David Clifton, Licensing Expert: The calm before the storm…

David Clifton

Perhaps it’s due to the House of Commons adjourning on 22nd July for the summer recess, but equally it could be down to the easing of travel restrictions opening the door to foreign holidays once more now that the (hopefully) final pandemic lockdown has ended. Come what may, I can’t help but feel that the ding-dong war of words between the various sides in the gambling reform debate has considerably quietened down in the last two or three weeks. Time will tell whether this has been the calm before the storm.

Rather than letting one specific issue dominate this article, I will run through all of the matters that I believe UK licensed gambling operators should have taken note of during the last month or so.

On the last day of the parliamentary session, Scott Benton MP, Chair of the Betting & Gaming All-Party Parliamentary Group (that should most definitely not be confused with the Gambling Related Harm (‘GRH’) APPG) led a House of Commons Adjournment Debate on the UK Government’s Review of the Gambling Act 2005, in which he delivered a very strong pro-UK gambling industry message. With many Opposition MPs having clearly already departed for their summer holidays, he had an easy ride, as too did John Whittingdale, the DCMS Minister with responsibility for the Gambling Review.

There were no major surprises. Reassuringly, the Minister talked in terms of the Government needing to base decisions on evidence and ensuring the right “balance between protecting people from harm and maintaining freedom of choice in how they spend their money and leisure time”.

Without doubt, the online sector will remain the major focus of debate, including whether “greater controls are needed at account or product level”, although the Minister did confirm that the Government does not want “to drive [consumers] away from the regulated sector and into the black market”.

Where the Minister’s words will have provided some greater measure of encouragement for the industry is in relation to the land-based sector. This will have been particularly so in the case of casinos, with his description of existing restrictions imposed upon them having become “steadily more anomalous” as a result of which “they clearly need to be updated”. This served to underline his earlier comments in this same respect during a Westminster Hall debate on 7th July.

What else? Well, he gave a fairly clear indication that the gathering calls for introduction of a Gambling Ombudsman (now including from the Betting and Gaming Council) might possibly find favour with parliamentarians, commenting that the current arrangements for consumer redress “deal only with contractual disputes and do not allow for individual resolution if a complaint is about whether the operator has breached its social responsibility obligations, for example by failing to step in when someone shows signs that their gambling is getting out of control”, adding that “understandably, concerns have been raised that the current system makes it difficult for individuals to seek compensation or support”. That said, IBAS has pointed out that significant legal and ethical questions need to be explored in order to transform what is presently merely an idea into an effective, achievable functioning service. This aspect of the Government Review is not yet a ‘done deal’.

The Minister went on to confirm the very same point I made in my lastLicensing Expertarticle for SBC News just over a month ago, when he said “the Gambling Commission … is undergoing a reboot and we are looking at its powers and performance as part of the review”. Insofar as that reboot is concerned, I explained in that last article that the job description of the Commission’s newly appointed CEO, Andrew Rhodes, requires him to “review and reset every aspect of the Commission’s operation if necessary”. I also commented that it may be some time yet before we hear [his] maiden speech as CEO”.

As I write this, that speech is still awaited, but on 3rd August Mr Rhodes took to Twitter for what I believe will have been his first public announcement on a current matter directly relevant to the Commission’s function as regulator of Great Britain’s gambling industry, i.e. the controversy surrounding Football Index. Very impressive it was too. It remains to be seen whether this mode of communication by the new UKGC CEO will continue in future, but this nevertheless represented an encouraging sign that the Commission might in future be more willing to engage openly with all stakeholders than has rather too often been the case in the recent past.

It’s disappointing though that such short shrift was given in the Commission’s Consultation Response document to the impartiality concerns expressed by respondents to its controversial May 2020 proposal to change its governance framework by introducing legally qualified Adjudicators as members of its Regulatory Panels. While I’m at it, I know I’m not alone in my disappointment that the search function on the Commission’s new website has so far proved to be just as, if not more, frustrating to use than its now discontinued old website.

Anyway, now I’ve got that off my chest, let me return to John Whittingdale, who might have hoped that his 7th June written parliamentary answer had sufficiently disposed of a question about gambling advertising posed by a member of the GRH APPG. No such luck for him though, as he has since been twice challenged (most recently on 23rd July) on his assertion that he has seen no evidence of a causal link between (a) exposure to gambling advertising and (b) the development of problem gambling.

In support of its call for (a) a ban on all advertising in sport, on direct marketing and on inducements and (b) stronger advertising restrictions on broadcast, online, streaming and social media advertising, the GRH APPG has cited recent research interviews in which participants have talked in terms of “a frenzy” of gambling adverts. It was precisely such a bombardment that added fuel to the fire of the gambling advertising debate back in 2018 when so many complaints were made about the sheer volume of gambling ads during the FIFA World Cup Finals.

