As we edge closer to the summer parliamentary recess in the UK, speculation about what may be contained in the long-awaited Gambling Act review whitepaper is ramping up.
The Times newspaper published a piece yesterday that appeared to contain pretty comprehensive insight into the details of the forthcoming whitepaper, although it is understood that some elements are still under close review by ministers and have not yet been settled to the extent The Times piece suggests.
In his article, political editor Steven Swinford reported that despite UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson being “poised to announce curbs on online gambling in an effort to stem the ‘catastrophic’ impact of addiction on people’s lives”, ministers would also be dropping plans to ban Premier League football-shirt sponsorship by gambling operators.
This is an interesting development if true, because even the operators themselves have been edging closer to a voluntary ban of shirt sponsorship for similar reasons, backing the whistle-to-whistle ban.
Entain’s legacy business, GVC, withdrew its sponsorship of football shirts in February 2020, with then-Chief Executive Kenny Alexander calling for the industry to join him in voluntarily cutting sponsorship levels.
“Is there too much TV advertising? Is there too much sponsorship? I think that is undoubtedly the case and something I feel should be looked at”, he said. “There are probably too many gambling adverts and too much noise about gambling in front of consumers in the UK at the moment.”
However, we have had a pandemic since then and if Swinford’s article is to be believed, the government has been heavily lobbied to scrap the gambling-sponsorship ban in an attempt to get football clubs back on their feet.
There has been a “backlash from the industry” in Swinford’s words … which does somewhat raise the question of whose best interests are at heart with this review?
“Nearly half of the clubs in last season’s competition, including West Ham and Newcastle, were sponsored by gambling companies, which has led to criticism from MPs and campaigners”, Swinford’s article says, adding, “The government is hoping to reach a voluntary agreement with the clubs, while keeping the option of legislation in reserve.”
Elsewhere, a mandatory levy on the gambling industry to fund research into and treatment of addiction has also been ditched, according to The Times piece. This has been called for by campaigners for many years and is likely to meet opposition from the most vociferous in the anti-gambling lobby.
I imagine a not-inconsiderable backlash would also have been felt by the government on this front from the operators themselves, if it were to be pushed through. Again, it’s hard not to wonder if economic considerations are outweighing consumer protections?
Swinford’s report of the arrival of a new consumer ombudsman seems likely; it enables the government to look like it’s adding some regulatory teeth, while the Gambling Commission (GC) continues largely unchanged.
Any ombudsman is likely to bear a weighty workload, so it’ll be interesting to see how this is structured and funded and where it will intersect with the GC to ensure operators are held to account.
According to The Times, licensing fees for operators will go up – perhaps these will partially account for the extra funding required for the ombudsman? Either way, they have apparently been earmarked to help increase capacity within the GC, which is also set to “be given new powers”.
Swinford says the whitepaper will outline new maximum stakes of between £2 and £5 for online casinos (like those already placed on fixed-odds betting terminals), a ban on free bets, and “non-intrusive” affordability checks.
The Betting and Gaming Council has already hit out at the ban on free bets, claiming it will damage the customer experience and risk channelling them to the black market.
Certain features in online games, such those which make potential losses faster and easier, are also set to be banned, according to Swinford. How the mechanics in question will be defined, however, is unclear.
In another nod to attempts to ease post-pandemic conditions, The Times article suggests that while restrictions are likely to become stricter for online casinos, regulations will be relaxed for brick-and-mortar casinos, including allowing them to install up to 80 gaming machines, rather than the 20 they are allowed now.
More surprisingly, The Times suggests that casinos will also be able to extend credit to wealthy foreigners. The anti-money-laundering ramifications will be interesting to dig into if and when this one comes to fruition.
How much of this is decided remains unclear, but you can’t blame the media for starting to wing it on the predictions when this review has been rolling for 18 months.
The UK’s parliamentary recess starts on July 21, so there is good reason to be hopeful that the whitepaper will be published before that.