The UK government is preparing to announce the biggest shake-up of the gambling industry in nearly two decades on Thursday, outlining an array of curbs on smartphone bookmakers aimed at reducing problem gambling.
As part of the review of gambling legislation, which was launched in December 2020, the government will recommend imposing a statutory levy on gambling operators, forcing bigger companies to share 1 per cent of profits to fund public health initiatives. But the move will have to be consulted on again before it is implemented.
The government will also introduce stake limits on online casino games. Gamblers under the age of 25 will be limited to £2 bets and a £15 cap will be put on older gamblers.
Online gamblers could also face tighter financial affordability checks after another round of consultation. Any person losing more than £125 a day will face checks on whether they have declared bankruptcy or have any county court judgments against them. For gamblers with steeper losses of £1,000 or more a day, they will face open banking checks that assess their income.
But many of the reforms are less drastic than those featured in an earlier version of the review presented to Boris Johnson last year, seen by the Financial Times. The earlier iteration, for instance, suggested a £2-£5 stake limit on all gamblers. Moreover, most gambling companies already have a stake limit lower than the legal cap — Paddy Power owner Flutter has a £10 limit on all UK customers.
The white paper will usher in the first restrictions on the £10bn online gambling sector since the then-Labour government’s 2005 Gambling Act, which established the rules for the industry before the advent of smartphones. The review has been overseen by six gambling ministers and four culture secretaries, and its release delayed four times amid government turmoil and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Writing in the Times newspaper, culture secretary Lucy Frazer, who will announce the reforms in Parliament on Thursday, said the white paper will “redress the power imbalance between punters and operators”. She acknowledged that for some addicts gambling apps have become “a trapdoor to despair and isolation”.
As the gambling industry has ballooned in size in recent years, it has poured money into lobbying efforts targeted at British parliamentarians, largely funnelled through the Betting and Gaming Council, an industry body.
Dozens of MPs, from both the Conservative and Labour party, took a total of around £200,000 in hospitality and gifts from the industry between 2021 and 2022, according to the register of members’ financial interests.
Earlier this month, Tory MP Scott Benton had the whip removed after he was secretly recorded offering to provide reporters from the Times, who posed as gambling industry representatives, with an advance copy of the white paper and to put their questions to parliament.
Charles Ritchie, co-founder of the charity Gambling with Lives who lost his son to gambling-related suicide, told BBC Radio 4 the latest review had taken “an extraordinary amount of time” to come to fruition and he feared that there will be more delays as “so many of these measures are going to go out to a further phase of consultation”.
Ritchie added that he was concerned that reforms to gambling advertising rules were “incredibly weak”. Changes to advertising rules are not expected to feature in the white paper.
According to the Gambling Commission, about 0.3 per cent of British adults were problem gamblers at the end of 2021, but a survey by polling company YouGov put the figure at 2.8 per cent, or almost 1.4mn people.
Lord Foster of Bath, chair of peers for gambling reform, told the FT that instead of launching another round of consultations the government “should stop dithering and implement”. But Matt Zarb-Cousin, director of Clean Up Gambling said: “Once the ball is rolling on things like stake limits and affordability, it’s only going one way on the basis of the evidence.”