The House of Lords Select Committee report on the Social and Economic Impact of the Gambling Industry has been released. And the outcome will almost certainly be a change to the landscape of UK gaming and gambling. About time, say the industry, which has lived with outdated, almost archaic legislation some fifteen years old. Not soon enough say the emboldened gambling reformists and abolitionists. Occupying the No Man’s Land that divides them is a government that will likely navigate its course through 65 recommendations from the Lords themselves – but will it lead to the promised land?
Experience has shown that when it comes to considered reviews on gambling, the House of Lords tends to come up trumps. Its less prone to vote-catching soundbites, jumping on populist bandwagons, and in general it takes on board the broader perspective. This week’s 194-page report into the social and economic impact of the gambling industry did – if you skip over the title ‘Gambling Harm – Time for Action’ – pretty much hold up to that principle of balance.
And, given the prevailing anti-gambling narrative currently, this is an industry that desperately needs some balance when it comes to new legislation and new regulation.
The Lords have spoken and it’s not all bad; but it’s certainly not all good.
Gone must be the Gambling Act 2005, back then a radical change to gambling legislation that had been active for the previous 37 years. Unfortunately, the downfall of the new millennium’s incarnation was that as soon as it came into action, technology almost made it redundant.
This time round the Lords want legislation that’s robust and flexible.
A new gambling act, an unequivocal commitment to a triennial review on stakes and prizes, a new, better funded – and more powerful – regulator, a minimum age of 18 for gambling, a mandatory levy to fund research into problem gambling. All familiar calls, but delivered in a meaty and thorough discourse.
The Lords have given the industry and its opponents much to work with.
The online sector, the main target of much of this report’s ire, will need to put its thinking cap on. Especially in the context of language and accusations of its “ingenious and often unscrupulous exploitation”.
Committee chair Lord Grade of Yarmouth wasn’t hiding his dissatisfacton with the industry: “The behaviour of some gambling operators, where vulnerable people were targeted with inducements to continue gambling when the operators knew they could not afford to, shocked the Committee,” he said. “Lax regulation of the gambling industry must be replaced by a more robust and focussed regime which prioritises the welfare of gamblers ahead of industry profits.”
For the land-based sector, well, there was more generosity in spirit, if not in encouraging change.The committee was quick to note that gambling was a vital source of enjoyment and, it said, even fosters a “strong sense of social cohesion” in some forms. Equally vital was the recognition of its important contribution to employment and the economy. Without it, and many Lords know this, there would be far more empty high streets and seaside town appeal.
General niceties apart, there is cause for concern on the machines design side.
The call for a new testing system, which would assess all new games against a series of harm indicators is an issue. Testing addictiveness and a machine’s potential to appeal to children against a series of arbitrary harm indicators will send design and research budgets soaring.
As for the regulator, in a week where the queues to beat the crap out of the Gambling Commission have been longer than those for a Saturday morning shop at Asda, the Lords were slightly more gentle in their attack. Already bashed, battered and bruised by the PAC Report, the ABSG interim report and some nasty stuff from APPG GRH members, the Gambling Commission was given a more polished attack, albeit still pretty tough to swallow; the report charging the GC with overseeing the regulation of gambling that has gone “horribly wrong”, “seldom been proactive” and sometimes “more obstructive than reactive”.
But, it was given more power, more money and more control in the Lords’ plan for the future.
All in all, nearly 200 pages, 65 recommendations, a nod to the industry for its status and importance and a significant wave to the anti-gambling lobby,the Lords have given every stakeholder something to work with.
The problem is, not everyone likes steak and that will make for a very awkward dinner party.
RESPONSE: THE GAMBLING COMMISSION NEIL MCARTHUR CHIEF EXECUTIVE
We welcome this report and are already working on a number of the recommendations highlighted. As we made clear in our evidence to this and other committees, we need greater resources to be able to meet the challenges ahead. Our current funding arrangements do not give us the resources we need and we are working closely with DCMS to address that.
We have made considerable progress in many areas to make gambling safer. We have tightened the regulation of the online sector and taken much tougher enforcement action against operators, including suspending and revoking licences. In the weeks ahead we will be publishing plans to remove potentially addictive features in games, further improve customer interaction and strengthen affordability checks.
We recognise that criticism is something that all regulators face. Where the criticisms are justified we will learn from them, but as we have been completely transparent and candid in all the evidence we have given to the various committees, in many areas this and other recent reports are playing back issues we have raised, know we need to work on and are already working to improve.
RESPONSE: BACTA JOHN WHITE CHIEF EXECUTIVE
Bacta welcomes the House of Lords Report as a sober and constructive contribution to the debate on the future of gambling.
Low stake low prize amusement machines have been a feature of Britain’s leisure scene for many decades, enjoyed by millions whether in High Street venues, pubs and seaside arcades. Our customers tell us that we provide fun. That’s the way it should be, and as evidence, knowledge and public opinion has shifted over the years, we have changed so as to keep it that way.
The Lords Report has moved the dial once again and we would broadly support its recommendations. In particular:
•We support a Triennal Review of stakes and prizes. This allows the industry, regulator and Government to consider alongside other stakeholders, the right maximum price for games in our venues which do need to be rebalanced from time to time in order to reflect changing consumer behaviours and the simple commerciality of business.
•We support the concept of an ombudsman. This would give reassurance to consumers.
• We would not oppose a mandatory levy if that was deemed necessary and if voluntary systems did not provide the necessary and fair funding for research. However, as the Lords Report said: it must be ‘smart’. That is to say the more harder gambling products should bear a greater proportion of the funding.
Bacta is however concerned about proposals for an approval process for machine games. We cannot see how this is practical or helpful in the collective ambition to make gambling safer. We currently have comprehensive rules about what can and can’t be done and bacta has recently begun a review process to identify if any further changes are needed to make land-based gaming machines safer.