No doubt with that in mind, the BGC was quick to publicise last month the fact that the number of TV betting ads during the 2020 UEFA Football Championship had fallen by almost a half compared to those in the 2018 World Cup and then, one day before the new football season kicked off on 7th August, it pledged to maintain the momentum”on protecting young people and promoting safer betting.

Non-members of the BGC should follow suit, bearing in mind the Gambling Commission’s 15th July warning that “some consumers, such as highly engaged gamblers who play a range of products, are likely to spend more time and money gambling and, with high level sporting events taking place over the summer, there are more opportunities for betting customers to gamble”. It added that many are likely to “have picked up new gambling routines and habits during lockdown that may be hard to change as things return to normal, even as normal spending on other things resumes. This could be challenging for some and important for operators to identify through their monitoring”.

Further gambling advertising developments over the last month that were certainly worth noting include:

  1. an Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruling against a Ladbrokes TV ad for depicting socially irresponsible gambling behaviour because it appeared to depict persons who were detached from their surroundings, had a preoccupation with gambling and whose major mood swing was directly related to the tension of potentially winning an accumulator, rather than just watching sports;
  2. publication by the ASA of a report entitled Protecting Children in Mixed-Age Online Media: Targeting Age-Restricted Ads Away from Children calling on advertisers to “make better use of audience and media targeting tools to help minimise children’s exposure to age-restricted ads in mixed-age sites”;
  1. a finding (from new research commissioned by the Gambling Commission to explore ‘the gambling journeys and behaviours of young people and adults aged 16 to 30’) that, whilst friends and family played a hugely influential role in shaping gambling behaviour, advertising and marketing played a lesser role in influencing young people’s tendency to gamble, acting as a trigger or nudge to play as opposed to the reason to start gambling; and
  2. publication by the Committees of Advertising Practice of revised CAP guidance on Gambling Advertising: Responsibility and Problem Gambling (that will come into effect on 1 November), imposing new restrictions on ads that (a) present complex bets or other gambling products in a way that emphasises the skill, knowledge or intelligence involved and could therefore lead to erroneous perceptions of risk or control, (b) present gambling as a way to be part of a community based on skill or (c) state or imply that offers (such as those involving money back, ‘free’ bets or bonuses, or enhanced odds) are a way to reduce risk.

It’s been a relatively good month from a safer gambling news perspective, as evidenced by the following:

  1. The Gambling Commission’s latest quarterly telephone survey data on participation and problem gambling (for the year to June 2021), that should serve to allay previously expressed fears of increased problem gambling rates arising from increased gambling participation during the pandemic lockdowns, showing as they do (a) a 3.5 percentage point decline in overall participation in any gambling activity (in the last four weeks) compared with the year to June 2020, (b) a 3 percentage point increase in online gambling participation (much of which was attributable to increasing proportions of respondents playing National Lottery draws online), (c) a“statistically stable” overall problem gambling rate (at 0.4%) and (d) a “significantly decreased” moderate risk rate (at 0.7% compared with 1.4% in the year to June 2020). However, it should be noted that GamCare has warned that the above figures do not cover the UEFA EURO 2020, as a result of which it “will continue to monitor for a potential rise in callers over the next few months”;
  2. The European Gaming & Betting Association has issued its first-ever Sustainability Report, commenting that its “members report that 75% of their customers now use the safer gambling tools they offer”, adding that there has been “a 133% increase in the number of personalised communications they sent to their customers to promote safer gambling in 2020”;
  3. In a similar vein, new Gambling Commission commissioned research into how consumers engage with safer gambling opportunities has shown that safer gambling tools are reaching groups at most risk of harm, although the regulator would still like to see “an increased awareness of gambling management tools, and for operators to continue to improve promotion so that customers make the best use of the right tool, at the right time for them”;
  4. Following research undertaken on its behalf by Sonnet Advisory & Impact CIC, GAMSTOP has published a report entitled Evaluating the effectiveness of the national online self-exclusion scheme, key findings of which are that GAMSTOP (a) reaches a representative cross-section of the population and (b) is successfully achieving a reduction in gambling-related harm. The report also makes a number of recommendations, including that a broader range of exclusion periods should be introduced and, picking up on what I have said above regarding gambling advertising, “more research into the harmful effects of advertising is needed”;
  5. GambleAware has reported that whilst more research is needed to explore how bank transactional data may be able to identify behaviours indicative of gambling harm, all financial institutions (including those from non-bank settings) should make the most of a new guide produced by the Personal Finance Research Centre at the University of Bristol to see what more they can do to protect their customers from gambling harm; and
  6. The BGC has welcomed news that the ability to opt out from gambling advertising is now available to Snapchatusers in the United Kingdom

From the perspective of the statutory crime prevention licensing objective (under the UK’s Gambling Act 2005), the last month has seen:

If you want to find out more details on any of the above items, together with additional commentary, I suggest you access the Articles/News’ section of the Clifton Davies website.

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David Clifton – Director – ‎Clifton Davies Consultancy Limited

 

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