DCMS Minister responds to gambling-related harms concerns in Westminster Hall debate

On 29 March 2022 a debate on gambling-related harm (opened by Carolyn Harris MP, Chair of the Gambling-Related Harm All Party Parliamentary Group) took place in Westminster Hall.

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Carolyn Harris pulled no punches in her opening speech, complaining that she and fellow MPs from all political parties “have faced an onslaught of opposition from the gambling industry, for which the status quo is the perfect mix of outdated legislation, weak sanctions and limited scope”. Addressing her own question: What improvements are needed in the upcoming White Paper?”, she answered:

Most importantly, the case for a centralised and independent affordability assessment is overwhelming. It cannot be right that online operators permit customers to deposit and lose hundreds of thousands of pounds, despite those customers having no regular source of income and often using money that is funded by crime. There has been a lot of debate about the level of a soft affordability cap, by which I mean the point at which an open banking check would kick in. Putting a limit of £100 a month on net deposits is a sensible, proportionate and, more importantly, evidence-based position, especially when we consider that the average level of disposable income in Britain is £450 a month, and that 73% of slot players and 85% of non-slot players lose £50 or less a month. A soft cap at £100 is therefore low enough to enable the vast majority of gamblers to continue without any checks whatever, as the vast majority of gambling activity occurs below this level. A £100 check would kick in only for those who gamble well above the average amount each month. Moreover, it does not preclude gamblers spending more than that. It just means that they would have to have an enhanced affordability check, which— surprise, surprise—many of the industry operators already carry out.

Her opening speech culminated with bother words:

This is a once-in-a-generation chance to update our laws and, most importantly, save lives. It is now in the hands of a few people who I pray to God are listening to this debate, because the time for talking is done; now is the time for action. The gambling industry has run amok for 17 years. It cannot be allowed to be so destructive any longer.

Speeches were then made by numerous other MPs, including former Conservative party leader (and Vice Chair of the Gambling-Related Harm APPG), Iain Duncan Smith, who closed his speech with the following words:

It is time for the gambling industry to recognise that the time is up, change is coming — it has to come — and it is not too soon, given the lives that have been lost and the damage that has been done to families. I say to my colleagues, do not continue to defend bad practice.

Closing the debate, Nigel Huddleston MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, confirmed that the Government is “in the process of finalising” the Gambling Act Review White Paper with a view to it being published “in the coming weeks”. Expanding on this, he said as follows (with our added emphasis in bold picking up on particularly salient points):

…. I thank Carolyn Harris for securing this very important debate and all those who have contributed, in generally a very constructive manner.

I know how committed the hon. Member for Swansea East and many other Members—in fact, I think this applies to every single person who spoke today—are to gambling reform. I thank her and other parliamentarians for the many meetings that they have had with Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Ministers in recent months. Their perspectives and evidence on the issues that we are considering through the review of the Gambling Act 2005 are very valuable indeed. She and all other hon. Members who spoke today are quite right to make the case that reform is needed. It has been 17 years since the Gambling Act was passed, and it is clear that the risks of harm and the opportunities to prevent it are very different now from when legislation was introduced. We must act to recognise that in our regulatory framework.

In recent years, the Government and the Gambling Commission have introduced a wide variety of reforms to help to protect people from gambling harm. Those include the ban on credit card gambling, the FOBT stake limit reduction, and reform to VIP schemes. The review is an opportunity to build on those changes and to do more to ensure that we have the right protections for the digital age.

As the hon. Member for Swansea East will appreciate, I cannot pre-announce what will be published in the White Paper—much as she may wish to prompt me to do so—but we are in the process of finalising it. However, I absolutely recognise the severity of the harms that gambling disorder can cause and why we all have a duty to prevent people from being led down such a dark path.

The voice of people with personal experience of harm was thoroughly represented among the submissions to our call for evidence, and I, the gambling Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Chris Philp—and all our successors have met a number of people who have suffered because of their own addictions or those of people whom they love. They have all made clear how enormous and lasting the effects of gambling disorder can be, not only in the obvious financial losses but in relationship strain, family breakdown, mental health problems and, of course, suicide in extreme cases.

As my opposite number, Jeff Smith mentioned, just last week Paul Blomfield secured an Adjournment debate on the coroner’s finding that gambling contributed to the tragic death of Jack Ritchie. As my hon. Friend the gambling Minister said then, the findings are an important call to action for our Department, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education. We are considering the prevention of future deaths report carefully and will respond in due course on the actions being taken.

The causes of gambling-related harm are inherently complex to unpick and address. Individual circumstances play a role, but it is essential that we also look at the products, industry practices and wider factors that can contribute to or exacerbate them. Understanding the drivers and taking preventive action where it is needed is at the heart of our public health approach. Of course, understanding where it is needed is part of the challenge for the gambling review. About half of the population takes part in gambling each year, and the vast majority suffer no ill effects at all. The population “problem gambling” rate has been broadly stable since before the 2005 Act, with some recent signs of a decline. The White Paper’s measures will be based on the best available evidence to target risk proportionately. We want to prevent unaffordable losses and industry practices that exacerbate risk. We will also maintain the freedom for adults who choose to gamble to do so, and for a responsible and sustainable industry to service that demand.

