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Online Gambling Protection

Volume 656: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered online gambling protection.

I am very conscious that today there are distractions elsewhere in the House. This debate on online gambling was never going to pull hundreds of Members away from the business of how, when and indeed if we are to leave the European Union. However, that was never the point of it. Today is a chance to update the record on where we are on online gambling, to recognise the damage being done in some very sad cases, where lives have been ruined, and to offer thoughts and float ideas on what is ahead, as well as behind us, and on the trends and direction of what is happening.

Given that the statistics show that 430,000 adults have a serious gambling issue, with 2 million more in danger of addiction and 55,000 children between the age of 11 and 14 already addicted, and with all those figures rising fast, it must be clear to us all that, yes, Houston, we absolutely have a problem. At a time when many in the country believe that Parliament and the Government are all-consumed by Brexit, it is even more important to show that that is not so. We can, and must, address an issue that will become one of the great challenges of our generation: how do we deal with online gambling?

There was a time when I thought that online gambling was a modest offshoot of the traditional bookies on the side of Cheltenham race course and Gloucestershire point-to-points. I thought they were flutters by computer for the technically savvy, but it is not so. In fact, online gambling has a higher percentage of problem and at-risk gamblers than any other type. When people log on to online gambling, they meet a plethora of sporting opportunities on which to gamble. How many throw-ins will there be in the first 15 minutes of an under-15 Azerbaijani football game? Nothing is too obscure to have odds attached to it. Not a single sport—I did not check Mongolian archery, but I am sure that someone, somewhere can offer odds—is without a gambling moment. With some 3,000 websites competing, there are plenty of options.

The size of the sector and its business is enormous, with annual industry gross profits of some £14 billion and tax receipts of £3 billion, 100,000 employees and some £200 million of advertising revenues. Is it, therefore, a huge UK success story? Yes, but even more no, because the dark side is horrific and growing. When some of those brave enough to talk about what has happened in their family do so, we really have to wonder whether we are doing enough to prevent addiction and disaster. I will give just one example: Martin Jones in Swindon, who talked to me this morning, explaining the story of his son, Josh, who eventually committed suicide in 2015 after years of fighting addiction. It is a truly tragic story, and there can be no doubt that the system is failing individuals and therefore us all.

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. Is it not the case that online gambling has a predominant effect on the young, and it is the young that we need to protect in this situation?

I do not think it is exclusively an issue for the young, as the figures show, but what is true is that the figures for young gamblers are rising faster than for any others. If we are to address the problem, my hon. Friend is right that we need to tackle the youth issue.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a very fine line between online gambling and online gaming? Some games require a degree of gambling. I draw his attention to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s present investigation into the problems of addiction caused by online gaming, and the negative, in some cases devastating, effect that it can have on families.

My hon. Friend is right. I welcome the report that the Committee is working on; it may show higher correlations between addiction to gaming and gambling than we previously knew, which would be extremely valuable.

What we are hearing is that Josh’s case is not a one-off; hundreds commit suicide every year as a result of gambling. We do not know exactly how many—it is somewhere between 250 and 650 a year. That is a margin of error about life and death that would be completely unacceptable in any other sector. The implication that we just do not know whether 400 people committed suicide as a result of a gambling addiction or for other reasons is truly shocking. Were it, say, the construction sector or the armed forces, there would be a public inquiry about dereliction of duty.

The first thing that we have to do is radically to improve our knowledge of the facts, and to improve the research and data that is collected. The Gambling Commission, the regulator, is working on a series of partnerships with the police, the NHS, GPs and so on to improve the situation. I am sure that the Minister, who I know is very concerned about this matter, will show support for all that work. However, serious money is needed to do it effectively, and the current £8 million a year or so given by the industry as a percentage of turnover is, given their £14 billion of profit, frankly peanuts. No wonder we know so little.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Two or three really important facts are only just becoming known. One is that the big gambling companies give inducements to those who have the highest level of losses because those people make them their profits. I understand that they also do their level best eventually to get rid of those who are not in debt, and do not lose so much. They do not want them on their sites; they want those who lose, whom they can condition to it.

On the all-party parliamentary group, we have also discovered that gagging orders are being put in place to stop employees talking about what is going on. Companies are not supposed to give inducements to people who are already addicted, but it happens. Does my hon. Friend accept that that is a real problem?

