The long-awaited UK gambling white paper (“High Stakes: Gambling Reform for the Digital Age”) proposes many changes to the sector. These include increased protection for players and young people, additional provision for consumer redress, more socially responsible advertising, greater powers for the Gambling Commission (the “Commission”) and reforms for land-based gambling. See our summary of the key proposals here.
Many of the proposals will be developed over the next 12 months through consultation. In this article, we analyse the proposals in more depth and review the impact this may have on the industry.
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More prescriptive rules on when online operators must check customers’ financial circumstances are summarised below:
- Financial vulnerability check at £125 net loss in a month or £500 net loss in a year (rolling). Open-source checks e.g. county court judgment (CCJs), average postcode affluence, declared bankruptcies.
- Enhanced spending check at £1,000 net loss in 24 hours, or £2,000 net loss in a 90 day period (rolling). Will involve access to more personalised data; if possible from credit checks or open banking, and if not then (as a last resort) directly from the customer.
- Lower thresholds for 18-24 year olds for enhanced spending checks, at £500 in 24 hours and £1,000 in 90 days.
- Accountability for PML holders for ensuring these checks are completed and appropriate action taken based on the findings.
A consultation on affordability has long been awaited. The Commission's 'Remote Customer Interaction Consultation and Call for Evidence', published in November 2020, included draft code provisions that would require licensees to conduct affordability assessments. In April 2022, the Commission published its consultation response, but did not include any provisions relating to affordability; instead, it undertook to conduct a further consultation on the "specific steps operators must take" to tackle three key risks: (a) unaffordable binge gambling; (b) unaffordable losses over time; and (c) financial vulnerability.
In waiting for a consultation to happen, affordability has become a point of contention between the industry and the Commission, with the Commission increasingly focused on the prevention of unaffordable spend in its enforcement action against operators, notwithstanding that affordability requirements have (so far) had limited legal and regulatory status. Meeting the Commission's mostly unwritten expectations in this regard has become increasingly challenging, and has resulted in inconsistent outcomes, which many view as unfair.
The Government's white paper focuses on the three key risks identified by the Commission and proposes a prescriptive model to tackle them. In doing so, the Government states that it has sought to strike a balance between consumer protection and consumer freedom. It adds that neither it nor the Commission will set universal rules on what proportion of a customer's income they should be permitted to gamble. Readers may also note the subtle change in narrative. Instead of “affordability” checks, the checks are “financial vulnerability” and “enhanced spending” checks.
The Government has an eye to the negative impact that intrusive checks would have – both commercially and on customers who may move to black market operators if asked to provide detailed personal information to licensed operators. The position in the white paper is that all checks, including the more detailed checks for higher spenders, should be 'frictionless'. There will be 'light touch' checks at 'moderate' levels of spend consisting of open-source checks. At higher levels of spend, the Government's aim is that checks should still be frictionless if possible, but more detailed information should be obtained – either via credit checks, open banking, or (as a last resort) by asking the customer directly for documentation.
The proposals provide some clarity for operators, but significant detail, including about the nature of the checks and what operators will be required to do in response to them, will be the subject of consultation. Whether checks will be ‘frictionless’ in practice remains to be seen. On the use of credit checks, the white paper states that the Commission is “currently working with the financial services sector to explore how more detailed checks could work in practice”. Far from giving a considered or detailed suggestion as to the use of open banking, it states that there ‘may be scope’ for using open banking, subject to safeguards that will be explored through the Commission’s consultation. The white paper proposes that seeking documents directly from customers will be a ‘last resort’ and it remains to be seen what this will mean in practice. The outcome of the Commission’s discussions with the financial services sector and of its consultation on potential safeguards for the use of open banking, are likely to be of critical importance.
Our initial view is that the introduction of a requirement for 'frictionless' financial vulnerability checks at lower levels of spend will have limited impact, as many in the industry conduct these in any event. However, the “enhanced spending” check has the potential to have a significant impact both on revenues and consumers, especially given the backstop check at £2,000 net losses in a rolling 90 day period. This has the capacity to impact more than just 'VIP' customers.
The Government proposes to introduce a stake limit for online slots and will consult on a limit of between £2 and £15 per spin. It will also consult on slot-specific measures to give greater protections for 18 to 24 year olds. Options include a £2 stake limit per spin, a £4 stake limit per spin, or an approach based on individual risk.
