Craig Whittaker is Member of Parliament for Calder Valley.
We are potentially weeks away from a new Gambling White Paper which promises to overhaul current legislation, making it fit for the digital age.
It cannot come soon enough. Further delay and the uncertainty that brings only serves to threaten investment, jobs and player safety, while bolstering a growing black market in gambling.
Central to this issue is the matter of so-called affordability checks, a background test to prevent customers betting beyond their means.
Currently, there is no such thing as a frictionless affordability check. In this void, the default position for many operators, not wishing to fall foul of the regulator, is to force customers to prove they can play by requesting they produce private financial documents like pay slips.
As a result, frustrated punters are either choosing not to bet – or more worryingly – considering the unsafe, unregulated gambling black market.
These illicit online sites are having a field day, providing unlicensed gambling within a few clicks of a mouse. According to the most recent published data the number of British punters using these shadowy services has more than doubled in just two years, from 220,000 users to 460,000, and the amount staked is now in the billions of pounds.
Policing access to these sites is an impossible job. As soon as one site is shut down, it pops up again under a different name. Not only are they readily available, they play by different rules to the regulated betting and gaming sector in the UK.
In stark contrast to licensed operators, they target youngsters, allow punters to bet with credit cards, make no interventions if punters are displaying problem play, don’t offer any safer gambling tools like timeouts or deposit limits, do not support sport, and do not pay a penny in tax.
And punter’s redress if they fall foul of these illegal sites? Nothing, there is no lever of power the Gambling Commission can exert upon them.
The industry know more can be done to protect those vulnerable to harm and more financial checks, targeted on those that are vulnerable or at risk, is certainly the answer. No one wants to see customers betting money they can’t afford to lose. But those checks should not force punters to the black market.
Other nations have made this crucial error; by assuming the high street is the only place punters will bet, they have drafted in draconian rules without considering the unintentional impacts.
For example, Norway introduced a state monopoly for all gambling, coupled with restrictions on stakes and advertising, while introducing strict affordability checks. It resulted in a black market that now accounts for over 66 per cent of all money staked.
In France, where online casino games are a state monopoly, black market gaming accounts for 57 per cent of all money staked. In Italy, where betting and gaming advertising is completely banned, the black market accounts for 23 per cent of money staked.
And in Sweden a national survey found 38 per cent of consumers who had chosen to self-exclude from legally licensed operators, said they were still able to bet online with unlicensed operators – circumventing any player protection measures.
Anti-gambling campaigners looking to overhaul regulation often fail to see this threat. The measures they want to see in the UK like advertising curbs, bans on promotions, and health warnings on betting products, don’t achieve their stated aim – to drive down problem gambling.
In addition to these measures, they want Government to launch a new tax to fund Research, Education, and Treatment (RET) to tackle gambling harm, despite an extra £100m being voluntarily donated by the nations’ biggest betting firms to support RET.
The idea that we should be trying to outflank Labour via state intervention with a new tax is deeply un-Conservative. A statutory levy would not raise any addition funds for RET work, but it would dismantle a voluntarily-funded charitable sector that has existed for over two decades and is currently helping to keep problem gambling rates low at 0.3 per cent of British adults.
The best way to protect the small proportion who struggle is to guarantee a mature, well-regulated sector, not enforce measures which push punters to illicit corners of the internet. If punters are to bet, they should do so with licensed operators: ones that have standards, that abide by regulations, and are sanctioned accordingly if they breach those regulations.
These murky black market sites and their bosses are waiting in the wings, the White Paper must be balanced, or it risks bolstering their foothold in the UK.