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21 November 2013

New online gambling rules – all carrot and no stick

New online gambling rules – all carrot and no stick

Parliament are currently considering the Gambling (licensing and advertising) Bill, which will bring in a new regime to govern online gambling websites, and in the government's intentions provide stronger protection for players in Great Britain who are using their products.

At present only those sites which have physical equipment in Great Britain require a license from the Gambling Commission. This means that many sites are based overseas in other territories and regulated under different systems. For the player this makes very little difference, it is not easy to tell where a site is based and who is regulating the gambling activity when accessed online.

Advertising to British customers is restricted to those sites located in the Britain, Gibraltar, the European Economic Area or a small additional number of countries who are on the 'white list'. This is a recognition by the Gambling Commission that the regulation of these sites provides a sufficient level of protection.

The current plans change this, making regulation dependent not on where equipment is physically placed, but on who is accessing the products. The new plans will require any online gambling operators who wish to sell to UK customers to register with the Gambling Commission. The primary way of encouraging this registration is by restricting advertising to those companies who are regulated, this is the carrot, they receive the opportunity to advertise to British customers.

In principle this is a good idea, instead of contracting out regulation to a wide variety of regimes this brings it all together and ensures a greater level of consistency. However, this consistency must be strong, and the current plans lack the teeth to force gambling companies to comply and ensure thorough protection for players.

The level of problem gambling for players using online slot machines is 9.1 per cent, compared to 1.1 per cent for all who have gambled in the last year. There is an urgent need for better protection of players and the government have so far refused to introduce measures such as a restriction on the use of credit cards which would help stop players spending money they do not have.

As the bill was considered in committee evidence was given from Alliance member organisations CARE and the Salvation Army, along with Quaker Action on Alcohol and Drugs and Professor Jim Orford, they were united in their demands for stronger sanctions and protection. The committee have suggested introducing a kite mark to clearly identify sites which are regulated by the Gambling Commission.

Dr Dan Boucher of CARE responded to the committee that a kite mark "would be a good thing, but we should not be tempted to think that a kite mark was an excuse for not including proper enforcement provisions in the Bill."

Gareth Wallace from the Salvation Army added: "There should be larger, more prominent links to GambleAware to improve people's knowledge of the treatment provided."

At present television advertising is governed by a voluntary code agreed by the industry which restricts advertising of gambling products until after the watershed, 9pm, with a rather large exception around sporting events. Therefore there are very many adverts which are broadcast throughout the day and viewed by young people which suggest gambling is an important part of enjoying sport. During the committee proceedings a proposal was made to introduce a statutory watershed which would tighten regulation and prevent young and vulnerable people becoming normalised to gambling activity. Helen Grant, the government minister responsible for the bill, rejected this suggestion.

The Bill will return to the House of Commons in the near future for its third reading before being considered in the House of Lords. While the Bill makes valuable steps towards more coordinated regulation of online gambling, at present it suffers from offering companies greater opportunities through advertising but without the sanctions necessary to ensure compliance.

Daniel Webster, advocacy programme manager, Evangelical Alliance.