The UK Government published “High stakes: gambling reform for the digital age” in April 2023. Here is a beat-by-beat, chapter-by-chapter guide to the policy document.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) launched a review of gambling laws in December 2020, “to look at whether [the] regulatory framework is effective and whether further protections are needed”. The gambling review ran from 8 December 2020 to 31 March 2021, and the government pledged that one of the outcomes of this would be a White Paper outlining proposals for future legislation and providing a basis for consultation with stakeholders. This was published on 27 April 2023, after many months of delays. In the White Paper, the government seeks to strike a balance between “protecting people from the potentially life-ruining effects of gambling-related harm” and “respecting the freedom of adults to engage in a legitimate leisure activity”.

Ministerial foreword

Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Lucy Frazer, introduces the White Paper, reflecting on how dramatically the gambling landscape has changed since the last major piece of gambling legislation was introduced in the UK 18 years ago (the Gambling Act 2005). She talks about the changes in technology that have facilitated more readily available online gambling, and the need to modernise the rules around land-based gambling, which seemed sensible nearly two decades ago but now look out of date.

She indicates that the government is alert to the harms that some people experience from gambling but is against restrictions that would inhibit people from spending their money as they wish or would hamper the development of an industry that contributes to the economy through providing employment and paying taxes.

“At the heart of our Review is making sure that we have the balance right between consumer freedoms and choice on the one hand, and protection from harm on the other.”

Finally, she shares an ambition for Great Britain to be seen as a “world leader in the oversight of gambling”.

Chapter one: Online protections

The White Paper distinguishes between ‘online gambling’ and ‘land-based gambling’. Online gambling includes online slots, blackjack, roulette, poker, and sports betting, and land-based gambling covers activities in casinos, licensed betting offices, licensed bingo premises, family entertainment centres, adult gaming centres, and on-course betting at racecourses.

Online gambling is front-and-centre in the White Paper for several key reasons:

  • In 2019, online gambling overtook land-based gambling for the first time, bringing in the largest share of ‘gross gambling yield’ (calculated by the amount of money gambled, minus winnings or prizes paid out).
  • Mobile devices have made online gambling an activity people can engage in 24/7, without supervision.
  • The last major piece of gambling legislation for the UK was 18 years ago. The internet looked very different then, and government ministers have not been shy about saying that policies need ‘significant reforms’ to fit the gambling landscape of today.

One of the government’s proposals for ‘reducing harm in a targeted way’, which the Gambling Commission will consult on, is introducing financial risk checks for moderate and high spending:

  • If people lose £125 within a month or £500 within a year, operators will check for indicators of ‘financial vulnerability’, such as County Court Judgments.
  • If people lose £1,000 within 24 hours or £2,000 within 90 days, operators will conduct a more detailed assessment of the customer’s financial position. If the customer is 18–24, the triggers for enhanced checks should be halved.

These checks aim to personalise risk assessment by “understanding [ing] if a customer’s gambling is likely to be harmful in the context of their financial circumstances”.

Online slots were a prominent form of gambling within this chapter. In a traditional slot machine, you put money in, spin the reel, and see what symbols are randomly generated; each character has a different value and certain combinations of symbols will trigger a payout. Online slots mimic this in a virtual environment. Unlike land-based gaming machines, however, online slots have no statutory limits on how much you can stake per ‘spin’. The government proposes introducing a limit of £2 to £15 per spin for everyone, and a £2 to £4 limit for 18–24-year-olds, who may be particularly vulnerable to harm from online slots. The government also suggests that it may be possible to prevent harm ‘at the source’ by changing the design of online slots and other games, for example, limiting the speed of play to reduce intensity.

Chapter two: Marketing and advertising

Although football has been a critical focus of press coverage about gambling in the past couple of years, not much was said about this subject in the White Paper. However, the government points out that advertising rules have recently changed “to prohibit prominent sportspeople, in particular Premier League footballers, from appearing in gambling adverts, on the grounds of their strong appeal to children”.

The government also anticipates that governing bodies across the sports sector will develop a cross-sport gambling sponsorship code, which could include ensuring that gambling advertising is not visible from dedicated family areas in stadiums and providing kits without gambling sponsorship logos for athletes under 18 and people with religious or health objections to wearing gambling sponsors. The government compares this voluntary social responsibility effort to the Portman Group code of practice for sponsorship by alcoholic drinks brands.

The White Paper says that the government will start a working group that includes the Gambling Commission, Department of Health and Social Care, and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to develop campaigns and public health messaging around gambling. At a later date, the Gambling Commission will consult on requirements for gambling operators to “engage with and apply the new messaging appropriately alongside product-based information in order to inform and empower consumers”.

