UK licensed operators should take note of both keynotes at the 9th Annual GambleAware Conference

Yesterday (8 December 2021) David Clifton attended GambleAware’s 9th Annual Conference on the theme of ‘Collaboration in the Prevention of Gambling Harms’.

The keynote speakers were:

  • Gambling Minister, Chris Philp MP, who said that:
    1. it will be a few months yet before the Gambling Review White Paper will be published, despite previous indications that this would occur before the end of this year
    2. “much more” needs to be done to protect people from gambling related harms and, in this respect, the Gambling Commission will soon publish more on its requirements around interventions and the Government will continue to work closely with the Commission on the issue of affordability before the White Paper is published
    3. because people’s circumstances differ, affordability checks need to be proportionate, adding comment that “as the Commission has said, demanding payslips or bank statements from every customer spending £100 or so is likely to be unwelcome, disruptive and disproportionate to the risks”, in the process (and presumably with advance notice of what is contained within the Commission’s keenly anticipated response to its Remote customer interaction – Consultation and Call for Evidence) clearly implying that the Commission agrees with this viewpoint
    4. checks based on spend and financial circumstances must nevertheless supplement rather than supersede all the existing requirements on operators to monitor play data, identify risk and intervene accordingly
    5. now is the time for UK licensed gambling operators to work with the Commission and the ICO to develop a ‘single customer view’ solution that works
    6. the Gambling Commission has done “excellent work over recent years to protect vulnerable consumers”, indicating that the Government does not share the very negative opinion of the regulator than other parliamentary bodies have expressed over the last couple of years

and

  • Chief Executive of the Gambling Commission, Andrew Rhodes, who:
    1. echoed the Gambling Minister’s concern about gambling related harms, saying that there is “still too much harm from gambling as a result of too little compliance amongst too many operators who are not complying with [the Commission’s] rules”, adding that the Commission will “continue to use [its] regulatory role to build up protections for people”
    2. believes it is wrong to focus on a reduction from 0.5% to 0.3% in the overall problem gambling rate because, as he put it, “we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people”
    3. said that the Commission will “provide an update on its work on harms next week and more news on the Prevalence and Participation trial in the spring”
    4. made clear that he will not tolerate operators repeatedly committing the same offences who might be regarding fines as “a compliance tax”
    5. encouraged all operators (regardless of size) to ensure that the data they provide to the Commission is fit for purpose and, correspondingly, that their data quality processes are “robust and fit for purpose” 
    6. asserted that, because it “takes £450 a second off consumers within the UK”, “the gambling industry really is entirely based around taking money off people”, adding I’m not criticizing the industry for this. It is what it is“, leaving some of us in the audience very unclear about the point he was seeking to make.

Chris Philp’s speech is set out below (with emphasis added by us on passages that we consider particularly salient):

I would like to start by thanking GambleAware for organising today’s conference, which I am delighted to be part of. The theme is “Collaboration in the Prevention of Gambling Harm” and we recognise that as exceptionally important.

Gambling harm cannot be tackled effectively by working in isolation. It takes important input from various groups like the lived experience community, researchers, treatment providers, industry and, of course, the Government to build on each other’s experience, knowledge and research and work together in preventing gambling harm. And I know one of the great things about the annual GambleAware conference is that it brings together people from across those groups.

I was appointed Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy in September, with two key priorities. Firstly, delivering on the manifesto commitment to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online and set the global standard for internet safety. Secondly, is the manifesto commitment to comprehensively review the Gambling Act to ensure we have the right protections for the digital age.

In my first months I have met a broad range of gambling stakeholders and people involved in preventing harm, including clinicians and people with personal experience. Thank you to those who are here today. It has been very clear to me that, when it comes to gambling harm, prevention is better than a cure.

The government considers gambling-related harm to be a health issue and a public health issue, and preventing harm is an essential objective of our gambling regulation. It’s our duty in government and more widely to prevent people from being led down a path to a dark destination.

I’ve heard too many stories about people losing obviously unaffordable sums of money, not prevented by operators who had data to stop it from happening. Through our Review, I want to make sure we are doing much more to protect that minority of gamblers who are suffering life changing harms and to prevent others from falling into that position.

Our Review is looking at a very wide range of issues and our call for evidence received 16,000 submissions which we are considering carefully. We will publish a White Paper which sets out our vision for the sector in the coming months.