There are currently no statutory limits on stake sizes in the online sector. Conversely, gaming machines in the land-based sector have been subject to stake and prize limits since the Gaming Act 1968. The maximum stake on category B1 machines is currently £5, while there is a £2 stake limit on categories B2 and B3. The white paper notes that many respondents proposed a fixed limit of £2 for online slots to align with the maximum stake for B2 and B3 gaming machines. However, in its proposal for a limit of between £2 and £15, the Government acknowledges that there is a wider system of protections in place for online gambling. This includes the data-driven monitoring which all operators must have in place, which may justify a higher limit for online products than for land-based gaming, which is relatively anonymous.
Indeed, existing customer activity monitoring and the introduction of safer design regulations in 2021 (including the introduction of spin speed limits and the prohibition of auto play functionality) meant that protections in the online space were already relatively robust. Add to those the Government’s proposed affordability checks for online customers, as well as the white paper’s proposal for a new Commission consultation on design rules for online products and there are strong arguments to be made for a departure from the stake limits imposed in the land-based sector. A further question is whether the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) consultation might include the possibility of reviews of online stake limits. Under the 1968 Act, triennial reviews of land-based stake and prize limits were carried out – in part to ensure that the limits kept up with inflation. These were shelved following the 2005 Act, but there are strong arguments to be made against stagnant stake limits, which would only increase the (already significant) impact on operator revenue in the years to come.
Other proposals focused on online protection
The gambling industry is currently trialling the ‘Single Customer View’ data sharing scheme, which involves specific data being shared in relation to customers who are most at risk, in a manner which is proportionate. The initial results of these trials are due in the summer of 2023. The white paper indicates that following the results of these trials, there will be a consultation on mandatory data sharing between online operators for high-risk customers, either through the Licence Conditions and Codes of Practice or via legislation. The new system is expected to have implementation costs for the industry.
The Government intends to build on the rules for safer online slot design introduced in 2021, by introducing rules on the design features of other online products, such as limiting game speeds, banning simultaneous play and mandating the display of real time losses and time spent playing. There will be an initial impact assessment on the changes to game design in spring 2023, followed by a consultation in summer 2023. Although such new rules would mean increased short-term costs for the sector in game development, it is suggested that the products developed as a result will be more sustainable in the long term.
The white paper also proposes measures to increase the uptake of player-centric safer gambling tools, such as online deposit limits. Options suggested include making the tools more accessible, making it mandatory to set a deposit limit, and requiring a reasonable default limit.
The Government will also consult on regulating large scale prize draws and competitions which do not meet the definition of gambling because they involve free entry routes and/or the exercise of skill.
The Government has expressed concern that the lack of regulation may mean players are not always adequately protected.
While some have called for an outright ban on all forms of gambling advertising, the Commission has acknowledged that this would be problematic. The Government has proposed some tightening of the already extensive controls which exist.
The permissibility of gambling advertising is enshrined within the Gambling Act 2005. In its "Advice to Government – Review of the Gambling Act 2005" the Commission recognised a key benefit of gambling advertising, namely that the "the ability to advertise is a key way in which licensed operators can distinguish themselves from those that may be operating illegally". It was also reassuring to see the Government's acknowledgement of recent measures and controls that have already been implemented by over the last few years, including:
- the industry's commitment to the 'whistle-to-whistle' ban;
- the impact of the Competition and Markets Authority's (CMA's) enforcement activity in relation to the transparency and fairness of consumer-facing terms and practices (note that the CMA's enforcement powers are soon to be further enhanced by the enactment of the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill); and
- the industry's reaction to the Committee of Advertising Practice's 'strong appeals test', aimed to reduce the appeal of gambling advertising to children.
The Government has nevertheless announced several proposals to tighten existing gambling advertising controls, which we have detailed in our blog here.
The offering of incentives and promotional offers to customers has been a key focus of the Commission (and anti-gambling lobbyists) over recent years. This has culminated in the Commission's implementation of a new Social Responsibility Code provision to prevent marketing and the take up of new bonus offers to customers where strong indicators of harm have been identified. The Commission will undertake a consultation to explore how promotions can be offered in a "socially responsible manner which does not encourage excessive or harmful gambling". The consultation will consider measures such as a cap on re-wagering requirements, a minimum timeframe for customers to claim bonuses, and enhanced customer opt-in principles – including (notably) a proposal to introduce an express opt-in requirement for operators to send direct marketing communications which cross-sell new products/verticals. The consultation will be a critical opportunity for operators to engage with the Commission, to seek to ensure that any new restrictions on incentives and promotional offers are proportionate.
