Chris Lees, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

Will upcoming guidance from the Gambling Commission be enough to protect online gamblers from harm?

16 August 2022

No-one can say the last few months in politics have been quiet, but with the Conservative party leadership elections nearly over, there is still uncertainty over some key government plans. One of these is the upcoming Gambling Act White Paper which is meant to update the laws around gambling in the UK. There has been lots of speculation over what will or won’t be included in the White Paper and whether the new Prime Minister will decide to take a different route to regulating gambling. 

As we highlighted in our A safer bet report, the need for change is clear. Gambling can be an enjoyable activity for many, but for some of us it can lead to significant harm to our finances and mental health. While there are still question marks over the White Paper, new rules and guidance for online gambling firms come into force next month. Introduced by the Gambling Commission (who regulates the gambling industry) the new rules and guidance are welcome and will help reduce gambling-related harm, but they need to be followed up by strong action from the government.

Spotting harm

One of the key requirements being introduced next month is for online gambling companies to monitor customer activity to spot where there is harm occurring, or where there is the potential for harm. Crucially this should be done from the moment the account is opened. It’s good to see that the Gambling Commission has included a range of examples for the different indicators that gambling companies should look out for. This includes the time spent gambling, as well as the amount spent. One of the things that stood out from our research was that it can be very easy to lose track of time when gambling online – often due to the way that sites and games are designed – and so people can be unaware of how long or how much they have gambled. 

“I don’t feel like I am in real life somehow. I am just addicted to winning or just playing.” Expert by experience

There is also a requirement for gambling companies to consider factors that make someone more vulnerable to harm and act when they are aware that someone is vulnerable. It is welcome to see our research included within the guidance to highlight the connection between mental health problems and gambling, and the harm that people can experience. We found that one in three (32%) Research Community respondents had bet more than they could afford and one in four (24%) had experienced financial problems as a result of gambling online.

“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

Timely action

The new rules also require gambling companies to take timely action when they have identified harm and tailor the response based on the level of harm. This could mean they take stronger action quicker if required, rather than gradually increasing the strength of the intervention. It is encouraging to see the Gambling Commission say companies should take automated action for significant levels of harm, for example blocking gambling or imposing a maximum deposit limit, until further action can be taken. When we surveyed Research Community members who gamble online, respondents often wanted a gambling company to take immediate strong action in a range of scenarios, like gambling more than normal.

“I would want them to have some sort of welfare triage system to direct me to appropriate help and support, and for them to immediately freeze my account in the meantime.” Expert by experience

Whatever intervention is needed to match the level of harm, it’s really important that gambling companies get this right and frame any action as an offer of support rather than a judgement of behaviour. The Gambling Commission has included information in its guidance on how companies can do this. 

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

The future of gambling regulation

The new requirements and guidance are very welcome and we’re pleased to see the Gambling Commission recognise our research. Moving forward, the Gambling Commission will be consulting on specific areas of harm such as unaffordable binge gambling. However, there are still some question marks over the future of gambling regulation as we wait to hear what the new Prime Minister will do with the Gambling Act White Paper. We hope that they seize the opportunity to build on the guidance and make online gambling safer by design, without the risk of significant harm that many of us experience today.