Today though, I want to focus on a few areas of work where I as as Minister for Tech and Digital Economy, see particular opportunity for innovation in the interest of consumers:

When an operator sees that a customer is at risk of harm, we need them to step in – to talk to them, impose limits or help them set their own, or perhaps even close their account. As part of this, a robust system to prevent unaffordable online gambling will have a transformative impact, and I know everybody here today agrees. We have all seen and heard too many cases of people spending enormous sums and operator interventions coming too late.

Of course, people’s circumstances differ and not everyone who spends a lot is at risk. But unaffordable losses are a key sign of out of control gambling that is causing harm – as one of the conference panels will discuss later today. So it is essential the right checks are made and in a digital age we need to harness data to do this effectively.

To be workable and prevent harm, affordability checks need to be proportionate. As the Commission has said, demanding payslips or bank statements from every customer spending £100 or so is likely to be unwelcome, disruptive and disproportionate to the risks. But there is a level that is appropriate.

As minister for Digital, I am really keen to explore the role of technology and available data, such as that held by credit reference agencies, to make these sorts of checks work smoothly in a way that is acceptable to customers. At high levels of gambling, more intrusive checks are appropriate. I also want to be clear that checks based on spend and financial circumstances must supplement rather than supersede all the existing requirements on operators to monitor play data, identify risk and intervene accordingly.

The Commission will soon publish more on its requirements around interventions and we will continue to work closely with them on affordability in the run up to publishing our White Paper.

Operators definitely need the right processes to intervene and prevent harm on their own platforms and they have all made strides in developing algorithms that enable them to spot when to do this. But we know that on average, people who gamble online have opened 3 accounts with different operators, and young adults and problem gamblers usually have even more.

This means that the efforts of individual operators to prevent harm are undermined if a person in the grip of a gambling problem can simply switch to another operator. To me, shoring up our systems to prevent this must be a priority.

I take encouragement from the success of GAMSTOP, the multi-operator online self-exclusion scheme, as an example of the benefits from sector-wide protections which capitalise on the available technology to do things better. Like GAMSTOP, a single customer view (SCV) solution will protect a person, not just their account with one operator.

It is of course vital that any data sharing is done safely, securely and proportionately. I am glad the Commission has worked closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office which has now confirmed that a single customer view can be delivered with these values at its core.

We know data sharing is well established in financial services. I know there are representatives from industry in the audience today, so I want to be clear in my message; now is the time for you to pick up the gauntlet and work closely with both regulators to develop a system that works.

Of course, the opportunities presented by data are wider than just sharing between operators. You will all be familiar with Public Health England’s evidence review on gambling-related harms, which is an invaluable contribution to the evidence base for our ongoing Review. But as the Minister responsible for gambling, PHE’s findings made clear to me that we have more work to do to understand the drivers of gambling disorder.

An important part of the solution is improving the quality of data that the Gambling Commission as regulator, we as government, but also researchers and clinical experts, have access to – which can in turn inform the best possible policies and approaches. I see great promise, therefore, in the development of a Data Repository as a pillar in our work to fill the gaps that still exist in our understanding.

This will of course need to be complemented by the appropriate analytical expertise, so as part of the Review, we are exploring the scope for more investment in data capability within the Gambling Commission. They need powers to regulate the enormous and innovative gambling industry, including the ability to requisition and analyse bulk account-level data from operators to identify whether they’re doing what they’re supposed to under their licence conditions.

This leads me on to the regulator, which of course has a huge role to play in our collaborative efforts to prevent gambling related harm. It is vital that they have the powers and resources needed to regulate the enormous and innovative gambling industry effectively. I am working closely with the new Chair and Chief Executive of the Commission as they set out their vision for the organisation, and through the Gambling Act Review it will be one of my priorities to ensure that they have all the tools that they need to uphold the licensing objectives.

The Commission is central to all of the promising projects I have just mentioned and I want them to continue to build on the excellent work they have done over recent years to protect vulnerable consumers. The ban on gambling with credit cards, the strict requirements for online age verification, and the actions the Commission took during Covid to prevent harm demonstrate its ability to make gambling safer.

But on a more day to day basis, I want the Commission to excel in holding the industry to account. The operators who meet and surpass our high standards have nothing to worry about from this. Those who breach the rules do. The upcoming White Paper will provide further detail on how we will make sure that the Gambling Commission is equipped to deal with the range of challenges that it faces across the gambling sector today and in the future.

