Sarah Garnder: UKGC consultation conclusions due this summer

Sarah Gardner: Refreshed UKGC committed to improving all levels of gambling protection

Sarah Gardner, Deputy Chief Executive of the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC), has stated that the regulator and industry must share an ‘understanding of the task at hand’ to improve UK gambling for the benefit of society.   

Delivering the keynote address at the Annual Convention for BACTA members, Gardner underlined that 2021 has been a year of wholesale changes for the commission welcoming the new leadership duo of Andrew Rhodes (CEO) and Chairman Marcus Boyle.   

Having monitored the online gambling sector over the past 20-months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gardner stated that a refreshed Commission was more focused than ever to ‘make gambling fairer, safer and crime free’.

The UKGC’s deputy leader underlined the regulator’s tougher approach on regulatory enforcement, which had seen the Commission issue over £100m in fines since 2017/18 and further revoked 10 licences.  

Of note, Gardner commented on the recent licence surrender by BGO Entertainment, a company with two million UK customers, that chose to withdraw from the market ‘prior to its investigation being finished’.

“The Gambling Commission will continue to be relentless in investigating and taking action against operators who don’t meet our standards,” she remarked.

“But at the Commission we also know that to truly raise standards for all consumers we can deliver quicker progress if we can collaborate with the industry as opposed to merely punishing failings.”

A clear understanding of concerns and issues, saw the Commission challenge the sector on improving treatment of high-value customers, the design of online games and developing ad-tech solutions to protect children and vulnerable audiences.

“Those improvements started from a call for collaboration. This is the relationship we want with industry in the pursuit of ever fairer and safer gambling.”  Gardner commented –  “We want to get to that, we want to get to a place where the level of harm caused by gambling is reducing, helped by a constructive and collaborative relationship with industry.” 

Gardner shares the viewpoint of Chief Executive Andrew Rhodes in stating that “whether good or not, gambling is normal”. However, licensed incumbents must accept the responsibility of operating their businesses as part of a £14 billion regulated marketplace.

Though the latest Commission reports cite that UK adult problem gambling rates have been halved from 0.6% in 2020 to 0.3% this year – Gardner warned that the regulator would not accept any form of complacency.

As a member of the UKGC’s executive team, Gardner stated that improved problem gambling metrics were acknowledged with caution, reflecting that the number represented victims of gambling disorders impacting Public Health England with a reported £1.27 billion burden per year.

“So gambling is normal, but harm must not be. We will continue to work to drive the levels of harm down. And unfortunately, there are still far too many operators not abiding by our rules.”

“That is not acceptable. We want a constructive relationship with industry. But it must be on the basis of compliance. For all the good efforts made, including by people in this room today, we still see too many instances of things that everyone agrees are failings and breaches we should not see.”

As 2022 approaches, the Commission’s executive team waits for the outcomes of the Gambling Act Review, in which DCMS has implied that the White Paper for the Review is getting closer to being published. Irrespective of DCMS developments, the Commission will maintain its duties to protect consumers while the review of the Gambling Act is underway.

Headline projects have seen the Commission focus on improving its data and statistics on gambling prevalence through its partnership with NatCen Social Research – “we require comprehensive and robust data. All the investment in the world will not deliver a more effective Gambling Commission if the data we receive from operators is lacking.” 

Meanwhile, the Commission maintains its long-term ambition to secure a Single Customer View, “for online operators to improve the sharing of data to protect customers suffering or at risk of harm – whilst making sure that people’s data is kept secure”.

With regards to BACTA, Gardner thanked members for voluntarily raising the age limit for players on Category D cash fruit machines found in seaside arcades and family entertainment centres to 18, and taking proactive steps to find a solution to improve gaming age verification in pubs.

BACTA was recognised as a key stakeholder, providing feedback on UK gambling’s new code for game designs. Maintaining collaboration between the two organisations, the Commission requires feedback on cashless wallet apps such as the Game Payment Technology trailed by BACTA members.

“The end of 2021 sees the gambling industry in Great Britain and the Gambling Commission in a very different place to where we were two years ago. But despite all the problems and hardships, we have made progress. Whilst we all hope the next two years are less challenging than the last, they will no doubt still have their moments.” Gardner concluded.

“But the message I want you to take away today is a simple one. Whatever else changes, the work to make gambling in Great Britain fairer, safer and crime free continues. Weare more focussed than ever on our core purpose and our desire to collaborate with all of you who share the same ambition continues. The evidence suggests that we are on the right track. So let’s keep on going together.”

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