Chapter three: Gambling Commission powers and resources

The Gambling Commission is the primary regulator of the gambling sector and was created in 2005 when the circumstances in which people gambled looked quite different.

The Gambling Commission has a broad range of powers enabling it to regulate the industry. But some changes are required to help it do this more effectively, for example:

  • The Gambling Commission will increase the amount of data it collects from gambling operators and the regularity with which it collects data in order to help to identify issues of non-compliance at an earlier stage.
  • The Gambling Commission will also allocate dedicated team members to some of the largest gambling companies to facilitate earlier intervention.
  • The government will review the licensing and permit fees collected and used by the Gambling Commission to ensure it has sufficient resources.
  • The government will consult on introducing a statutory levy, paid directly by operators to the Gambling Commission, to fund the research, education, and treatment of gambling harms.

Chapter four: Dispute resolution and consumer redress

The Gambling Commission and third-party dispute resolution providers receive roughly 2,000 complaints about gambling harm and social responsibility breaches yearly. The White Paper proposes introducing an independent body (or ombudsman), which would be responsible for adjudicating a complaint where the gambling operator has been unable to resolve the complaint satisfactorily.

Initially, this ombudsman would be set up on a non-statutory basis. But the White Paper states that if the government sees evidence that the ombudsman is not delivering expected protections for customers, it “will legislate to create a statutory ombudsman for the sector”.

The gambling sector currently has two dispute resolution providers, which are members of the Ombudsman Association and which are the most likely choices for the gambling ombudsman – these are the Independent Betting Adjudication Service (IBAS) and the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR).

In addition to the ombudsman providing a more consumer-friendly system for resolving disputes, the expectation is that an industry ombudsman would mean that there is a single body collecting data about disputes, which could share information about some of the trends in disputes with the Gambling Commission.

Chapter five: Children and young adults

The White Paper reports that problem gambling and gambling harms are more likely among men, people in deprived communities, people with poor health, poor wellbeing, and low life satisfaction, and people in the 16–24-year age category. In a chapter dedicated to children and young adults, the government addresses age limits, age verification, and protections for young people who can legally gamble but may be particularly vulnerable to harm.

The minimum legal age to participate in most forms of licensed gambling is 18. The main exceptions are football pools and (non-National Lottery) lottery products, which have a minimum age of 16, and Category D gaming machines (e.g. coin pushers, crane grabs, and fruit machines), which have no age limit.

The minimum age limit for the National Lottery was raised to 18 in 2021, and the White Paper indicates that stakeholders support increasing the minimum age of other lotteries to 18 too. The government found no substantive evidence that Category D gaming machines harm children, and conclude in the White Paper that banning all Category D machines would disproportionately affect small businesses reliant on this trade in some of the UK’s most deprived communities. The one exception is slot-style Category D games that pay out cash and mirror the mechanics of adult-only gaming machines. The government acknowledges that these could feasibly lead to children ‘chasing losses’, a behaviour associated with problem gambling and gambling harm. For cash-out, slot-style machines the White Paper proposes changing legislation to make the minimum age 18 years old.

Land-based gambling operators are required to operate a policy of ‘Think 21’ and to verify the age of customers who look under this age. Licensed betting offices, bingo premises, and casinos generally do very well with age verification based on test purchasing exercises. However, racecourses and alcohol-license premises do not. The White Paper says that the government will continue to monitor the industry’s performance on this issue. Meanwhile, the Gambling Commission will consult on introducing a ‘Think 25’ policy for all land-based licence holders.

Finally, the government wants to see targeted measures for young adults to protect them from gambling harms – for example, lower trigger points for enhanced spending checks and lower stake limits for online slots – but is not convinced by the idea of raising the minimum age for participation in gambling to above 18 years old. The government says 18 is “widely recognised as the age at which one becomes an adult, and gains full citizenship rights and responsibilities”.

Chapter six: Land-based gambling

The White Paper discusses ensuring an “equitable approach to regulating the online and the land-based industries”. The chapter on land-based gambling indicates that this will expand opportunities in casinos and other premises “in the light of the availability of remote gambling”. Earlier wisdom was that restrictions to the supply of gambling products (e.g. limiting the number of casinos and availability of gaming machines) would offer the best protection. Now, the government wants to ‘reset’ or ‘modernise’ regulations for land-based gambling, which, in practice, means changes such as loosening restrictions on the number of machines allowed on licensed premises and allowing casinos to offer sports betting alongside other activities.

by Natalie Davies

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