Over the coming months, a statutory working group will develop public health messaging independently of the industry to "maximise the information available to consumers and enable them to make better informed decisions with a better understanding of the risks". The intention is to raise awareness of the risk of gambling-related harm and to promote behaviours to mitigate harm. The Government did "welcome industry efforts to improve the quality of its safer gambling advertising campaigns". However we anticipate that the Government will go significantly further with much stronger public health messaging. The industry will hope for balance in the DCMS and Department of Health and Social Care's approach to safer gambling messaging; rather than messaging which stigmatises any engagement in gambling.
The white paper references the Premier League’s voluntary ban on front of shirt gambling sponsorship from the 2026/27 season onwards. The industry will be pleased that the white paper does not include other restrictions on advertising around the perimeter of Premier League football matches and the option of sleeve sponsorship of Premier League teams remains. It is notable that there are otherwise no new restrictions on gambling advertising in sport generally. However the Government has challenged sports bodies to adopt a cross-sport Code of Conduct, which includes measures that are "robust enough to provide meaningful improvements in the social responsibility of gambling sponsorships, while giving flexibility to accommodate the material differences between sports." The white paper outlines some suggested principles for such a Code of Conduct, including:
- a commitment for teams and associations to only accept sponsorship from Commission-licensed operators;
- to limit visibility of gambling advertising in family areas of stadia used for professional sport; and
- to ensure the availability of kits without gambling logos for under-18 athletes or adults who have religious or health objections to wearing gambling logos.
We await the publication of the Code of Conduct, but it is reassuring that the Government envisages separate measures will apply to horse and greyhound racing "due to the specific and long-established nature of the sectors' relationships with gambling operators". It is also notable that the Code will not apply to National Lottery branding in sports "to recognise the major role that the National Lottery plays in funding British sport".
The Government has challenged operators to "make advertising smarter and safer" and go further with their use of adtech to "extend commitments to de-targeting children and vulnerable people and age-gating social media". The white paper references a commitment by the industry to commence a review of the IGRG Code, including consideration of whether 25+ age filtering can be achieved. The industry has been at the forefront of developing socially responsible and sustainable adtech practices in recent years, so operators will be well-equipped to meet these challenges laid down by the Government.
The white paper states that the Commission intends to start collecting more data from operators, and invest in its data systems, in order to develop a more active method of monitoring regulatory compliance by operators. This is in keeping with the Government’s apparent desire to find technological answers to most problems.
The Government intends to review the Commission’s licence fees during 2024. At some later point (when Parliamentary time allows), the Government intends to give the Commission greater power to set its own fees.
The Government will consult on the introduction of a new statutory levy to be paid by operators to the Commission. This levy will be used to deliver or support research into the prevention and treatment of gambling-related harms, harm prevention approaches, or treatment for those harmed by gambling. While the largest four operators already make significant voluntary contributions in this regard to the independent charity GambleAware, the Government wants to ensure that this funding is subject to greater Governmental control going forwards. Research funds will be distributed by the Commission under the direction and approval of HM Treasury and DCMS Ministers. Funds raised by the statutory levy will in due course also facilitate improved integration of treatment services provided by the NHS and the third sector.
The Commission has complained about the length of time it takes for it to conduct change of corporate control reviews. This has been a problem for some time and an obvious solution would be a proportionate reduction in the amount of checks required where the new controller is a listed company. The Government has instead said that, when Parliamentary time allows, it will legislate to give the Commission additional powers to assess and regulate new business owners, reflecting the increased complexity of the entities that it regulates.
The Government has said that it believes that the ‘black market’ (i.e. unlicensed operators illegally targeting the UK) accounts for around 2.5% of remote gambling in the UK. The Government will seek, when Parliamentary time allows, to tackle this by legislating to give the Commission powers to require, for example, ISPs and payment providers, to stop providing their services to black market websites.
The Commission will conduct a review of the status of customer funds protection across the remote industry, to help inform consideration of whether further strengthening of requirements is necessary.
There is a proposal for an independent, non-statutory industry ombudsman to provide customers with additional redress in the gambling sector. This ombudsman would adjudicate complaints related to social responsibility and gambling harm which the operator has been unable to resolve itself). It is also expected that the ombudsman would provide the Commission with data and insight to assist in its regulatory actions.
