UKGC speech summarises present regulatory priorities including collection of participation & prevalence statistics

The Gambling Commission’s Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Sarah Gardner, has today (25 November 2021) delivered the following speech at the 2021 Bacta Annual Convention.

Bacta is the Trade Association for the amusement and gaming machine industry in the UK.

I’m Sarah Gardner, Deputy Chief Executive for the Gambling Commission and let me start by passing on Andrew Rhodes’ apologies for not being able to join you today. His misfortune though is my good luck. And on that point, what a pleasure it is to be meeting with you all again face to face today at the Bacta Annual Convention. This is the first large scale industry event I’ve attended in person since before COVID-19 and I’m sure that’s the same for many people here today. Now I’m sure the days of virtual meetings and conferences will continue; in many ways they make sense. But there will always be a place for face to face engagement and so I would like to thank John and his team for putting this event together as well as the staff here at One Birdcage Walk for helping us to meet together safely.

Reflecting on the impact of COVID-19 is of course a topic I want to touch on today but as we all look to move forwards, I also want to talk to you about how we at the Gambling Commission see the world of gambling today, how we can all look to work together more closely and how if we are to do so it must be from a shared understanding of the task at hand. And I’ll finish with some thoughts on what we want to see from your sector – whether on the high streets or at the seaside – and how we can all make gambling safer. But the only place to start is the impact, both past and ongoing, of COVID-19.

And I think it’s important that as part of that I first acknowledge what we’ve all been through over the last 19 months. COVID-19 impacted on everyone, often in tragic ways. And whilst everyone here no doubt saw people who were more badly affected than themselves, everyone in this room was impacted by the pandemic.

And I think it’s important to reflect that the gambling industry itself was no different – especially operators such as yourselves, who operate primarily or exclusively land-based, bricks and mortar gambling businesses. At the Gambling Commission we know that some operators have been forced to make tough decisions to keep businesses and jobs viable in recent months. We also know that not all operators and businesses were able to make it through. The impact of that is real and I and the Commission acknowledge that.

Whilst we hope the worst is over, we know it will take some time – especially for smaller operators – to be out of the woods. We also know that the pandemic has accelerated trends that were already happening in the industry, especially the move to online and mobile. At the Gambling Commission, throughout the last 20 months or so we have tracked how the pandemic has led to changes in people’s behaviour and how the risks they may be exposed to have changed. We have, at times, taken quick, uncompromising and necessary action to address those risks. But as we look to move forwards and beyond the pandemic, many of us are asking where has it left us today and where next?

In terms of where the Gambling Commission is today, this year has been one of change. In our new Chief Executive Andrew Rhodes and our new Chair, Marcus Boyle, the Commission has the leadership to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead. But if anyone is thinking this will mean our priorities will change, they are mistaken. In fact, the Gambling Commission is coming out of this year more focussed than ever before on our remit to make gambling fairer, safer and crime free.

And this is an important point. The last few years is a tale of escalating enforcement by the Commission, not less. We have issued over £100 million of penalty packages since 2017/18 and revoked 10 operator licences since then as well. And that doesn’t include those licences that have been surrendered before we completed our investigations. Just one recent example of this was the online operator BGO. With almost 2 million customers in Great Britain before they surrendered their licence, it should be a reminder that the Gambling Commission will take action against any operator, regardless of scale.

The Gambling Commission will continue to be relentless in investigating and taking action against operators who don’t meet our standards. But at the Commission we also know that to truly raise standards for all consumers we can deliver quicker progress if we can collaborate with the industry as opposed to merely punishing failings. The Industry Challenges, that the Commission announced just over two years ago, delivered improvements for consumers on:

  • the treatment of High Value Customers or ‘VIPs’
  • the design of online games and products
  • the use of Ad-Tech to protect children, young people and people who may be vulnerable.

And all of those improvements started from a call for collaboration. This is the relationship we want with industry in the pursuit of ever fairer and safer gambling. We want to get to that, we want to get to a place where the level of harm caused by gambling is reducing, helped by a constructive and collaborative relationship with industry. And from the meetings Andrew and Marcus have had so far with operators, we know operators want that too. But if we want a grown-up relationship, we need to start from shared facts.

