SBC News Harris Hagan: Legal Eye…Managing the Great Expectations of the White Paper

Harris Hagan: Legal Eye…Managing the Great Expectations of the White Paper

UK Gambling faces a restless summer as the UKGC pledges to publish the first consultations of the White Paper on proposed gambling reforms. Harris Hagan examines how intended reforms will satisfy or disappoint the interests of diverse stakeholders interpreting the White Paper’s content that has become all things to everyone…

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As the dust settles (at least temporarily) following the publication of the White Paper, we have “take[n] time to think” so that we may share our insights in a series of blogs and vlogs on the many and varied aspects of the proposed gambling reforms. With the Gambling Commission already seeking to manage expectations by saying that the implementation of the White Paper “will likely take a number of years to fully complete” and urging “more haste, less speed”, this may be a long running series… We will focus on what we consider is important or interesting, ideally both, and our content will be concise and hopefully thought provoking.

Speaking about the White Paper recently in the House of Lords, Lord Grade referred to a saying in the film industry – “hurry up and wait” (also a song by Stereophonics and a military motto) – describing where you get to the location after being forced to spend a lot of time waiting, everybody is standing around, ready, but nothing happens. Having waited nearly 30 months for the publication of the White Paper, coupled with the latest (estimated) indication from the Gambling Commission that the first wave of consultations will not be seen until mid-July, this saying seems apt.

  1. Spirit and Intention of the White Paper

Throughout our White Paper Series, we will have as our touchstone the aim of the Gambling Review when it was published on 8 December 2020:

“The Government wants all those who choose to gamble in Great Britain to be able to do so in a safe way. The sector should have up to date legislation and protections, with a strong regulator with the powers and resources needed to oversee a responsible industry that offers customer choice, protects players, provides employment, and contributes to the economy.”

The White Paper is true to that laudable aim. As the Secretary of State says in her Ministerial Foreword, at the heart of the Government’s Review is making sure it has the balance right between consumer freedoms and choice on the one hand, and protection from harm on the other. The Government seeks to achieve this balance through an extensive package of measures across all facets of gambling regulation. If it is to be successful, the Government – and Gambling Commission – will need to retain an unerring focus on this balance, essentially the spirit and intention of the White Paper, as it is inevitably buffeted by vested interests through consultation, regulation, and legislation.

  1. A White Paper that is all things to everyone 

The first thing to say about the White Paper is that it has been broadly well received; when it was delivered in Parliament, within all sectors of industry, by the NHS, in the third sector and at the Gambling Commission. This was equally broadly unexpected, given the acrimony and divergence of views between stakeholders during the “hurry up” phase, so why has the White Paper been such a resounding success? At the risk of oversimplifying, but not wishing to overlook the obvious (including the lack of detail and long grass kicking), it is precisely because the Government has achieved a healthy balance in its proposed reforms, for which it deserves enormous credit, and it is because there is something valuable in the White Paper for everyone.

Responding to its publication, and demonstrating some of the “wins” for the respective stakeholders, comments on the White Paper included:

“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.” Gambling Commission CEO, Andrew Rhodes.

“BGC members will now work with Government and the Gambling Commission to deliver targeted and genuinely ‘frictionless’ enhanced spending checks to further protect the vulnerable, a new Ombudsman to improve consumer redress, and overdue plans to modernise the regulation of UK casinos.” Betting & Gaming Council CEO, Michael Dugher.

“..it should not be left to the health service to pick up the pieces left behind by a billion-pound industry profiting on vulnerable people, so I fully endorse the statutory levy set out in today’s White Paper and look forward to reading the proposals in detail.” NHS Mental Health Director, Claire Murdoch.

“At GamCare, our priority is making sure that people who need help receive it as quickly as possible. We therefore welcome the clarity the Government has provided on how research, education and treatment will be funded.” Gamcare CEO, Anna Hemmings.

“As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on gambling related harm, I welcome this long overdue White Paper. In the APPG’s 2019 interim report, we asked for affordability checks, parity between land-based and online stakes, an independent ombudsman, a curb on advertising and, most importantly, a statutory levy. Job done.” Carolyn Harris MP.

