Has the industry improved in the UK over the last 12 months for safer gambling?
It’s definitely moving in a better direction; growth hasn’t been all positive, but safer gambling is seeing a growing trend within the regulated markets – as operators prioritise being seen as responsible corporate citizens. We really saw a big shift in the UK over the Covid-19 lockdowns. During lockdown, the UK brought in more restrictions on advertising gambling on TV. The fear that drove this was obviously that so many people were so isolated, they were more vulnerable and gambling addiction could take a big uptick. I can speak for BetBlocker and say that as soon as lockdown kicked in, we saw our search traffic double overnight. There’s no doubt lockdown had a significant impact on the number of people seeking support to manage their gambling. What I find interesting from the operator perspective is the way these TV operators got around the restrictions, which was to switch their advertising from advertising gambling to advertising safer/responsible gambling tools.
You can call it cynical, but there’s no doubt the operators were doing this to try and ensure their brands continued to be part of the public consciousness. But since lockdown has ended, and the restrictions have ended – just speaking for myself – I see far more advertisements from operators which now influence responsible gambling messaging. It’s no longer just the yellow bar at the bottom of the screen; now they have the personality actively discussing the tools available to keep players safe. In my opinion, it shows the shift among these big gambling operators – they have realised that by marking themselves as responsible, it is helping them build their brand.
Has the Gambling Commission been doing more recently to punish those guilty of responsible gambling failures?
It’s a difficult topic, because a lot of what the Gambling Commission does in terms of fines is driven by media pressure. That’s not to say the operator can question the fines. But quite often I feel it is the UK regulator trying to justify its own existence by demonstrating how tough it has been on the industry, and that’s why we see this slow and steady escalation of fines every year, both in individual fines and total amounts. I struggle to believe the industry isn’t getting better in understanding what the regulator wants. So operators are getting better at learning what the regulator wants and are delivering that, which would be the logical assumption.
At the same time, the regulator is under intense pressure. The press in the UK is always going to be anti-gambling and I understand that perspective; they are always going to look for the scandals. The media then creates pressure which forces the regulator to respond, and from that it has to be seen as effective. That said, you look at the fines that come out and what concerns me is that the fines almost always focus on a few specific cases of people who have lost very large amounts. Obviously, there has to be some degree of focus on these high-value cases, but we are creating a system where we value high-value claims to get regulatory attention. Lower-value claims from your average player that have hurt themselves significantly financially are not taken as seriously, because the relative financial impact on them is nowhere near as high. The truth of the UK system is that there are limited resources for UK players when we talk about responsible claims. If you look at the Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) in the UK, every operator and every licensee has to have an ADR in place, but the UK guidance for ADR specifically limits the situations in which these ADRs can involve themselves in problem gambling.
While these ADRs manage all kinds of claims, when it comes to whether or not the player should have been allowed to play or not, that decision is reserved for the regulator. This is why we have ended up in a situation where all of the responsible gambling complaints have ended up going to the regulator – and only the highest-value claims seem to result in regulatory fines.
In my opinion, it shows the shift among these big gambling operators – they have realised that by marking themselves as responsible, it is helping them build their brand
So, it’s a bit of a mess under the veneer?
Yes, my concern is that when we’re talking about responsible gambling claims, we are looking at the most vulnerable individuals and at people who have experienced financial hardship. These claims are effectively being left to seek legal advice, and when we’re talking about people who have experienced financial hardship, they are also the least capable of accessing the legal system.