In April, the United Kingdom Gambling Commission (UKGC) announced that it would be bringing in new rules to provide at-risk gamblers with further protections.
At the time, the UKGC set out a list of rules that operators would have to follow from 12 September 2022. These rules included requiring operators to:
There was also a footnote listing the indicators that operators must monitor:
When these rules were published, Andrew Rhodes, the Gambling Commission Chief Executive, said:
“Time and time again, our enforcement cases show that some operators are still not doing enough to prevent gambling harm. These new rules developed following extensive consultation make our expectations even more explicit. We expect operators to identify and tackle gambling harms with fast, proportionate, and effective action, and we will not hesitate to take tough action on operators who fail to do so.”
When the new rules were announced, the UKGC said that it would be providing additional guidance in June 2022. When that happened, and the guidance was published in June, the UKGC set out a basic three-step process that operators should follow to minimise gambling harm. The process can be reduced to “Identify, Act, Evaluate”.
In other words, operators should use the indicators listed above to identify those at risk of gambling harm. They should then review the indicators and take an appropriate level of action. In some cases, this may be an automated action, such as a pop up message. In other cases, it may require direct human intervention, such as a phone call. In all cases, operators are required to make a record of the action taken and then continue to monitor.
Operators must then evaluate the effectiveness of their action and decide whether further action is required. The idea is that it is a continuous cycle and this way, any harmful behaviour will be caught quickly.
There were further details provided. For instance, the Commission defined a vulnerable player as “somebody who, due to their personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to harm, particularly when a firm is not acting with appropriate levels of care”.
In fact, the guidance takes operators through all three stages of the cycle in great detail with clear instructions on how they should act at all times. There are also guidelines as to how many customers gambling operators should be interacting with.
The Commission works on the logic that interactions should occur with at least the same proportion of the customer base as the problem gambling rate of the activity that they offer. The guidance refers to the Health Survey for England: Supplementary analysis on gambling (2018) for its figures.
For example, the survey found that 8.5% of online slots, casino and bingo players are problem gamblers. Therefore, an operator offering those services is expected to interact with at least 8.5% of its customers. The Commission actually took things one step further and said, “Because licensees should be identifying people at risk of harm, the proportion of customers who receive a customer interaction should be greater than the problem gambling rate.”
While many people consider the above guidance to be logical and reasonable, it did provoke a great deal of criticism, with many accusing the UKGC of effectively infantilising players.
Critics of the guidance claim that the UKGC is asserting that people cannot be trusted to make responsible decisions about how they spend money. The guidance requires operators to stop marketing to those who spent a large amount of money on gambling as it may lead to gambling addiction.
However, conspicuously absent from the many pages of guidance is a clear definition of what an “at-risk” player is. Rather, it listed many different factors that should be taken into consideration, such as age, health, financial difficulties, attitude to risk, access to gambling facilities, and literacy. The guidance also states that “unmonitored overnight gambling” is a sign of a gambling problem. There is plenty more that was kept vague in the guidance. For example, rather than mentioning specific thresholds that should be applied to all players, it calls for the creation of “custom” thresholds based upon open-source data about players.
At the same time, the Commission wants operators to consider affordability. The UKGC pointed out that gambling operators had not considered what is affordable when creating customer interaction policies. Instead, they have used deposit and loss boundaries to trigger interactions. According to the UKGC, these levels were normally too high in relation to most people’s disposable income.
As has been pointed out, there is a direct contradiction here in the UKGC’s guidance. It asks operators to create customer-specific thresholds using open-source data to assess affordability based upon “the average income” of players. However, at the same time, creating a threshold based on an average contradicts the ability to create truly custom procedures.
A final point that drew criticism is the UKGC’s assertion that “most people would consider it harmful if they were spending a significant proportion of their discretionary income on gambling.” However, plenty of studies have found that the vast majority of gamblers partake in the activity for entertainment. In other words, people are choosing to spend their “discretionary” income on entertaining themselves, which, as long as it remains within the boundaries of their discretionary income, is in no way harmful.
As mentioned above, the UKGC used problem gambling figures from a survey carried out in 2018. This is now more than four years out of date, and there have been studies carried out since that have produced different results.
There was even a 2022 study carried out by the UKGC that found that levels of problem gambling in the UK fell from 0.4% in 2021 to 0.2% in 2022. Soon afterwards, the regulator published another study putting the rate at 1.3%.
Regardless of what the true figure is, it shows that there is a real problem with relying on a survey conducted such a long time ago. It seems especially foolish to rely on pre-pandemic data, as a vast amount of money and resources have been invested in combating problem gambling over the last few years.
The truth is that there are problems with the way that the research is carried out. The UKGC regularly tries to assess the level of problem gambling in the UK, but it also admits that there are problems with previous surveys and errors in the measurements produced. Furthermore, often the sample sizes are just far too small. It recently carried out a survey of just 1,000 people. The survey had a response rate of 21%. This hardly seems like enough data upon which to base national policy.
The battle against problem gambling is an ongoing process, and there is a great deal of good work being done by operators. For instance, Kindred Group, which is behind brands such as bingo.com, Unibet, and 32Red, has set a target to have 0% of its revenue arrive from harmful gambling by 2023. It has several initiatives to accomplish this, it publishes quarterly updates, and it is making good progress.
The UKGC’s new rules and guidance are certainly well-intentioned. However, it seems that they run the risk of annoying and patronising both players and operators. This could have a number of unfortunate unintended consequences. To begin with, operators may decide to pull out of the UK market if they feel it is becoming too restrictive. Secondly, players may be driven to offshore operators or the black market, where they have fewer protections. This is something that Michael Dugher, the Chief Executive of the Betting and Gaming Council, has warned of frequently. Hopefully, in time an appropriate balance will be found.