Over the coming months I will continue to meet with industry, parliamentary groups, charities and people impacted by gambling harm as we prepare the Gambling White paper.

Next week I will be co-hosting a roundtable with my counterpart at DHSC with researchers and treatment and support providers to consider the very question which is the theme of today’s conference – how we can collaborate to achieve our shared goals.

Today I have outlined just a few of the areas where I see great promise to make our gambling regulation fit for the digital age, particularly using data and technology. Of course, there will be much more to come in our white paper.

I would like to again congratulate Gamble Aware on organising this conference and I hope together we can continue this collaborative approach to tackling gambling related harm.

Andrew Rhodes’ speech is set out below (again with emphasis added by us on passages that we consider particularly salient):

First of all, it’s really, really nice to be here and given the last, maybe, two years now, it’s nice to be anywhere, but it is really nice to be invited today and a pleasure to come and talk to you.

It was also really good to hear from the Minister Chris Philp. We’ve met a couple of times recently and he’s shown great commitment to the work that we’re doing. Today’s theme is particularly important, and myself and the Commission have been seeing collaboration for a long time as a way to prevent gambling harm, so I’m going to talk a bit about that today and some of the emerging things that we’re seeing that I think we all need to work together in order to address.

I also want to talk today about what the data is telling us and some of what the data isn’t telling us at the moment, as well as some of the actions that we’ve got ahead of us in the very near future in terms of what we’re doing.

Also, I want to thank GambleAware not only for hosting this event today, but for all the wider work around provision of treatment over the previous years which is incredibly important.

In terms of our role at the Gambling Commission, our job is to permit gambling. It’s to license gambling as long as that is consistent with the licensing objectives. Those objectives say that gambling must be fair and transparent, crime free and protect the vulnerable from harm. In an ideal world we would have little to do beyond licensing operators, but that’s not the case, and we’re nowhere near that at this point in time. There is still far too much harm from gambling as a result of too little compliance amongst too many operators who are not complying with our rules.

In fact, the last few years have seen escalating enforcement by the Gambling Commission. We have recovered over £100 million in penalty packages since 2017/18 and revoked 10 operator licenses, and that doesn’t include the ones who surrendered their licenses before our investigations are complete. This year so far is already on course to be our busiest year ever in terms of enforcement activity, and that’s something that should concern us.

We’re also seeing the proportion of regulatory settlements versus fines change, with fines increasing, and that is because we are seeing recidivist behavior. We are seeing the same companies committing the same offences for the second and third time, and my concern is that those operators are starting to see fines as a compliance tax, and that’s something that I’m not prepared to tolerate. It must also be incredibly frustrating for those in the industry who are working hard to comply and to raise standards. It must be unacceptable for them too.

But we also know that enforcement action isn’t the only way to drive up standards. We do this through collaboration and working in innovative ways. The Minister mentioned some of these, including how we’ve been working with the industry on VIP schemes, games design and ad-tech, all of which have helped drive us towards more safer gambling.

Another is with many of the people in this room, and we came together to deliver the first National Strategy to Reduce Gambling Harms. The Gambling Commission fully supports collaboration in all of our approaches to reduce gambling harms. We don’t just support it, we engage in it, and we encourage it. But what is the data telling us about gambling right now? Well, if we’re going to work together and prevent gambling harms, we need to have a shared understanding of what it is we’re trying to address.

The gambling industry is roughly the same size as the agricultural industry, which is a very different regulatory burden. Nearly half the population gamble in one way or another each month. The gambling industry yields £14.1billion after winnings are paid out, which means the gambling industry takes £450 a second off consumers within the UK. Just think about that number.

If we take out the National Lottery, then 5% of gamblers account for 90% of the gross gambling yield the money the gambling industry makes. 45% of people who gamble think they gamble less than most others. Now I find that really interesting, because the behavior is very similar to drivers who all think they drive better than everyone else, but it is interesting if such a large proportion of people think they gamble less than others, it means that the understanding of what gambling patterns are like is not actually great amongst consumers.

12% of the people in our research who do engage in some gambling don’t think they engage in gambling at all. They’re not even aware of what might constitute gambling, so understanding is still quite far adrift for the consumer base. It’s very, very broad and gambling in some way or another is common, and like other licensed activities, millions take part and suffer no ill effects.

