December saw the long-awaited commencement of the Government’s review of the Gambling Act – the widest-ranging review of gambling legislation in Britain in two decades. The review will cover a wide range of questions regarding the extent to which betting and games of chance should be permitted and under what circumstances.
The announcement of the review followed the launch in December of the Gambling Commission’s review of remote interactions guidance – including proposals to require anyone depositing £100 or more a month to submit bank statements or tax returns in order to demonstrate affordability.
These consultations round off a tempestuous year for the licensed gambling industry – a period in which the land-based bricks and mortar casinos have suffered intensely while online casinos have thrived.
- The British Government has set out a once-in-a-generation review of gambling legislation. Its aim is to ensure a balance between consumer freedom and consumer protection, and ensure that legislation is ‘fit for the digital age’.
- Britain’s land-based casinos are hoping that the review will lead to the conclusion of the modernisation pilot that commenced almost a decade-and-a-half ago.
- Land-based casinos endured a devastating 2020 as a consequence of Government policies to contain the spread of Covid.
- Both the Gambling Commission and the DCMS are now exploring the desirability of imposing ‘affordability checks’ on gambling consumers.
- Remote gambling participation declined in the year with growth in online gaming only partially offsetting declines in online sports betting.
Government commences ‘once-in-a-generation’ review of gambling laws
After 12 months of delay and speculation the Government, at last, launched its review of the Gambling Act 2005 this month. The once in a generation review of Britain’s gambling laws will cover a wide range of topics, with the stated ambition of ensuring that they remain ‘fit for the digital age’. Scrutiny is weighted towards remote gambling, a sector in relative infancy at the time of the previous review, the Gambling Review Body of 2000 to 2001. The industry’s freedom to advertise its services to consumers is also under examination as are the subjects of consumer redress and the future of the Gambling Commission.
Lockdown takes a heavy toll on Britain’s casinos
Britain’s casinos will be hopeful that the DCMS review of gambling legislation does bring news after a torrid year for the sector. Casinos were shuttered from 21st March as part of the general lockdown of leisure and hospitality businesses sanctioned by the Government’s Covid response. Yet while betting shops were permitted to reopen in May and bingo clubs and arcades followed in June, casinos were delayed until 15th August when they were permitted to open their doors again subject to a variety of social distancing measures and capacity restrictions. On 24th September a 10pm curfew was introduced and this had a devastating impact on casinos which generate a majority of their revenue after that time of night. On 5th November, casinos closed again, reopening for a fortnight on 2nd December before shutting again on 17th December. Of the 286 days between lockdown commencing and the end of 2020, casinos were able to trade for just 97 days – all under heavy restrictions.
Casinos hope for conclusion of long-running modernisation experiment
While the Gambling Act review, on balance, presages greater restrictions there is the prospect of positive legislative modernisation for land-based gambling operators. In particular, the Government has determined to conclude the experiment of casino modernisation that commenced in 2007 with the allocation of 16 new style casino licences across the country – and for which formal review was originally scheduled for 2013. Those operators with ‘legacy’ casino licences granted under the auspices of the old 1968 Betting & Gaming Act are expected to make the case for regulatory harmonisation with casinos operating under ‘Small’ or ‘Large’ 2005 Act licences.
Regulator plans spending caps for online gambling
The Government review follows hard on the heels of the Gambling Commission’s consultation and call for evidence on remote gambling interactions, which was launched last month. The regulator has set out plans to introduce spending caps for online gamblers – with consumers wishing to exceed the state limit (which may be set as low as £100 in a month) being required to submit bank statements or tax returns in order to demonstrate that their gambling is affordable. Views are also sought on the extent to which licensees should be required to identify whether customers are in any way ‘vulnerable’ – an ill-defined term that the Commission sees as encompassing anyone with poor physical or mental health; people with poor numeracy skills or dyslexia; people who have been bereaved; divorced or who have lost a job; or people with limited experience of gambling. Although the proposals are aimed at the remote gambling sector, the regulator has hinted that similar requirements may in time be brought in for operators of licensed gambling venues, such as casinos, betting shops and bingo clubs.
The DCMS call for evidence on the Gambling Act is open for submissions until 31st March 2021; while the Gambling Commission consultation on remote interactions closes in January. The Advertising Standards Authority is also consulting on changes to the advertising code of conduct for gambling.
Mixed fortunes for remote gambling
Remote betting was hit by the loss of sporting fixtures due to lockdown and this was only partially offset by an increase in revenues for online casino, bingo and poker sites. Overall, 2020 saw a decline in both the number of people participating in remote gambling and the amount of money spent on the activity. While lockdown restrictions increased concern about mental health and vulnerability, studies showed that rates of ‘problem gambling’ appeared to reduce in 2020.