My right hon. Friend, who has done a lot of work on this subject, not least through the Centre for Social Justice, is right to highlight some shocking practices that have undoubtedly happened. In my own constituency, a friend of mine who is a taxi driver ran up £650,000 of debt with one gambling firm. I hope that all taxi drivers in Gloucester are well remunerated, but frankly none of them can afford such vast amounts of money. Part of it came from inducements—indeed, there was a lot of wining and dining of such a profitable customer. That is one of the intrinsic slight conflicts of interest within the sector. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for mentioning that.

My first call today is for a serious contribution by the industry to fund vastly improved and independent research. Campaigners have been calling for it, the gambling review supported it and the industry expects it; William Hill has even called for it. I therefore ask the Minister when we can expect to see legislation in the shape of a statutory instrument to implement a levy of 1% of company gross profits as soon as possible.

It is not just research that will help us to prevent the rapid growth of what is fast becoming a social epidemic. As my hon. Friends have said, action is needed to protect the young. That means action on the astonishing amount of online gambling advertising on sports programmes. It is rampant. Fathers watching football or rugby at home and having a flutter with an accumulator on Raheem Sterling scoring a hat trick for Man City are unwittingly starting their children off with the idea that gambling is normal. We need to keep gambling adverts off TV sports programmes.

The difference between gambling and gaming has already been mentioned. Gambling companies seem to be using loot boxes as a pernicious practice to target children who are gaming and get them into the habit of gambling. It normalises the process, effectively grooming children as their next market. We could legislate to close that practice down, as Belgium, the Isle of Man and other places have done.

The hon. Gentleman makes good points. I believe that he is working closely on the issue with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) in the all-party group. As he points out, such practices are rampant all over the country.

Three big companies—bet365, William Hill and Ladbrokes—have already agreed in principle to a whistle-to-whistle ban during live sports before the watershed, and after it for games that start before 9 pm. That is encouraging, but I believe that we must go further. My second proposal is therefore to ban all gambling advertising during live sport as soon as possible. Perhaps the Minister will confirm the point, but I do not believe that such a ban would need legislation, so I make it an ask of the regulator. I hope that the Gambling Commission’s report, which is due at the end of the month, will include a clear recommendation for such a ban. It could then be implemented by the Advertising Standards Authority, perhaps with some encouragement from the Department.

I would like to go further still. I remember watching many John Player Sunday league games and Benson and Hedges knockout matches when I was a boy cricketer. It never occurred to me at the time that there was something odd about tobacco companies sponsoring sports games while encouraging spectators to smoke, but we later learned the high risk of smokers severely damaging their lives through lung cancer and creating a huge burden for the NHS. Gradually, we all came to understand that tobacco sponsorship of sports was odd and—more importantly—unacceptable, and it was banned in 2002.

The analogy is never identical, but it is relevant. Gambling is no more suitable a partner to sport than smoking, so my question to the House is how long the same journey will take us with gambling. How long will it be before we ban gambling advertising in sports altogether? If the research on the levy shows what I hope it will show, we have a real opportunity to do something about the problem. Thousands of lives are at risk, and we should move fast. I would like to see real consideration given, depending on the evidence, to banning gambling companies from sponsoring sports altogether.

That brings me to other measures to protect vulnerable gamblers—those who are most prone to addiction and least likely to be able to afford it. Like users of fixed-odds betting terminals, many online gamblers simply cannot afford their losses, as colleagues have said. Can we not build on Monzo and Barclaycard’s encouraging start of allowing gamblers to put blocks on their debit cards against payments to gambling companies? The regulator is working well on the issue with financial industry bodies and financial services, and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute is also playing a part. I encourage those organisations and the Minister to take the policy forward and get all banks to offer it as soon as possible.

Gamblers know that self-exclusion can be got round easily enough—in many cases, a slightly different name will suffice, as one constituent showed me—and once a company has someone’s mobile number or email address, it pumps special offers at them day and night. My next ask is therefore that the Government endorse the Gambling Commission’s initiative to persuade banks and other credit card issuers to disallow gamblers from using their credit cards altogether. It has been put to me that banks would never directly loan money to a gambler, so why do they do so indirectly?

Using blocking technologies such as Gamban can also help. It could be made mandatory for all gambling companies to have such systems, approved by the commission and paid for by the companies themselves. Ultimately, however, I sense that it will be artificial intelligence that provides the real breakthrough in technology—through facial recognition, for example—that enables the sector and companies to block most efficiently and the regulator to do its protection work even more effectively.