Technology and data are central to developing effective and proportionate protections. As my hon. Friend the gambling Minister has said, there is huge potential in data-led tools, which can stop and prevent harmful gambling while letting the majority, who spend at low levels with no signs of risk, continue uninterrupted. There has been particular discussion in recent weeks—this was mentioned in the debate—about the role of so-called affordability checks, where a customer’s financial circumstances are considered as part of assessing whether their gambling is likely to be harming them. Such assessments are undoubtedly a key part of the toolkit for preventing the devastating losses that we have all heard about, but, to be workable and prevent harm, checks need to be proportionate and acceptable to customers. We are keen to explore the role of data such as that held by credit reference agencies or that already used by operators to facilitate frictionless checks ….

…. As I said, I will not pre-empt the review’s findings, but my hon. Friend makes a key point about the responsibility and role of the financial services sector in the review. The Government will continue to work closely with the Gambling Commission on this issue in the run-up to publishing the White Paper.

Another much discussed issue is data-led protection in the form of single customer views, where operators share data to protect people most at risk. That is increasingly necessary given that the average online gambler now has three accounts, and those with a gambling disorder typically have far more. I am pleased that the Betting and Gaming Council’s trial of a technical solution has been accepted into the Information Commissioner’s Office sandbox process, which will mean close scrutiny from both the information and gambling regulators to ensure that the trial proceeds with appropriate safeguards in place.

Let me turn now to a few other items raised by hon. Members. On the statutory levy proposals, we called for evidence on the best way to recoup the regulatory and societal costs of gambling. We have also been clear for a number of years that, should the existing system of taxation and voluntary contributions fail to deliver what was needed, we would look at a number of options for reform, including a statutory levy, and we will set out our conclusions in the White Paper.

The horse-racing industry was mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr Robertson. The review is not looking directly at the horse-racing betting levy, but we are certainly aware of the close relationship between racing and betting. The main area of concern from the horse-racing industry is the affordability checks. As I said, these are important, but they must also be proportionate, and we are carefully considering the impact of all our proposals.

Many hon. Members mentioned advertising, and gambling advertising can help licensed gambling operators differentiate themselves from the black market. It also provides financial support for broadcasters and sport, but operators must advertise responsibly, and we are committed to tackling aggressive practices. We have called for evidence on advertising and sponsorship as part of the review.

Protections are already in place to limit children’s exposure to advertising—for example, the whistle-to-whistle ban mentioned by hon. Members. That led, for example, to about a halving in the number of adverts at the Euros last year compared with the 2018 World cup. Gambling adverts must not be targeted at children or appeal particularly to them. The Committee for Advertising Practice will soon publish more on its plans to tighten the rules in this area.

On the gambling black market, again mentioned by many hon. Members, we have called for evidence as part of our review, and we are looking at the Commission’s powers as part of that process. On customer redress, which the hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned, operators must be held accountable for their failings. The review will assess the current system of redress, and we will set out our conclusions in the forthcoming White Paper.

The hon. Member for Swansea East also mentioned the clustering of betting shops. She will be aware that local authorities already have a range of powers under the planning system and as licensing authorities under the Gambling Act to grant or reject applications for gambling premises in their areas, and we encourage them to use those powers as appropriate. We have also been reviewing the powers local authorities and other licensing authorities have in relation to gambling premises licences as part of the review.

On the issue of treatment, which was raised by Rachael Maskell and others, the Government absolutely take a public health approach to gambling. Gambling is a regulated sector, and we have protections for the whole population, with rules to keep gambling fair, open and free from crime. We also have specific protections for vulnerable people. The DCMS works closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, which leads on treatment and health issues. She will be aware the Government are committed to strengthening treatment and support for gambling disorder. This will build on changes and reforms that have already taken place in recent years. The NHS has committed to opening up to 15 specialist problem gambling clinics by 2023-24. Five of these are already in operation and more will follow soon.

The hon. Member for York Central also mentioned loot boxes, and we are delivering on a manifesto commitment to tackle the issue in video games. We ran a call for evidence last year to understand the impact and received over 30,000 responses. We are reviewing this evidence and continue to engage with the industry to determine the most robust and proportionate solutions to the issues identified. We will also be publishing our response and next steps in the coming months. If she is patient, we will report on that soon.

In conclusion, I absolutely recognise that we have an important responsibility to get reform right. We will build on the many strong aspects of our regulatory system to make sure it is right for the digital age and the future. The White Paper is a priority for the Department and we will publish it in the coming weeks.