The introduction of a statutory levy paid by licensees and collected and distributed by the Gambling Commission under the direction and approval of the Treasury and DCMS ministers, is a flagship reform. The long debate as to whether there should be a statutory levy is at an end, there will be a DCMS consultation on the details of its design and, critically, the total amount to be raised. The statutory levy will fund research, education and treatment of gambling harms and is a load-bearing pillar of the reforms for those advocating the “polluter pays” principle.

Financial risk checks, maximum stakes for online slots and the creation of an independent gambling ombudsman have also been very warmly received by key stakeholders and will all be consulted upon by DCMS. The new non-statutory ombudsman will be the subject of our next blog in this White Paper Series.

The Gambling Commission most certainly did not get everything its own way, with Government not religiously following the advice from the regulator, but the Gambling Commission will be the recipient of powers and resources intended to make sure that all gambling is overseen by a “beefed up, better funded and more proactive” regulator. Licence fees will be reviewed (upwards of course) to ensure it has the resources to deliver the commitments across the White Paper. When Parliamentary time allows, it will even get greater power to set its own fees. Detailed analysis of the Gambling Commission’s additional enforcement powers will be the subject of one of our early blogs in this White Paper Series, including some which may have passed below the radar in all the excitement.

The industry positives from the White Paper are more nuanced. The land-based industry can certainly look forward to the long overdue modernisation of casinos and bingo clubs – including greater machine entitlements, credit in casinos for non-UK resident customers, sports betting in all casinos, and additional opportunities for customers to win on the main stage bingo game – and cashless payments across all land-based gambling sectors (following consultation by the Gambling Commission on the player protections which would be required).

From an online industry perspective, the White Paper is arguably as good as could reasonably have been expected in the present political, media and regulatory environment. The Government has resisted calls for bans on advertising, rejected demands for blanket and intrusive low-level affordability checks, and will consult on maximum stakes for online slots at higher levels than leaked previously. However, in outlining the Government’s vision for the future of gambling in moderately business-friendly terms, the White Paper does provide policy direction to which to hold the Gambling Commission accountable, the beginnings of some certainty and a glimpse of what political and regulatory stability might look like, not to mention the hope that the next gambling review might be a generation away.

  1. Summer consultations

Yes of course everyone wishes the White Paper had gone further (in their direction, naturally). Yes of course there is a lot of work to be done to implement the reforms, once we are no longer “waiting”. Yes of course the devil will be in the detail. But as even the Gambling Commission and the Betting and Gaming Council (the “BGC”) agree in their welcoming press releases, the White Paper is a “once in a generation” opportunity for change. All the key stakeholders will now be seeking to secure their respective prize and imploring Government to prioritise their interests and deliver on its promises at the earliest opportunity, not least through Government and Gambling Commission consultations.

If the risk of the reform process descending into warring factions and reaching a standstill is to be mitigated, and this would not be in anybody’s interests, it is imperative that the process itself remains balanced and that all the key stakeholders see comparable progress in relation to their interests.

From an industry perspective, this means engaging positively, constructively, and wholeheartedly with the upcoming consultations, proposing pragmatic and sensible solutions to the challenges the Government and the Gambling Commission face, not least regarding cashless solutions and frictionless checks, substantiated by evidence wherever possible.

It also means holding the Gambling Commission to account on what is expected of it by the Government in the White Paper, with fair prioritisation of its (no doubt stretched) resources and no reforms being left far behind, even when the Gambling Commission is not in favour of them. It means focusing on its prize and not seeking to “re-litigate” settled issues or actively seeking to frustrate other stakeholders, or indeed otherwise antagonising Government which has delivered upon a balanced vision.

The proposed reforms are going to take longer than any of the stakeholders want as they seek to claim their prizes, but they are worth waiting for, the consultation phase will be critical, with both Government and the Gambling Commission under immense pressure to listen, and we will of course be happy to assist clients with their responses where that would be helpful, as we did in the last once in a generation opportunity in 2005!

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