That work needs to be part of a strategy that includes the NHS implementing as soon as possible the five pages on gambling in its 10-year review—an important start—and creating more gambling clinics. London and soon Leeds is a start, but it will not be enough on its own.

I hope that all hon. Members agree that there is much to do. I believe that the Gambling Commission’s report will be important; I encourage the Minister to give an oral statement as soon as the report is released, to highlight its recommendations and give the House a chance to debate the issues in more detail. In the meantime, I know that the Government are concerned about the issue and the Minister is committed to it, so I urge them to start the ball rolling as soon as possible with a statutory instrument to introduce a new 1% levy to fund research to give us the facts that we need to make the difficult decisions. I also urge them to move fast on the review’s recommendations, which I hope will include much of what I have suggested today.

Ultimately, online gambling protection is about saving lives. If we can do things that achieve that, our time in this House will have been well spent.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this important debate.

We have to look at this in the round. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise his concerns, on behalf of his constituents and more broadly. We have to balance that with the fact that millions of people enjoy gambling responsibly. A day at the races—Cheltenham is on at the moment, as we know—an evening at the bingo or a regular bet on the football each week can be enjoyable, but we must balance that against the need to protect the most vulnerable people from gambling-related harm, wherever they gamble.

Hon. Members will be aware that online gambling is an area that I care deeply about and that I have already discussed with my hon. Friend. We have also met the all-party parliamentary group for gambling-related harm, alongside the Secretary of State; my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) brings to the debate his expertise on the group’s work and ongoing concerns.

It is absolutely right that we focus on ensuring that the regulatory framework for online gambling is robust. I am aware of concerns about the need to keep pace with technological advances, so I was particularly interested in the facial recognition idea that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester mentioned. I assure hon. Members that the Department will act where there is evidence of harm and will always keep the issues under review.

The Gambling Act 2005 provides the Gambling Commission with strong powers to ensure that all forms of gambling, including online gambling, are crime-free, fair and open and that they focus on protecting children and vulnerable people. Any operator that sells to customers in Great Britain must be licensed by the Gambling Commission and must comply with strict regulatory requirements. The commission has shown, rightly, that it will act where those rules are broken. For example, action against online casino operators resulted in penalty packages of almost £14 million last year.

The data held by online operators allows them to identify vulnerable customers and those at risk of harm. I note with caution the concerns raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green about companies looking for losers and focusing on gambling losses. I will absolutely take those concerns away and look at them.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned gagging orders. The Gambling Commission’s rules state that businesses should work with it to ensure that they are operating appropriately and should

“disclose anything which the Commission would reasonably expect to know.”

We want to help the regulator to take robust action to guard against any breaches of the rules, so if the all-party group’s work suggests that something is not being disclosed, or if hon. Members have anything to raise, I am keen to hear more. We want to see only responsible businesses in this sector. We want to ensure that people can have an open conversation about what responsible gambling looks like.

I was struck by Josh’s story, which was told by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester. There is real concern about suicides related to gambling. As my hon. Friend points out, the number of suicides cannot be ignored. The Responsible Gambling Strategy Board has published a report on measuring gambling-related harms to focus on the need to commission more research on the risk of suicide, so that we can identify harmful behaviours and so that people who enjoy a flutter or a bet can start to recognise such behaviours in those around them.

We need to remove the stigma around addiction to gambling. If someone feels like it is controlling them, the potential risk, the awareness of people around them and the opportunity to get support are really important. We need to take the stigma away and be able to work with partners. I must thank the Gambling with Lives charity, which has helped to identify the role of education in preventing harm. The Government’s review on gaming machines and social responsibility measures, which was published last May, set out a comprehensive package of measures to focus on safer and fairer gambling, and to ensure that this is paramount and at the heart of advertising and online operations.

We have heard about technological solutions. In December, Ministers at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and I brought together the technology and gambling industries to explore the use of further technology in preventing harm and stress the importance of learning together. More recently, the Secretary of State and I met major banks that are working on interventions this summer and into the autumn, in order to discuss how they can react in a way that challenger banks have been able to, by allowing customers to block gambling facilities. I want to emphasise that technological solutions to help to protect vulnerable people from gambling-related harm are absolutely vital, and we should seek every opportunity that we can.

An example of a technological solution is the online multi-operator self-exclusion scheme, GamStop, which ensures that people who take the difficult step to self-exclude are fully supported. For the first time, people who self-exclude online can sign up once to be excluded from all operators in the scheme. It currently extends to over 90% of the market, and over 60,000 people have used the service so far.

