Tim Miller, the Executive Director of Research and Statistics for the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC), has presented the findings of the first ‘National Strategic Assessment’ which evaluates the Commission’s response to risks and duties.
The assessment was framed on the evidence of the four key elements of the person gambling, the places where gambling occurs, the products available to customers and the provider of facilities for gambling.
Miller underscored that the review was undertaken with ‘best available evidence’ and accounted for ongoing COVID-19 impacts on consumer habits.
Spanning a three-year period, the UKGC’s assessment had been conducted concurrently with significant changes and improvements in gambling policies, protections, treatment and research.
“Amongst the debate around gambling, it often gets forgotten that a lot of progress has been made over the last three years,” Miller remarked.
Much needed progress has seen problem gambling recognised as a public health issue which requires a ‘national-level public health approach,’ with Miller noting that this ‘wasn’t universally accepted three years ago.’
Additionally, the authority has recognised the need for those with lived experience of problem gambling to have their voices heard. To meet this requirement, the UKGC carried the support of a ‘Lived Experience Advisory Panel’ to assist with research and policy development.
The group stated: “We were amongst the first voices to make the arguments that Gambling Harms should be recognised as a Public Health issue and adopted a public health approach when we published the first-ever National Strategy to Reduce Gambling Harms in 2019.”
Despite progress, the UKGC noted that it is facing ‘risks that are dynamic’ which have changed the make-up and profile of those affected by problem gambling.
Miller highlighted the shift by UK consumers to online gambling, which – prior to covid restrictions – had grown to more than 50% of Gross Gambling Yield (excluding prizes). He said: “This has obvious implications for where and how customers gamble, as does the increasing use of mobile phones to play”.
The digital take up of UK gambling has changed the risk profile of customers, with a “move towards more intense products, such as slots and in-play betting”.
Further risks are maintained as the UK gambling sector has been radically altered by a series of mergers and acquisitions, which have carried over safety implications as “compliance work has seen that time taken to integrate different systems and approaches can disadvantage customers in terms of safer gambling and customer experience.”
Responding to changing online risks, the UKGC has systematically ramped up its compliance enforcement actions by issuing over £90 million in penalty packages since 2017/18 as well as revoking 10 operator licences.
The UKGC also enforced stringent operator requirements on player ID and verification, as well as prohibiting gambling via credit cards. Furthermore, GAMSTOP had been commissioned as the compulsory ‘multi-operator exclusion scheme’ for online gambling.
During 2020, the NSA strategy was drastically altered to account for COVID-19 temporary enforcements which were applied on online gambling operators – all of which were required to review deposit thresholds, affordability checks and customer care interventions.
Despite meeting its compliance objectives, Miller explained that the UKGC needed to be better able to support its four key research elements related to UK gambling.
The UKGC has therefore launched directives that focus on developing a ‘single customer view’ of UK gambling, providing stakeholders with a ‘full picture’ of customers interactions with risks and harms.
“A Single Customer View could dramatically help reduce harm and that is why we will not accept progress at the pace of the slowest on this work,” Miller remarked.
All-round improvements had seen the UK’s rate of problem gambling in 2020 reach a four year low of 0.3%, compared to 0.6% in 2019, 0.5% in 2018, 0.6% in 2017 and 0.7% in 2016.
“Over the last five years it does appear that there is an emerging trend showing a decline in overall rates of problem gambling,” Miller added.
The executive also addressed the increased political scrutiny felt by both the Commission and the gambling industry as a whole throughout 2020.
“Now I said I would return to the increased political interest and scrutiny that gambling and our work has received in recent years,” he began.
“As a statutory regulator, it is right that we are scrutinised and held to account for how we deliver the licensing objectives and we know that different groups may have very different views about how our role should be performed.
“In particular, we welcome greater interest from Parliament in making gambling safer. Whether that interest is long-held, came from concerns over FOBTs or is yet more recent, we welcome the diversity of interest and perspective that this greater scrutiny brings.”
Moving forward into 2021, Miller outlined the UKGC’s objectives for further enhancing Britain’s safer gambling standards.
Proposed measures include the outright ban of features that speed up play or give the illusion control over an outcome, slot spin speeds faster than 2.5 seconds, auto-play modes and sounds or imagery which give the illusion of a win when returns are equal to or lower than the stake.
The Commission’s Business Plan and Corporate Strategy for the year will be published in the Spring, where the authority’s focus on making gambling ‘safer, fairer and crime free’ will be further clarified.
“We are working hard to make Great Britain the safest place to gamble in the world and we need you all to work with us to achieve that outcome,” Miller concluded.
“We recognise the unprecedented pressures on businesses and we know that some operators have been forced to make tough decisions to keep businesses and jobs viable in recent months.
“But even through the turbulence of the pandemic, progress is being made in making gambling safer. The evidence is suggesting that we are on the right track. So let’s keep on going together.”