The ombudsman would be non-statutory, meaning it would operate without direct legislative backing, typically by way of industry or trade association agreement. The Government has suggested a very short timeframe for the industry to set-up this ombudsman. The creation of the ombudsman is likely to require considerable time and effort.
The Government’s expectation is that the ombudsman will be accepting complaints within a year, with the appointment process commencing in spring/summer 2023. The Government has said that, if the industry-established ombudsman does not achieve the desired levels of protection, the Government will legislate to create a statutory ombudsman "to put its position beyond doubt".
A striking feature of the white paper is the Government’s determination to adjust the regulatory balance in favour of land-based gaming, compared to online. Not only does this mean that online stakes will be limited, for example, but certain restrictions on land-based gambling will be eased, albeit conservatively.
In particular, casinos originally licensed under the Gaming Act 1968 will be permitted to offer up to 80 gaming machines (subject to compliance with space requirements and a revised machine/table ratio). Currently, they are limited to 20 machines. They will also be permitted to offer sports betting. These changes will remove competitive inequalities between 1968 Act casinos and “small” 2005 Act casinos. Similarly, it is proposed to introduce a single machine/table ratio of 5:1 across all casinos, which will make it easier for the small and 1968 Act casinos to make the most of their machine entitlement. These changes may be expected to reignite investment in the UK casino sector. Furthermore, the Government will allow unused 2005 Act casino licences (which are limited in number) to be (re)issued by other willing local authorities.
High-end casinos will be permitted to offer credit to certain wealthy overseas players (in light of dwindling overseas cheque-cashing facilities at UK banks). The Government will also consult on permitting cashless payment options for gaming machines.
A further consultation will take place on the proposed relaxation of the "80/20” rule, to allow bingo and arcade premises to make up to 50% of their machines available for use to be category “B” machines, and bingo premises may be permitted to offer side bets.
Meanwhile, to counter concerns about perceived “clustering” of gambling premises (and licensing authorities’ concerns that their powers are limited), the Government proposes to legislate to introduce “cumulative impact assessments” for gambling premise licensing, in line with alcohol licensing.
The proposals to protect children can be broadly split into two categories, age limits and age verification.
In terms of age limits, the Government’s intention is that the most easily accessible forms of gambling should have a minimum age of 18 years across the sector. For example, there are still society lotteries and football pools that allow those aged 16 and 17 years to gamble and the Government would like this to be raised. It will bring in legislation about this when Parliamentary time allows. There are also proposals to increase the age limit of cash-out Category D slot machines to 18 yrs. Category D slot machines include low stake prize machines most commonly found in arcades, however the new age limit will be restricted to “cash-out” Category D slot machines (as opposed to those that award tickets, which will not be limited). It will also not include lower risk Category D products such as penny pushers or crane grabbers, which children will still be allowed to play. The reason behind this distinction is that cash-out Category D slot machines mimic adult slot machines thereby blurring the line between products for adults and children which may increase risk of harm.
The impact on the sector of these age limit proposals is likely to be small as many operators already have a voluntary age limit of 18 years old for society lotteries, football pools and Category D cash-out slot machines, and children that do gamble in this way make up a very small percentage of the customer-base.
In terms of age verification, there are proposals to improve protections for children and young adults by replacing the current “Think 21” scheme with a new “Think 25” scheme for land-based operators. The aim is to bring this in line with a similar “Think 25” scheme for alcohol.
On-course bookmakers and alcohol licensed premises usually score low on test purchasing, so the Government also recommends that they obtain commercial verification of increased pass rates. The Commission will also consult on extending the duty in the Licence Conditions and Codes of Practice to require test purchasing by small operators in fee categories A and B. The reason behind this is that the risk of harm to children is unlikely to vary by operator size. There are also plans to legislate to strengthen licensing authorities’ powers in alcohol-licensed premises and consult on the evidence around premises where there is not normally direct staff supervision. Whilst there were calls for stronger online age verification measures (e.g. requiring ID document photos for all accounts or mandatory video calls on account creation), no proposals on this were adopted in the white paper as there was little evidence such measures would improve current processes. However, it will monitor the development of digital identity technology to assess how this could be used in the gambling industry in future. Further, with the introduction of new payment regulations, it calls on the Commission to review payment verification to ensure funds are not being used without permission.
The impact of the age verification measures on the industry is also predicted to be small, as operators already have in place a “Think 21” scheme which could easily be adapted for “Think 25” and many also have voluntary test purchasing in place already.