But for hundreds of thousands of people they experience serious issues and are harmed by their experience in gambling. That harm is physical mental damages to finance, relationships. It’s harm to the individual who’s gambling, but also their friends, their family and their wider communities.

As I have said in public before, it’s wrong to try and focus on 0.5% or 0.3%. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people. We’re talking about the effect on their families, their friends, their colleagues, their employers, the services they rely on. All of those are affected too. When you add all of those together, the number is much bigger.

And it’s wrong to try and talk about small percentage. This is a bigger issue that we’re dealing with, but also when we talk about those numbers, it isn’t the full picture, and we know that the data is not as strong as it could be.

The data I’ve talked to you about is just a little piece of what we have, and it is the most up-to-date picture. But we want more. We need more data to give us a more accurate picture, so we’re currently preparing to trial a new methodology for prevalence and participation data to give us a more accurate picture. We’ll provide an update on our work on harms next week and more news on the Prevalence and Participation trial in the spring.

But it also means operators need to make sure the data they provide to us is fit for purpose. I would strongly encourage operators – big and small – to use the remainder of this business year to ensure your data quality processes are robust and fit for purpose.

There is another problem with data as well. People can’t use data about gambling to make informed decisions if they don’t see what they are doing as gambling. Not just traditional products like lotteries or bingo, which are gambling. This is what we sometimes refer to as the ‘gamblification’ of entertainment – the integration of gambling into the experience itself.

But it’s also where the product doesn’t fit what many would regard as gambling or see as gambling at all. So many of these new products that we’re seeing have many similarities to gambling and the risks of harm. We see significant losses, extended periods of play time, but the product doesn’t always meet the legal definition of gambling. Or if it does, that’s becoming arguable.

And there are products out there now which look an awful lot like gambling but do not meet the current legislative framework in order to attract customers, which also means they don’t have the safeguards in place that we would require from the licensed gambling product. Some of the things that we have seen from the Football Index collapse, which is something that if you make the mistake of following me on social media, I get gifted quite a lot of feedback about.

It is an incredibly difficult topic. People have had horrendous experiences in losing money as the company collapsed. But what we found here is we’ve got a company encouraging consumers to believe they were investing and not gambling when there were no assets to support an investment. Many did and still do refer to themselves as traders, seeing themselves as engaged in a different kind of activity where they’ve made a mental leap from gambling into something else.

We see from forums and social media that many emptied their ISAs, their savings from house deposits, thinking they would do better financially by putting that into the Football Index product, which is a gambling product. There was a huge draw to use their knowledge to make money. It’s all about that experience. I’m sure there are a lot of those people, and some of them I sat down with, would not stake that kind of money in a more traditional bet with a bookmaker.

And this is where we see the enormous risks now, around that gamblification of entertainment, and where there is a deliberate effort to obscure that line and to avoid some of the safeguards that we need to see.

Social media is an interesting world. Between the abuse, death threats and ‘what celebrities are doing now’, you can see much about the attitudes that people have. Just this week I saw someone who lost a significant amount of money through Football Index, recounting how they’ve now made that back through Sorare. We published some information stating that we were looking at Sorare as a product that is not regulated, querying whether it needs to be under our legislation.

I also observe people talking about making money through crypto, which again we’re seeing exploding as an issue in the gambling arena. And that’s something that really concerns us in terms of what the level of understanding is around the risks that people are facing. My point here is the gambling industry really is entirely based around taking money off people. £450 a second in return for an experience or for excitement. Some will win, but they will be very few in number. And let’s remember that £450 per second number.

I’m not criticizing the industry for this. It is what it is. And it’s not unlike many other leisure activities. But the scale can be very different. In involving products that look, feel and sound less like gambling, some will no longer appreciate the risks that they’re facing.

Collaboration is going to be key to making faster and better progress. We’ll see this around what is in the White Paper as part of the Gambling Act review. For our part, we will continue to use our regulatory role to build up protections for people, working with stakeholders on how to do that.

Our customer interaction work is ongoing, and this is something that you will see feature in the Gambling Act review, but we will build and continue to build on the expectations that are already with operators in terms of how they should be interacting with customers and you heard the Minister talk about that. Also when someone reaches that trigger, we want to educate people to think about what that might mean and this is a prompt to them to think about what they are doing in the position they are in.

