The UK’s outdated gambling laws are set for a wide-ranging review that will consider advertising bans and stake limits to cope with the rapid changes that online betting has brought to the sector.
Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, said the “comprehensive” audit of the UK’s 15-year-old legislation was needed to deal with the “breakneck speed” of change due to digital innovation. “Whilst millions gamble responsibly, the Gambling Act is an analog law in a digital age,” he said as he launched the review, which was promised in the Conservative’s election manifesto.
“The Gambling Act is an analog law in a digital age,” Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said in the emailed statement, alluding to the soaring popularity of online betting offered by companies like Flutter Entertainment Plc and William Hill Plc. The review was pledged in the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto.
In the last two years, the UK has banned the use of credit cards in gambling, tightened age verification checks, and capped stakes on in-store fixed-odds betting terminals. The government said it will take evidence to inform the review until March 31.
As part of the announcement, the UK said it will raise the minimum age for playing the National Lottery to 18 from 16.
The Betting and Gaming Council, which represents the industry, welcomed the review. “I hope ministers will focus in with laser-like precision on problem gamblers and those at risk,” association leader and former U.K. lawmaker Michael Dugher said in a statement. He added the review should consider bookies’ contribution to the U.K. economy, including 3.2 billion pounds ($4.3 billion) per year in tax.
The new initiative
The initial call for evidence, which will run until the end of March, had been expected earlier this year but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Its remit will include possible restrictions on gambling advertising, such as a ban on football shirt sponsorship, stake limits and financial checks to establish how much a customer can afford to lose. It will also look at the role of the Gambling Commission, which a parliamentary committee recently branded “torpid” and “toothless”.
The regulator welcomed the review as “an opportunity to build on the progress we have made to protect players and the public”.
Campaigners said the move was long overdue after prolonged pressure for reform due to fears that age verification checks were too easily bypassed online, allowing a growing number of young people to start gambling.
Mercy on the gambling industry
“For the last 15 years, the public has been at the mercy of a gambling industry, which has taken advantage of sluggish and inadequate regulation. We have seen the devastating effects of this on lives lost and ruined, with gambling companies shamelessly exploiting the young and vulnerable,” said Duncan Stephenson, chair of Gambling Health Alliance.
A study published in August by the Gambling Commission found that 37 percent of 11 to 16-year-olds in England and Scotland had gambled in the year to the end of March.
At the same time as launching the review, the government has announced it would raise the age limit for playing the National Lottery from 16 to 18 from next October 2021. Campaigners have long complained that the lottery’s scratch card games act as a gateway to other forms of gambling. About 200,000 16 and 17-year-olds play National Lottery games each quarter.
Camelot, the National Lottery operator, said it “would fully support any decision made by the government to raise the minimum age to play”.
Brigid Simmonds, chair of the Betting and Gaming Council, the industry’s trade body, warned that excessive regulation would push punters towards the black market. “If you start demanding to have to produce their tax return every time they gamble you are going to lose them,” she said.
Bookmakers fear a reprise of legislation that led to a big cut in the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals in 2018. They counter that the number of problem gamblers has remained steady despite the rapid growth in the number of punters and also claim that gambling addiction should not be treated as a public health issue.
Peter Jackson, chief executive of the UK’s largest gambling group Flutter, whose brands include Paddy Power, said the review had the potential to be a transformational moment for the UK industry but that it had to be evaluated on the basis of substantive evidence.