APPG calls for gambling ad ban and in-play prohibition

15 June 2020

The Gambling Related Harm All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) has published its final report on igaming harms, concluding that a range of strict new controls should be introduced, including a total prohibition on advertising and banning online in-play betting.

The report is the culmination of a year-long investigation into Great Britain’s online gaming market, which has seen evidence gathered from operators, lawmakers, the Gambling Commission, as well as those that have suffered from gambling related harms.

It sets out more than 30 recommendations for regulatory change, perhaps most notably a blanket ban on gambling advertising. It claims that as gambling can cause harm to individuals, and as advertising is designed to encourage people to gamble, total prohibition is justified.

However, it also suggests that strict controls similar to those set to be implemented in Spain, where gambling advertising is restricted but not banned outright, could be adopted. The prohibition should go beyond traditional channels, the group continued, and apply to console titles such as the Fifa football sim, where gambling branding appears on team shirts.

Furthermore, it said, a review into the use of bonuses and incentives by gambling operators, to determine whether these contributed to harmful gambling. The APPG added that it is of the view that such prohibition should be banned.

While the APPG welcomed industry efforts coordinated by the Gambling Commission to better manage VIP schemes, it demanded these “highly problematic” loyalty programmes be banned.

“These schemes drive profit for the industry and […] the Commission itself has seen the dependence of the gambling industry on VIP customers of those who are disproportionately likely to be addicts,” the report explained. “One firm is said to have taken 83% of all deposits from just 2% of its customers through VIP schemes.

“The award of VIP status has been cited as a factor in seven out of ten regulatory penalties issued to companies by the Commission for failures to prevent problem gambling.”

The report goes on to take aim at products it considers to be particularly popular among problem gamblers, namely in-play betting, slots and online roulette. The APPG believes an independent review of how online products are regulated, tested and classified in terms of addictiveness, arguing that current processes appear to be heavily weighted in the industry’s favour.

As such, it called for the speed of random number generated digital slots and roulette be reduced, with no free spins, turbo spins or reel stop play. Consumers should also be given more accurate information on their chances of winning, and the element of skill or random chance involved.

A £2 slot stake limit that was first included in the APPG’s interim report in November 2019 should also be imposed, it added.

For sports betting, the APPG believes in-play should be restricted to venues, or via telephone, saying this would bring Great Britain in line with Australia. However, Australia prohibits in-play entirely, having closed a loophole that allowed operators to take in-game bets via telephone in 2017.

Across all products, it continued, it was “clear” that stake limits were needed to reduce harm. The risks associated with remote gambling are “clearly” not being managed effectively and comprehensively, meaning an urgent review of stakes and prize limits was needed.

This should be followed up regularly, through a triennial review, with every customer to complete affordability checks that would allow deposit limits for their personal circumstances to be set.

The group concluded that there was “no justification” not to have regulatory parity across channels, in that online gambling should be subject to the exact same controls and limits as land-based.

“We would be interested to know the Gambling Commission’s view as to why this is not the case.”

The group also renewed its attack on the Gambling Commission, that it has consistently condemned as not fit for purpose since November last year.

“It is our view that the Gambling Commission is not fit for purpose and we recommend an urgent review of the Gambling Commission and its capacity to effectively regulate the burgeoning online gambling industry,” the APPG said. “The Government must commit further and more flexible funding for the Gambling Commission to enable it to cope with the growth in its responsibilities and there must be rigorous oversight as to how this is money is spent.”

This should be supported by greater clarity for consumers on how to resolve disputes, overseen by a new industry ombudsman, it added.

However, it did praise the Commission for implementing a ban on credit card betting, though questioned why it took so long for this to be implemented from 14 April. This, the APPG continued, was a “good start” but one that must be built on by banning betting with other forms of credit such as loans and overdrafts.

“This cannot take two years as was the case with the credit card ban,” it warned.

It also suggested that if reverse withdrawals - where a player cancels a request to withdraw funds from their account - is banned by operators such as GVC to protect players under lockdown, this feature should be banned permanently.

Further work is needed on research, the report continues. It points out there is little understanding of female problem gamblers, saying a “large-scale piece of work” is needed in this area. This should be complemented by a nationwide prevalence study, to provide a basis for the government’s planned review of the 2005 Gambling Act.

“We also recommend the establishment of a substantial longitudinal study to allow us to understand the development and lifecourse of gambling disorder, as well as the impact of awareness raising and treatment,” it said.

Moving forward, ongoing research should be handled by an independent commissioning body, the APPG added.

Publication of the report brings to a close a year-long process, that saw the APPG hold 10 public evidence sessions, closed sessions, supported by stakeholder submissions and meetings with the Gambling Commission and gambling ministers.

The group’s chair and MP for Swansea East Carolyn Harris described the gambling sector as a “multi-million pound industry [that] has destroyed people’s lives”.

“They resist change at every turn and claim to be reforming themselves but put forward limited changes. Their primary motive is profit,” she claimed. “During the Covid pandemic they said they would end TV and radio advertising but just ended up replacing ads with ads - that none of us want to see.

“They have shown time and again that they will not effectively self-regulate. We cannot ignore this any longer. Urgent change is needed to stop this industry riding roughshod over people’s lives.”

However, the APPG took exception to being indirectly called “prohibitionist” by industry associations such as the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC), claiming that this was “to debase what is an important discussion to protect vulnerable people and children and prevent online gambling harm”.

“Every day I speak to people whose lives have been destroyed by gambling addiction while the online gambling industry grows exponentially,” APPG vice chair and MP for Inverclyde Ronnie Cowan said. “This Government must not sit back and watch the unfettered growth of an industry that extracts money from people across the UK to line their own pockets.

“We are bombarded by gambling across all mediums and our sports are in hoc to an industry which seeks to profit from them. Young men, women and families are being destroyed by online gambling.”

As such, a totally new act to regulate the sector is ultimately needed, the APPG said. While changes could be made to some elements, a more comprehensive, updated framework was the only way to properly protect players, it claimed.

While APPGs have no legislative power, the Gambling Related Harm group has been especially influential. Its recommendations, such as calls for stake limits and the interim publication from November last year, have caused significant declines in operators’ share prices previously.

MPs lead the research component, and the group has also employed public affairs and association management consultancy Interel, with funding provided by entrepreneur Derek Webb.

Webb is a prominent advocate for changes to British gambling regulation, who played a key role in campaigning for changes to fixed-odds betting terminal stakes from April 2019.