Turning to the single customer view, that gets quite a strong reaction and I’m very grateful for the Minister’s support on this and grateful for the industry’s commitment to delivering on this. Having sat down with groups of people who have experienced very extreme harms from gambling, it was clear to me that from many of those, actually an affordability check probably would not have detected or prevented some of their issues. But being able to see between operators damaging behaviour might well have done.

And that’s an opportunity that I think we need to take and the industry needs to take and avail itself of. In terms of my view, this is all about creating the right degree of friction.

So the way I like to explain my analogy to this; it doesn’t work entirely, but if you imagine it is a series of sieves. As things become more and more difficult, eventually you should be caught by something. But at the moment the holes are too big. People fall too far, too fast before there is intervention and that’s why we need a graduated system to protect consumers so that they can enjoy their activities without friction until friction is needed.

And that’s got to be based on risk, and the industry has to own the intervention in that. The regulator has definitely got a role to play, but the industry is 800 times the size of us. It has infinitely more resources and knowledge about its customers. It needs to use it. And I welcome the commitment to the single customer view, but it’s stage one, and this is something that I see developing much more on in time.

We also do need to do more around illegal gambling and the black market. I do think this gets overstated and I worry that some use it as an excuse not to take action. I have sat down with one operator who was facing action from us around serious noncompliance, and they raised the black market with me. And I regard that, if you imagine – this analogy again only goes so far – if you imagine we were a taxi licensing authority, so bear with me… That’s like someone where the licensed taxi with four bald tires and defective seatbelts, standing in front of me, a taxi inspector telling me about an illegal minicab around the corner. You’re quite right about the illegal minicab, but if you want to have the ability to be licensed to advertise, to recruit to the open market, to attract customers who expect regulations and rules in place to protect them, you have to live up to those standards.

We are not going to be deflected away from that mission, in some sort of race to the bottom because someone else is worse. That’s the whole point of having a regulated market. I absolutely believe if you introduce the wrong friction, you can drive people into the black market.

But we are nowhere near that scale of problem. We still see cases that make everyone blush. And that has to stop. And that is why our regulatory posture has been changing and it will continue to do so.

One of the things that I do want us all to work together on. It’s how we solve those problems, but also how we build a well-informed consumer base that understands the risks they may face, understands the signs of harm in the way that they do with other things that we engage with, which could be dangerous for us.

And how do we get to sensible solutions that protect people but also don’t have adverse consequences? We need to work together to achieve that. I see so much influence stemming from vested interests and it’s very hard to counteract the echo chamber that is social media, but people seek out and find affirming views. We need to find a way to cut through that and as a regulator, that’s really difficult because nobody here who is engaging in gambling today, is going to think “shall I Google what the chief executive of the Gambling Commission said recently?” I think they ought to. It would be lovely, but the reality is, they’re not going to do that. They’re going to listen to their peers. They’re going to read stuff on social media and we need to find a way to have the right level of influence.

The Gambling Commission remains committed to collaboration. We will work with anyone who shares our views on how we improve things. I’m incredibly grateful for you inviting me today. It’s been a pleasure to be here, and I met lots of people in 3D for the first time.

I’m also very grateful to you for your time today. I very much appreciate it. Thank you very much for having me.


Maps showing prevalence of PG severity in Great Britain

Also worthy of particular note at the conference was a session presented by Dr Amy Sweet, Research Lead at GambleAware, during which attention of delegates was drawn to maps (drawn up using data collected as part of the Annual Great Britain Treatment and Support Survey), that show the prevalence of problem gambling severity in each local authority and ward area in Great Britain, as well as usage of and reported demand for treatment and support for gambling harms.

You can access the following maps on the GambleAware website here:

  1. Gambling prevalence based on PGSI scores at a local authority and ward level.
  2. Reported usage of treatment and support for gambling harms at local authority and ward level and reported demand for treatment and support for gambling harms at local authority and ward level (i.e. the treatment and support people say they would like to access).
  3. Relative usage and reported demand for treatment and support based on PGSI scores (i.e where there is more or less usage and reported demand for treatment and support based on PGSI categories).

Some caution should be exercised when examining the maps, because the point is made that the “analysis produces rough estimates only. The data modelling is not intended to produce an accurate figure for each locality, but rather to give indicative estimates that then provide a sense of how prevalence and usage/demand is spread across the country in relative terms. Due to the sample size, ward level estimates should only be used as indicators and not exact results”.


UPDATE:

A replay of the conference is now available online here. Through that link, you can also download the speakers’ presentations in the ‘resources’ section.