Last week I met gamban, which is based in Southampton—I will be popping down to its offices. Its new blocking software is freely available via GamCare and prevents devices from being able to access gambling websites. This is where innovation and direct experience is helping to drive player protections, which is vital. To support such initiatives, the Gambling Commission is consulting on stronger customer interaction requirements. I met GamCare yesterday and was delighted to hear about its initiatives with operators, including providing training to industry staff on player protection and the “safer gambling standard” quality mark. Let us get this moving—it is new and something that GamCare is moving towards.

For over 20 years, GamCare has been on the frontline of service provision, and it has reflected on the change over that time. It has a helpline, which is open between 8 am and midnight, seven days a week. It is a freephone number—if anyone is watching or reads this in Hansard, the number is 0808 8020 133. When I met GamCare yesterday, I was struck by its results on getting people out of crisis and to a place where gambling is not controlling them and they are able to sort matters out. Once people have contacted the charity—it does not appear on itemised bills—the first step is to talk things through and get some help.

GamCare is running programmes for schools that are aimed at 11 to 18-year-olds, and is looking to develop new packages for 18 to 24-year-olds. I urge all operators to work with GamCare on this, so that we can educate people on the risks, what is healthy, and when and how to find help when it is needed. I intend to use the opportunities across Departments to ensure that we give advice to parents, so that protecting children is co-ordinated—that work is going on with GambleAware, which brings me to advertising and the charity’s work.

A responsible message must now appear on all TV advertising for gambling companies for the duration of adverts. The Gambling Commission has introduced tougher sanctions for operators that break advertising rules. In addition, I am delighted to have worked with GambleAware to launch the industry-funded, multimillion-pound “Bet Regret” advertising campaign, which aims to help to start a conversation around risky betting behaviours and how to reduce them. In response to public concerns, the industry has announced the “whistle-to-whistle” ban on all TV betting adverts during pre-watershed live sport.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester on the relationship between sport and gambling—both particular sports and as a whole. I have already challenged gambling companies on this. Everything is on the table with regards to responsible businesses coming forward and doing the right thing; otherwise, it is absolutely right that we should act. There are positive signs that the industry is stepping up to the challenge that we have set, but there is scope to go further. I want to see the industry meet GambleAware’s donation target of £10 million by April this year. As I have said before, we want the voluntary system to work. If it does not, I do not rule out other ways of funding support, which could include a mandatory levy.

I am working closely with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care on the recently announced problem gambling clinic in Leeds. As we heard, the NHS long-term plan has a commitment to extend access to treatment. Public Health England has developed guidance for local authorities on gambling and is undertaking an evidence review. I have even spoken locally to my GP clusters about how, through social prescribing and local conversations, we can direct people to help. I have met the Minister for suicide prevention, who is clear that she will be working on gambling as a priority. Let me be clear on my position on the policy in this area: any life lost due to gambling is a tragedy, and we will work in every way that we need to in order to keep vulnerable people protected.

From May, the Gambling Commission will bring in further changes to operators in order to include age and identity verification to allow consumers to ensure that they do not partake if they get free-to-play demo games. These changes will also include further protections for children and vulnerable consumers and will help GamStop to be more effective. The Gambling Commission recently launched a call for evidence on gambling online with credit. The Secretary of State and I are very keen to look at this, and we have already raised it with banks. It will help to develop a comprehensive picture, including the prevalence of using credit cards for gambling, and the associated risks.

We are aware of immersive gaming, an issue that was raised with regards to “skins gambling” and loot boxes. The Gambling Commission has made it clear that unlicensed gambling with in-game items known as skins is illegal, and it will take tough action. It prosecuted operators in 2017, making it the first regulator in the world to take such action. Loot boxes currently do not fall under gambling law where in-game items are acquired and confined to use within the game and cannot be cashed out, but we will continue to look at that. I am aware that the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is also looking at this area.

I thank hon. and right hon. Members for taking part in this debate and ensuring that the Government hears very loudly that gambling online should be fair and safe. It is something that we all take seriously. We have delivered some important changes to online gambling regulation and will continue to review the protections and take action where it is needed. My hon. Friends have spoken passionately on this issue, and it is clear that that is our aim. The Government intend to work with the industry to bring it to the table, and to work with colleagues to ensure that vulnerable players are protected.