Chris Lees, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

Gambling Act review: A chance to make gambling safer by design

16 April 2021

No Twitter, no Netflix and hardly any of us were shopping online – that’s what the internet was like back in 2005. The changes we’ve seen in the availability and design of online services has been seismic – and the gambling industry has undoubtedly capitalised on this. And yet, the legislation that gambling regulation in the UK is based on hasn’t been updated since. Now, the government wants to make the Gambling Act fit for the digital age – but there’s a lot of catching up to do. 

In our response to the government’s review of the Gambling Act — which you can read here — we focus on how regulation could be updated to make gambling safer by design, and help people with mental health problems to avoid harm. We’ve built on the findings of our A safer bet report as well as the views of our Research Community to set out what needs to change – read on to find out more.

Creating a safer bet

In our response we set out evidence for why protections for online gamblers need to be reformed. While gambling can be an enjoyable activity, many people with mental health problems struggle to stay in control of their gambling, and problems with gambling can have a devastating impact on people’s finances, mental health and relationships. For example, we found that a quarter (24%) of online gamblers who have experienced a mental health problem agreed that online gambling had been bad for their mental health.

“The addiction to load money then use it to bet, is like a hit of cocaine. Wasted hundreds of pounds and missed payments. Very depressing.” Expert by experience

The way that online gambling games and sites are designed can drive these harms.  When combined with common symptoms of mental health problems, such as increased impulsivity, this can make it difficult to stay in control of gambling. Sites are designed to make it easy to deposit money, and games are often deliberately exciting, immersive, and designed to keep people playing. All of this can lead to people spending more than they can afford and feeling stressed and anxious. 

While online gambling companies are required to provide information and support to help people gamble safely, the onus is on the individual to recognise a problem and seek help. Gamblers are told, ‘when the fun stops, stop’ – but it can be very difficult to stop and get help before the problem gets out of hand. Avoiding a problem and low motivation are common experiences for people with mental health problems which can make stopping even harder.   

Protections for online gamblers also need to be updated because there is currently a significant difference between the protections for offline and online gambling. Stake limits exist for Fixed-Odds Betting Terminals in bookmakers but not on online games, leaving people vulnerable to gambling more than they can afford. We believe that any harms that are prevented offline should also be stopped online.

“You shouldn’t be able to bet £500 on a roulette spin, it’s ridiculous… the local bookies are limited to £2 and that’s bad enough as it is.” Expert by experience

We have called on the government to introduce greater limits to online game design and gambling sites. This should include placing default limits on stakes, on spending over a certain time period, on deposits, and on time spent gambling. Setting default limits would directly reduce harm and also disrupt people with mental health problems who are struggling to control online gambling before problems escalate further.

How the Gambling Commission can reduce harm online

In recent years the gambling regulator, the Gambling Commission, has come under increased scrutiny, with several public bodies questioning whether it has enough powers to enact change or enough evidence on gambling-related harm. The Gambling Commission has been slow to adapt to changes in the sector, especially the growth of online gambling, and to act where there is evidence of harm. The recent case of Football Index is a perfect example. 

The Gambling Commission is not alone here. Many regulators are having to deal with a changing market, where more and more services are being provided online. Our recent report, Safety Net, looked at how regulators can best adapt to this change. We called on the government to give the Gambling Commission more flexible funding and powers to allow it to react and introduce new regulation to prevent harm. We also called on the Gambling Commission to focus more on spotting new harms and to be more proactive than cautious in its approach.

Compensating people who are mistreated

It’s clear that many people are experiencing a range of harms due to gambling, that the design of sites is having an impact, and current protections need to be reformed. The current system for people to get compensation when they are mistreated by a gambling company is not working. We think it is essential that there should be a new public body or ‘ombudsman’. This body should look at disputes between gambling companies and their customers, and require companies to pay compensation when they don’t do enough to protect the customers from harm.

“Having been so out of control, I would want somebody to step in. I wish somebody had with me years ago.” Expert by experience

This ‘ombudsman’ should be independent from the gambling industry, it shouldn’t just compensate for financial harms and it should be considerate of a person’s circumstances. We also think it’s essential that it should be designed with people with mental health problems in mind, who might find it harder to get the right help and support.

We are keen to work with the government and the Gambling Commission to ensure that the harms we have identified are reduced. You can read our response to the call for evidence, here.