Chris Philp: UKGC needs to ‘excel in holding the industry to account’

Chris Philp, minister for tech and the digital economy, has called on the UK Gambling Commission to “excel in holding the industry to account”. 

Speaking at the GambleAware annual conference, on the theme “Collaboration in the Prevention of Gambling Harm”, Philp stressed that the Commission is “central” to all of the government’s “promising projects”.

He also noted that operators who meet and surpass the Commission’s standards have “nothing to worry about”, yet gave a stern warning to those who do not, pinpointing the upcoming white paper which he noted will provide further detail on how the UKGC will be equipped to deal with various challenges across the gambling sector, both today and in the future. 

In addition to the aforementioned, Philp stressed that gambling harm “cannot be tackled effectively by working in isolation”, stating it takes “important input” from various groups like the lived experience community, researchers, treatment providers, the industry and the government. 

“It is our duty in government and more widely to prevent people from being led down a path to a dark destination.”

“I was appointed minister for tech and the digital economy in September, with two key priorities,” Philp said. “Firstly, delivering on the manifesto commitment to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online and set the global standard for internet safety. 

“Secondly, is the manifesto commitment to comprehensively review the Gambling Act to ensure we have the right protections for the digital age.

“The government considers gambling-related harm to be a health issue and a public health issue, and preventing harm is an essential objective of our gambling regulation. It’s our duty in government and more widely to prevent people from being led down a path to a dark destination.”

Bringing attention to the government’s review of the 2005 Gambling Act, Philp stated that he wants to “make sure” the government is doing “much more” to protect the minority of gamblers who are suffering and to prevent others from falling into that position.

He added: “Our review is looking at a very wide range of issues and our call for evidence received 16,000 submissions which we are considering carefully. We will publish a white paper which sets out our vision for the sector in the coming months.”

Moving forward, Philp turned the focus on areas where he thought were opportunities for “innovation” in the interest of consumers, stating the need for operators to “step in” when a customer is at risk of harm to “talk to them, impose limits or help them set their own, or perhaps even close their account”. 

As part of this, he highlighted that a “robust system” to prevent unaffordable online gambling will have a “transformative impact”.

“We have all seen and heard too many cases of people spending enormous sums and operator interventions coming too late,” Philp continued.

“Of course, people’s circumstances differ and not everyone who spends a lot is at risk. But unaffordable losses are a key sign of out of control gambling that is causing harm… So it is essential the right checks are made and in a digital age we need to harness data to do this effectively.”

“At high levels of gambling, more intrusive checks are appropriate.”

To be workable and prevent harm, Philp emphasised that affordability checks need to be proportionate. 

“As the Commission has said, demanding payslips or bank statements from every customer spending £100 or so is likely to be unwelcome, disruptive and disproportionate to the risks. But there is a level that is appropriate.

“As minister for digital, I am really keen to explore the role of technology and available data, such as that held by credit reference agencies, to make these sorts of checks work smoothly in a way that is acceptable to customers. 

“At high levels of gambling, more intrusive checks are appropriate. I also want to be clear that checks based on spend and financial circumstances must supplement rather than supersede all the existing requirements on operators to monitor play data, identify risk and intervene accordingly.”

Addressing operators, the gambling minister called for the need of right processes to intervene and prevent harm on individual platforms. Lauding the strides already made in developing algorithms, Philp stressed that efforts made by operators to prevent harm are “undermined” if a person with a gambling problem “can simply switch to another operator”, stating that “shoring up our systems to prevent this must be a priority”.

“Now is the time for you to pick up the gaunlet and work closely with both regulators to develop a system that works.”

Hailing the success of Gamstop’s self-exclusion scheme as an example of the benefits from sector-wide protections capitalising on technology available, Philp subsequently called on financial services to “pick up the gauntlet” and work closely with regulators to “develop a system that works”.

“Like Gamstop, a single customer view solution will protect a person, not just their account with one operator.

“It is of course vital that any data sharing is done safely, securely and proportionately. I am glad the Commission has worked closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office which has now confirmed that a single customer view can be delivered with these values at its core.

“We know data sharing is well established in financial services. I know there are representatives from industry in the audience today, so I want to be clear in my message; now is the time for you to pick up the gauntlet and work closely with both regulators to develop a system that works.”

Addressing findings revealed by Public Health England’s evidence review on gambling-related harms, Philp believes it has been “made clear” that there is “more work to do to understand the drivers of gambling disorder”. The minister noted that an important part of the solution is improving the quality of data that the Gambling Commission as a regulator, the government, along with researchers and clinical experts have access to.  

Concluding, Philp stated: “I see great promise in the development of a data repository as a pillar in our work to fill the gaps that still exist in our understanding.

“This will of course need to be complemented by the appropriate analytical expertise, so as part of the review, we are exploring the scope for more investment in data capability within the Gambling Commission. 

“They need powers to regulate the enormous and innovative gambling industry, including the ability to requisition and analyse bulk account-level data from operators to identify whether they’re doing what they’re supposed to under their licence conditions.”

Responding to the minister’s speech, Zoe Osmond, CEO of GambleAware, added: “We welcome the minister’s announcement that the government is working with the Gambling Commission to take steps to better protect people at risk of gambling harms through affordability checks, a single customer view, and a data repository to inform intervention and uphold industry standards.

“We are also pleased to hear that the government endorses stronger collaboration between treatment providers, policymakers, and the industry in supporting those at risk of experiencing gambling harms. We have long called for a whole system approach to addressing the prevalence of gambling harms in Great Britain, as the only way to comprehensively support those in need.

“We welcome the minister’s confirmation that the government is reviewing the funding model for treatment, prevention and research. We have been consistently clear that mandatory funding is the only way to ensure that support to address gambling harms gets the resource required.”