced, allowing the Gambling Commission to apply for a court order as a last resort, requiring ISPs, payment providers and other service providers to implement measures aimed at disrupting the business of an illegal gambling operator. This will provide greater protection for GAMSTOP’s users.”

The process of developing the new policies has been delayed multiple times, and has been mired in controversy caused by gambling industry lobbying of MPs.  

Liz Ritchie MBE, co-founder of Gambling with Lives, who lost her son Jack to gambling-related suicide, said: “After a long fight we’ve won concessions on some of the key areas but so much more needs to happen to reduce the horrendous harm caused by one of the most loosely regulated gambling industries in the world. 

“We’ve won the argument against a powerful gambling lobby but this is just the beginning.  There’s another family devastated by gambling suicide every day, and we won’t stop until the deaths do.” 

Charles Ritchie MBE, co-founder of Gambling with Lives, added:  “When we first began our campaign four years ago people looked at us blankly, seemingly having no idea how highly addictive and dangerous some forms of gambling could be, how ruthlessly the gambling industry could behave and the number of people dying in gambling suicides every year, so this white paper feels like a first step in a better direction. 

“We now need to push further for an end to all gambling advertising, we need preventative affordability checks when losses reach £100 a month, and we need to do more to make the most dangerous products safer, further reducing stake sizes and play speeds.  Only then will we be able to see a real reduction in the deaths caused by gambling.”

Will Prochaska, Strategy Director at Gambling with Lives, says: “We welcome the government finally acting, but nothing has changed yet. We desperately need the Gambling Commission to enact these reforms and not drag their feet. Government must now go much further, remove the influence of the gambling industry, and give a greater role to the Department of Health in regulation.”

Richard Williams, gambling and licensing partner at Keystone Law, said: “Overall, this is good news for the land based gambling industry at the expense of the online industry.  Casinos will be delighted with the proposals to offer sports betting, which has always been a strange restriction. Holders of dormant casino licences will also be happy to hear that it may be possible to relocate these to other local authority areas in future. 

“Anti-gambling campaigners will be glad that the Government’s proposals have finally seen the light of day but are likely to argue that the proposals do not go far enough to prevent harm. For the gambling industry, these measures are not as bad as once feared, although the Gambling Commission’s continuing regulatory pressure on operators for not complying with anti-money laundering and safer gambling rules will have already dented their revenues.

“Let’s hope that these proposals will go far enough to satisfy those on both sides of the debate. What nobody wants is a further two years of consultation on some of these proposals, or worse still, the next Government including in its manifesto a further review of gambling legislation.”

Read Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer’s full statement

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