One of the side effects of the Covid-19 pandemic – and our abrupt, surreal switch to staying at home – is fresh concern over how best to regulate online gambling. “In this time of national crisis, with so many people self-isolating… it is vital that we do everything possible to ensure safer gambling and to protect potentially vulnerable or at risk people,” the chief executive of the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) has said.
The BGC, which represents betting shops and online casinos, has promised that its members will promote safer gambling messages on its sites, and actively intervene if users start to spend more time and money than they did before the coronavirus crisis hit. However, these measures have been slammed as inadequate by the Gambling Related Harm All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), which has complained the “measures are loosely worded, do not make firm commitments or merely restate existing obligations.”
The APPG had previously asked the BGC to deal with the pandemic by calling on its members to bring in £50 daily gambling limits. The chair of the APPG, Carolyn Harris MP, pointed out that, “if you are a problem gambler and you have all of this extra time on your hands sat at home, we need to ensure these temptations are not there if they are trying to keep away from gambling.”
Fierce debates about increasing regulation were going on even before the pandemic accelerated. Back in February, the National Audit Office (NAO) – the body which analyses public spending – published a report on what it sees as massive flaws in gambling regulation, specifically wagging its finger at the UK’s regulatory body, the Gambling Commission.
“While the Commission has made improvements, gambling regulation lags behind the industry,” said the head of the NAO.
According to the report, more than 1.8 million gamblers in the UK are at risk of developing a problem, while around 395,000 already are problem gamblers, including 55,000 children. The report suggested the Gambling Commission was effectively being left in the dust by the ever-evolving gambling industry, due to various factors. These include casino sites spending increasing amounts on social media advertising, the rise in popularity of mobile gambling, and the difficulty the Gambling Commission has in raising funds to be able to keep up with emerging technologies in the world of online gambling.
And, as gambling sites now have various methods of enticing new customers, including hundreds of casino bonuses, it’s no wonder there’s concern about how to step things up.
In the wake of the report, Carolyn Harris MP went as far as saying: “The Gambling Commission is not fit for purpose… The commission is simply not up to the job of regulating the gambling industry, particularly the online sector, parts of which seem to operate like the wild west.”
Will this kind of noise mean stricter rules will be laid down for gambling operators? It’s worth noting that regulators have certainly not been sitting around and twiddling their thumbs in recent times. In February of this year, the same month the damning NAO report came out, the Gambling Commission hit online casino site Mr Green with a £3 million penalty for failing to protect problem gamblers. In April, Caesars Entertainment UK was fined £13 million, again for not taking measures to stop players from spending beyond their means.
This year also sees a ban on using credit cards to place bets, a measure intended to tackle the fact that 22% of online users who use credit cards are problem gamblers.
“We realise that this change will inconvenience those consumers who use credit cards responsibly,” the Gambling Commission chief executive said, “but we are satisfied that reducing the risk of harm to other consumers means that action must be taken.”
On top of this, the Commission has altered the conditions of gambling licences, which means operators are now obliged to participate in GAMSTOP – the scheme which lets users self-exclude from all online gambling sites with one request.
Going forwards, VIP schemes – where casino operators provide rewards and perks like free bets to big-spenders who often lose lots of money – are likely to be targeted by future regulatory measures. In January of this year, the Guardian broke the news of a secret Gambling Commission report into how these high-spending customers are far more likely to be addicted to gambling. The report confirms that a tiny minority of VIP players provide much of the income for casino sites. One site admitted to the Commission that their VIPs, who only make up 2% of their customer base, provide 83% of all deposits.
The report by the Commission runs through possible approaches to the issue, including drawing up a code of conduct for VIP schemes, and putting limits on bonuses and gifts given to VIP players. These kinds of measures would certainly trigger an outcry from the APPG, with Carolyn Harris MP angrily reacting to the report by reiterating “how completely reliant the industry is on people with gambling problems”, and calling for an outright ban.
Such a ban, if it comes to pass, may well be the most impactful example of gambling regulation in recent times, causing a gigantic blow to revenue for online casino sites. Will it happen? With uncertainty and concern about the Covid-19 pandemic continuing, it seems that, when it comes to the regulation of gambling in the UK, all bets are off.