First, whether we take a view that this is good or not, gambling is normal. Some will attack that statement I know and have done previously, but that doesn’t change the situation. Over 40% of the population gambled in the last four weeks. That’s tens of millions, buying a lottery ticket, playing in AGCs, going to the bingo and all the many other ways people gamble.

But another fact we shouldn’t shy away from is that gambling – like other businesses – exists to make a profit, taking money from its customers. An interesting statistic you might not have heard before, at over £14 billion, gambling in Great Britain is the size of British agriculture. £450 per second was lost by people gambling in Great Britain in 2019/20. For millions this is the cost of having a good time.

But the third fact we must maintain a clear-eyed focus on is that for hundreds of thousands of people the cost is problem gambling. It is harm.

People suffering from financial, mental and physical harm because of either their own gambling or that of their loved ones or friends. It’s real, life-changing and can happen to anyone.

Now although recent numbers that the Commission have released suggest that the top line measures of harm are coming down, this is not a time for complacency. While we are currently working to better improve our stats on gambling participation and harms across Great Britain, statistics we published last month show:

  • 0.3% of the population, compared to 0.6% in year to September 2020 are now suffering from problem gambling
  • the moderate risk rate has also decreased significantly to 0.7% this September compared to 1.2% in year to September 2020.

We cautiously welcome these numbers but it’s important to remember that these are a churning, changing group of people as well. There is nothing static about who is suffering harm. It’s also worth noting that Public Health England’s report estimated that the annual economic burden of harmful gambling is approximately £1.27 billion.

So gambling is normal, but harm must not be. We will continue to work to drive the levels of harm down. And unfortunately, there are still far too many operators not abiding by our rules. That is not acceptable. We want a constructive relationship with industry. But it must be on the basis of compliance. For all the good efforts made, including by people in this room today, we still see too many instances of things that everyone agrees are failings and breaches we should not see. These failings are not historic – they are happening now and they are causing harm.

I said earlier that the Commission is more focussed than ever before on our remit to make gambling fairer, safer and crime free and you will see that in our priorities as we go into 2022.

But first I want to take a moment to look to the Gambling Act Review. As you all know, the Gambling Commission welcomed the launch of the Review last December and I know many of you did as well. Our job is to make gambling safer and the Review creates an opportunity to build on the progress we have made to protect players and the public. As the statutory adviser to the Secretary of State we look forward to contributing our advice to help with the government’s Review and we will continue our close working relationship with DCMS as the Review proceeds.

Recent comments from the Minister and Permanent Secretary suggest that the White Paper for the Review is getting closer and we look forward to the debates it will bring. But we are clear we will continue to work at pace to take action to protect consumers while the Review of the Gambling Act is underway.

In other parts of the gambling industry this means we continue to work on customer interaction. It also means, following the publication by the ICO earlier this Autumn, we continue to pursue a Single Customer View, for online operators to improve the sharing of data to protect customers suffering or at risk of harm – whilst making sure that people’s data is kept secure.

Whilst we want to improve operators use of data we are also working hard on improving our own data as well. We are clear that, in order to be evidence based in our approach, we will increasingly need access to robust, comprehensive data. Further investment will be essential for the Commission to both realise the potential and manage the risks that come from regulating an industry where technology is changing all the time. However, all the investment in the world will not deliver a more effective Gambling Commission if the data we receive from operators is lacking.

On the one hand this means we have already taken steps to develop and trial a new methodology for how we collect participation and prevalence statistics, including the measurement of harms, with our partners at NatCen Social Research and the University of Glasgow. On the other, it means 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.

But what about specifically in your sector though? Well on the High Street, at the seaside and on the game machines in pubs and clubs up and down the country – there are some key things that the Gambling Commission are focussed on that, in the spirit of collaboration we want to build, we would like to work with you on now.

The first one is age verification. This hasn’t gone away. The Commission welcomes the efforts that many of you are making in this area and have done already and we appreciate Bacta continuing to support operators with sessions on how to be compliant, such as at the successful Social Responsibility Exchange earlier this month. But it’s important to remember good age verification policy is not about passing tests, it’s about protecting your customers every day. Age verification of course starts at the door and many of your premises are age restricted. And even if some of your machines are exempt, you should still be applying rigorous standards throughout your business.

