The UK government is set to introduce the first significant piece of legislation on gambling in almost two decades, and since the arrival of smartphones, which revolutionized the online betting industry. The White Paper, which has already faced four delays due to changes in prime ministers and the revolving door of the Secretary of State for Culture, is expected to tackle issues such as statutory levies for gambling firms, affordability checks for gamblers, tighter controls around advertising and marketing, and maximum stakes for online slots.
The introduction of the Gambling Act in 2005 by the Tony Blair-led Labour government allowed sports betting, poker, and online casinos to be advertised on TV and radio for the first time. However, the Act predated the advent of smartphones, which has been a game-changer for online gambling. The industry has aggressively targeted punters with habit-forming products that offer continuous gambling, causing a “significant public health crisis,” says consultant psychologist Matt Gaskell, the clinical lead for the NHS Northern Gambling Service in a BBC article. He wants the government to introduce a statutory levy on gambling companies and develop a public health message, as the industry funds research, education, and treatment into gambling harm on a voluntary basis.
Charities and parliamentarians have been lobbying behind the scenes in recent weeks, piling on the pressure for changes. A letter to the Chancellor from the chair of Peers for Gambling Reform, Lord Foster, and signed by Mr. Gaskell, among others, says the “overwhelming consensus is that the current voluntary funding arrangement lacks consistency, transparency and independence from industry influence.”
Gambling in the UK is a lucrative industry, with the exclusion of the National Lottery, generating almost £10bn before tax in 2021/22. Remote (mostly online) betting, bingo, and casino games contributed £6.4bn, while the Land-Based Sector, also known as non-remote betting at arcades, bingo halls, casinos, and betting shops, generated £3.5bn. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, the gambling industry paid £3.2bn in tax in the 2021/22 financial year. However, it is estimated that there are between 250,000 and 460,000 problem gamblers in Great Britain.
Campaigners for more regulation say they want to protect problem gamblers and legislation that keeps pace with technology. The UK is probably the country with the most liberal gambling laws in the world, says former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith. He’s part of the All Party Parliamentary Group on gambling-related harm, which has been advocating for more protections, especially for children and other vulnerable groups, including forcing gambling companies to pay a statutory levy and a ban on their names on football shirts.
The Betting and Gaming Council, which represents gambling companies, says that the “overwhelming majority” of the 22.5 million people in the UK who enjoy a bet each month do so “safely and responsibly.” However, the “rate of problem gambling remains low by international standards at 0.3% of the UK’s adult population – down from 0.4% the year previous,” the BGC added.