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Why the UK's online gambling market is bracing for a year of tough legislative changes
In the UK, gambling is big business. The industry generates estimated revenue of �5 billion annually. While it may generate jobs and allow people to have a little flutter, there is a darker side to this industry. Under new legislation that is being brought in by the regulator, the gambling industry is facing increasing scrutiny. Gambling with credit cards has just been banned, and plenty more changes are on the way. There is nothing moderate about these incoming measures, which raises the question: How will the industry cope?
Figures from the UK Gambling Commission, which regulates the industry, show an annual Gross Gambling Yield of �14.4 billion. That figure is how much British gamblers have collectively lost to gambling companies. The online sector is the biggest culprit, generating annual revenue of �5.36 billion. According to GamCheck, there are currently 343 UK licensed casinos operating. With operators launching gambling new sites so frequently, finding legitimate wagering sites has become something of a minefield. Consumers now have to do their research, trawling through reviews and pages such as scams.info's best UK online gambling sites for guidance.
It may be a big money spinner for Britain, but the tide is turning on the gambling industry. Last year, Carolyn Harris, Labour MP for Swansea East and chair of the Gambling Related Harm APPG, described the online gambling industry as an "unregulated wild west". It's a sentiment often echoed by campaigners and MPs alike. Now it seems that the UKGC is ready to rein in the industry once and for all.
Starting with an outright ban on gambling with the use of credit cards, the Gambling Commission is cracking down on the industry with a series of strict measures. The hopes are that this much-needed new legislation will improve the current situation for problem gamblers and those who are vulnerable to gambling harms.
The 2005 Gambling Act.
All of this does beg the question; How did gambling get so out of hand in the UK?
15 years ago, Tony Blair's government passed the 2005 Gambling Act. This act shifted the goalposts for the gambling industry, opening up the potential for lucrative business with few restrictions.
The Act was controversial at the time. It was not a campaign issue, and many were confused as to whether it was needed or wanted. Still, the act passed. Some will remember that it attempted to allow eight somewhat bizarre 'super casinos'. This was soon negotiated down to one, earmarked for Manchester, which was never built anyway.
The 2005 Gambling Act has changed little since its introduction. Some aspects of licensing and advertising were updated in 2014. Offshore gambling firms were made to apply for licenses from the UK regulator. Other than that, amendments have been woefully lacking.
The lasting legacy of the 2005 Gambling Act is its regulation of Internet gambling for the first time. Should legislators have foreseen the impact that the web would have on UK gambling habits? The opportunity for business was clear, but since then legislation has not kept up with technological advances and increased usage.
It has taken an extreme amount of pressure to build for gambling authorities to take any meaningful action. Last year a panic about the impact of gaming loot boxes on children arose. Loot boxes allow gamers to pay real money for a 'lucky dip', in the hopes for getting special in-game equipment, skins or characters. It's no coincidence that in June, NHS England opened its first gambling clinic specifically for children and young adults. The loot box issue has largely remained unresolved in the UK, despite Belgium banning them.
Campaigners Versus the Gambling Industry.
The first big change of legislation was brought in last year. After two years of analysis and debate, in April 2019 a �2 bet cap was placed on fixed-odds betting terminals. Despite these being dubbed the 'crack cocaine' of gambling, there was an outcry by the industry. William Hill declared that the changes would cause 700 of its high-street shops to shut down. While legislative changes do impact the industry, William Hill is expected to report higher than previously projected profits of between �143m and �148m, when it releases its figures at the end of February.
The cap on FOBTs has proved to be a successful measure, and has been instrumental in paving the way for similar legislative changes to be brought in. One key change that is on the cards will be a cap on online slot wagers. Currently, operators can offer online slots with negligible bet limits. This causes players to accrue debt in seconds. A cap on the amount bet per spin could greatly curb the acceleration of player debt. Such a measure will be tough to bring in, as these games contribute a massive sum to the industry. Nevertheless, it is hard to justify the logic of caps on FOBTs but not on online slots.
The ban on gambling with credit cards was the first of the UKGC's new stricter measures to be announced this year. The ban will come into force on April 14th, so operators have until then to adjust their practices. The ban was not a light decision for UK regulator, the Gambling Commission. In its 'Review of Online Gambling', it examined a number of problematic industry practices. The long and short of it is that no real justification could be found to continue to allow gambling on credit. The research showed that 22% of those who gamble online with credit cards could be classified as problem gamblers.
The document is clear in its assessment. "Gambling with borrowed money, including through the use of a credit card, is a risk factor and therefore consumers� ability to gamble with credit should be restricted."
What Impact Will Legislation Have?
The ban on credit cards will be a significant blow for the industry. In the UK, 24 million adults gamble, with 10.5 million doing so online. Operators say that up to 20% of deposits made by their customers online use a credit card. That means that a fifth of online gamblers will have to find an alternative payment method in three months time.
Critics have suggested that gamblers may switch to riskier payment methods, such as payday loans or e-wallets. As it stands, the UKGC's credit card ban, in combination with other upcoming legislation, will have a beneficial impact on tackling problem gambling.
Further good news for the consumer is that Gamstop has now been made mandatory. As of March 31st, all online gambling operators will have to sign up to self-exclusion scheme, which has been designed to aid gamblers in tackling addictive behaviour. The scheme allows users to ban themselves from all gambling sites in one swoop, as opposed to having to go through each site individually. Considering there are over hundreds of online operators licensed in the UK, it is a virtually impossible feat for punters to block themselves from every site.
As the Gambling Commission gears up to announce more legislative changes, it has set the industry a series of tough challenges to speed things up. It has created three industry-working groups, which will "tackle key challenges as part of a drive to make gambling safer". The three groups will focus on 'advertising technology', 'game and product design' and 'high value customer incentives to gamble'. Each group will be led by prominent companies, working closely with the Betting and Gaming Council.
Neil McArthur, Chief Executive of the Gambling Commission explained the situation.
"Consumer behaviour and technology are changing so quickly that only a bold and innovative approach will allow us to achieve a reduction in the numbers of people experiencing, or at risk from, gambling related harm."
Culture Minister, Helen Whately, has been working closely with the UKGC on these legislative issues.
"There is more to do. We will be carrying out a review of the Gambling Act to ensure it is fit for the digital age and we will be launching a new nationwide addiction strategy in 2020. We will not hesitate to take any further action necessary to protect people from gambling harm."
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