That said, I would like to also thank Bacta and all of you for voluntarily raising the age limit for players on Category D cash fruit machines found in your seaside arcades and family entertainment centres to 18. We also welcome steps by the machines sector to think about solutions for age verification in the pub sector. Our own work with local authorities shows there is far more that needs to be done in this area and the Commission looks forward to your next steps.

We are also working with Bacta and many of you on a new code for game design on machines. As was the case with the Industry Challenges I mentioned earlier, due to its basis in collaboration, we have high hopes for this work and expect quicker progress as a result of the collaboration in action. Sometimes of course moving at pace means the journey to where you want to go can become a little bumpy and disagreements on choosing the right path are normal but again, we welcome this work and look forward to more progress soon.

Finally, I want to touch on cashless wallet apps, such as the Game Payment Technology app which Bacta has co-developed. Consumers can download these to their phones to pay for their machine play digitally, and we understand they are being rolled out on more machines across the sector. It’s vitally important to focus on the consumer experience and tech plays a big part in that. Given cashless use has also been accelerated by the pandemic, this is an important area for innovation and these solutions can be a big step forward for safer gambling. For example, this technology provides a format where players can set limits on their spend and keep track of their machine spend over time. So we want to hear from any operator trialling them or using them on how it’s going.

The end of 2021 sees the gambling industry in Great Britain and the Gambling Commission in a very different place to where we were two years ago. But despite all the problems and hardships, we have made progress. Whilst we all hope the next two years are less challenging than the last, they will no doubt still have their moments. But the message I want you to take away today is a simple one. Whatever else changes, the work to make gambling in Great Britain fairer, safer and crime free continues. We are more focussed than ever on our core purpose and our desire to collaborate with all of you who share the same ambition continues. The evidence suggests that we are on the right track. So let’s keep on going together.

Sarah Gardner’s above speech:

  • touches on the subject of steps taken by the Commission to develop and trial a new methodology for how it collects participation and prevalence statistics, including the measurement of harms and
  • follows on one day after the Gambling Commission published on its website a blog by Ben Haden, its Director of Research and Statistics, in which (to quote the Commission) he “reflects on some thought-provoking engagement at the start of the pilot phase for our new approach to collecting statistics on gambling participation and those who may experience difficulties with their gambling”.

We have previously reported on:

Ben Haden’s blog reads as follows:

As we said during the consultation process we are taking a new approach to how we collect our data. We are looking to modernise the questionnaire, increase frequency and flexibility so we can understand and respond to changes better and faster. ,It is all about continuing to improve the statistics we rely on to make decisions and demonstrate our impact.

It’s a significant moment moving on from thinking ‘what we should do?’ to positive steps to make the change.

Moving forward with the participation and prevalence pilot

Our first step with the pilot is to check how our new methodology will impact results compared to previous approaches. We won’t be changing the questions straight away. But it’s critical that we engage now on these points so that when we start the experimental phase in 2022 we have a clear set of improved questions to test.

I’m really pleased to be working with the NatCen consortium -they bring a great mix of expertise to add to the talented team already working on it here at the Commission. That said we recognise we won’t have all the good ideas, the right experience or the varied perspectives that will help us with the tricky challenges and the difficult trade-offs that we have ahead to get to an accessible, expansive questionnaire (that isn’t too long!)

We’ll continue to engage widely

To that end we intend to engage widely and have kicked off with a series of workshops which we ran with academics and policy colleagues, people with lived experience and representatives from industry. We’d also welcome your perspective and NatCen have launched a survey (opens in new tab) where you can provide it.

We’ll report fully on the workshops once we’ve also had input from the survey but the team were really buoyed by the positive engagement and the value it’s brought.

There was a common appreciation at each workshop of the balancing act we need to strike with the questionnaire – seeing where it could help answer some questions and where we need to recognise that it would be better to get information from different sources.

Among the many other helpful contributions, questions were raised about how we represent products with complex play styles correctly, such as in-play; how we capture respondent feelings about their play – positive and negative; and how we ensure the questions are as relevant for everyone.

Have your say!

We will be carrying on with our engagement through the process and it you’d like to get involved do provide some feedback through our survey – no one has all the answers but I’m sure you’ll have something that someone else hasn’t thought of.

The closing date for the survey (opens in new tab) is 6 December. Please note this survey is hosted by NatCen, the link will take you to NatCen’s survey platform.

You can find out more about our research work by visiting our Statistics and Research Hub.