After enough hype, build-up and speculation to put the release of a new Marvel movie to shame, the government has finally commenced its review of British gambling laws. Officials in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport are putting the 2005 Gambling Act under the microscope, determined to reboot the legislation so that it can better fit the modern era.
They’ve certainly got their work cut out for them. The 2005 Gambling Act is widely regarded as a creaky, cobwebby relic of the days before smartphones and super-immersive betting sites. Or, as Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden puts it, “the Gambling Act is an analogue law in a digital age”, stuck in a time when gambling meant “having a flutter in a high street bookmaker, casino, racecourse or seaside pier”.
The idea is to equip the legislation to deal with the current landscape of glitzy live casino games, fast-paced virtual slots, in-play sports betting and promo-packed VIP schemes, all available 24/7 on our phones. This comes in the wake of loud, passionate calls for the government to tame the gambling industry and better protect vulnerable groups like children and problem gamblers.
Is new regulation imminent?
Last summer, a House of Lords Select Committee published a report into gambling harm which didn’t pull any punches, going as far as proposing a total ban of sports sponsorship by gambling companies. The committee chair, Lord Grade, also didn’t mince his words, saying “lax regulation of the gambling industry must be replaced by a more robust and focused regime which prioritises the welfare of gamblers ahead of industry profits.”
This isn’t to say regulators have been sitting on their hands since the 2005 Gambling Act was put into place. A number of curbs have recently been applied by the industry watchdog, the Gambling Commission. Last year, it instigated a ban on the use of credit cards to fund bets. In February this year, it ordered online casinos to limit the spin speeds of their slot games, and remove “losses disguised as wins”. That’s when the games play merry little jingles when a player loses money, making it seem like a positive outcome.
But even more dramatic changes are on the horizon with the imminent overhaul of the Gambling Act. All kinds of new regulations will be up for discussion – including greater controls on games design to make them less addictive, stricter limits on stakes, and affordability checks to assess how solvent players are. According to the Guardian, one insider says it all adds up to a “reformer’s shopping list”.
Risk of the Black Market
However, the Betting and Gaming Council has sounded the alarm over the undiminished popularity of black market online casinos which aren’t licensed by the Gambling Commission and don’t offer safeguards, checks or responsible gambling tools to users. BGC chief executive Michael Dugher has warned that swathes of stricter regulations bring the danger of “unintentionally driving punters into the arms of the illegal, online black market”.
It’s certainly entirely possible that if new legislation suddenly makes it tougher to gamble at legitimate sites – for example, by forcing players to submit details on their income to pass affordability checks – then there may indeed be an exodus to black market sites which have no such filters in place. This would be a dangerous situation for those prone to compulsive gambling, and it might even endanger jobs. According to the latest UK gambling industry data, 98,174 people are currently employed in the sector, and any number may be affected if there’s a radical shift in how casinos and sports betting sites are allowed to operate.
Is sport the first target?
The most seismic possibility of all is a total ban on sports sponsorship. This has been a hot button issue amongst journalists and campaigners for a while. Gambling charity the Big Step has called for an end to gambling sponsorship to “protect the millions of impressionable young football fans who are bombarded by betting advertising on shirts, around the pitch”. Former Tottenham player and recovering gambling addict Steven Caulker has also spoken out, saying that “having gambling adverts everywhere, including on your shirt and around the side of the pitch, doesn’t help.”
On the other side of the debate, many have warned that sweeping clampdowns could go too far. Sports promoter Barry Hearn has stated that cancelling all gambling sponsorship would be a “disaster for every layer of sport”, pointing out that the issue goes way beyond football. “There’s lots of sports – and darts and snooker are two of them – where a considerable amount of that money goes down the chain towards grass-roots,” he said, “which actually saves government money.”
As for football, while only the smallest violins will play for mega-rich Premier League clubs losing out on lucrative betting sponsorships, there are real fears about how teams in the lower tiers will fare without the influx of cash from betting companies. Last October, the English Football League – which encompasses the Championship and Leagues One and Two – released a statement saying the “significant contribution betting companies make to the ongoing financial sustainability of professional football at all levels is as important now as it has ever been”, especially given how pandemic restrictions have left smaller teams on a “financial knife edge”.
Of course, this is all speculation right now, and it will be a long while before the changes to the Gambling Act are known. In the meantime, it’s a nail-biting time for people on both sides of the debate, and all bets are off on what might unfold.