The UK Gambling Act 2005 (UKGA) gained Royal Assent in April 2005, brought to the statute books by a UK Labour Government led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Informed by the ground-breaking Gambling Review (the ‘Budd Report’) of 2001, the wide-ranging UKGA was the first to specifically regulate internet gambling in the UK, and enabled gambling companies to advertise on TV and radio. It also created a new national regulator, the Gambling Commission (GC).
In December 2020, the UK Conservative Government announced the terms of a formal Review of the UKGA, with an anticipated year-long consultation and review process, followed by a White Paper “…due before 2022”. While such a review barely featured in its 2019 General Election manifesto – the main gambling-related pledge was a short statement to “….continue to take action to tackle gambling addiction” – some industry observers (but many lobbyists), believed such a review was overdue.
Critics of the Act – and there are many, of various apparent qualification – claimed the UKGA was not fit-for-purpose and, in particular, ‘unfit for the digital age’. Some in the industry beg to differ. Wes Himes, Executive Director for Standards and Innovation at the industry trade body, the Betting and Gaming Council, has described that accusation as a “…sound bite…”, rather than an accurate assessment of the existing Act.
Others have a similar perspective. When asked at a recent conference on the potential impact of the UKGA Review, one observer said the industry needed “…an appropriate balance between consumer freedoms and choice on the one hand, and prevention of harm to vulnerable groups and wider communities on the other…” With clear reference to the so-called ‘consumer affordability’ topic – which garnered a record-breaking 13,000 responses to the GC in consultation – that view encapsulates well the fine balance the Review needs to strike, and the dangers in getting that wrong.
For example, some are calling for a ban of all gambling adverts, in all places; the Royal Society for Public Health is just one. That would include sponsorship, so what implications does that have for sports like horseracing, which has a special, symbiotic relationship with betting, relying heavily on that sponsorship income channel?
How do you deal with the National Lottery (TNL), which, rightly, promotes hard its financial support of a wide range of sports, plus the sponsorship of hundreds of athletes and Olympians? Any UKGA-driven changes to the advertising and sponsorship of sport by gambling operators must surely be factored into the current – and imminent – Fourth TNL Bid Competition; and bidders absolutely need to know where they stand, and soon.
To help analyse, assess and adjudicate on all of these opposing views and perspectives, we have a brand-new minister for Gambling in place. A recent Government reshuffle saw Croydon South MP Chris Philp appointed, within the DCMS, with specific responsibility for overseeing the UKGA Review. His in-tray is already full.
One item certain to feature prominently in his purview is whether or not the industry will get a new Ombudsman, ostensibly to take lead responsibility for dealing with disputes between consumers and gambling providers. This topic was also aired at a recent industry conference, where different gambling sector Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) models were debated, with a general consensus that, with various, existing ADR services – such as the Independent Betting Arbitration Service (IBAS) – already in place, this negated the need for such a new, Parliamentary-appointed office.
Apparently, IBAS disagrees; Chairman Andrew Fraser recently said that the current system, with nine separate ADR bodies, was “…not ideal, and it would make more sense if IBAS took over the role as the sole gambling ombudsman.” One more example of the divided thinking on an important consumer protection issue.
Since the UKGA Review was announced almost a year ago, we have seen develop a polarised debate, with entrenched opinions on many sides. We’ve also had ample evidence of ill-conceived proposals which either oversimplify the apparent issues, misunderstand the gambling industry and its modus-operandior, even more importantly, misinterpret the motivations and expectations of the vast majority of its satisfied consumers.
What the industry needs – and should continue to demand – is a cogent, evidence-based assessment of what sustainable changes are needed to the existing UKGA, and how these deliver lasting improvements for the consumer, while preventing harm. Let’s hope the White Paper, still due before New Year’s Eve, delivers just – and only – that.