With the UK Gambling White Paper reform discussions underway, the conversation has turned to proposed affordability checks – designed to minimise problem gambling through financial background checks on online gamblers.
Despite good intentions, the proposal has proved controversial and attracted criticism, particularly for the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, a groundswell of resistance has started to build.
The proposed legislation
When determining whether or not an individual can afford to gamble, or more specifically how much they can afford to lose, the buck stops with operators. It is their responsibility to verify new customer IDs and take reasonable steps to ensure players aren’t wagering beyond their means.
The UK Gambling White Paper, published in April 2023, proposes more in-depth and potentially invasive “financial risk checks”, which they have assured operators would be largely “frictionless”.
Passive background checks would be triggered when certain loss levels are reached – provisionally suggested at £125 net loss in a month, or £500 within a year.
More detailed background checks would be carried out on players with losses greater than £1,000 in a 24-hour period or £2,000 over 90 days.
As part of the industry backlash, an online petition, entitled ‘Stop the implementation of betting affordability/financial risk checks’, was started. It describes the proposed checks as “inappropriate or discriminatory” on the basis that they seek to determine “whether people are ‘at risk of harm' based on their postcode or job title”.
As of 21 November, the petition, which needs 100,000 signatures to be considered for debate in Parliament, had reached nearly 89,000, suggesting significant support and resistance to the proposed measures.
The government quickly responded to the criticism.
“The government and Gambling Commission are working with the industry and others to ensure the checks can be implemented in an effective but proportionate way. [...] The Gambling Commission will set out details on its plans in due course.”
The official response avoids mentioning how this balance will be achieved.
The petition, whose proponents believe “in the freedom of the individual to choose how to spend their money”, raises a number of questions regarding the implications of the financial risk checks.
What about the rest of us?
It can certainly be argued that the government is going too far by imposing new rules on all UK gamblers, a clear majority of whom are perfectly capable of monitoring and managing their own gambling habits and spending limits.
The proposed hands-on approach may be beneficial to a minority of vulnerable players, but at the expense of the majority. An additional factor to consider is the risk of over-restrictive measures potentially driving some players to unlicensed sites.
Furthermore, making assumptions about ‘risk levels’ based on demographic factors could to lead to discrimination and unhelpful stereotyping, when, in fact, both problem gamblers and non-problem gamblers can be found in all walks of life.
Like all groups, gamblers come in all shapes and sizes, and with a wide range of behavioural patterns, most of which are safe and responsible. Because of this, the government’s proposed one-size-fits-all approach to background affordability checks seems rather reductive.
In addition to concerns about player privacy, there are economic issues raised by the White Paper’s propositions and ongoing backlash.
It may well be the case that requiring operators to make background checks hinders the industry, causing a decrease in player activity, slowing down operations, and dissuading newcomers from becoming contributors to the UK’s gambling sector.
The negative impacts that compulsory, invasive affordability checks may have on the wider gambling industry cannot be fully anticipated, and caution must be exercised.
A growing trend
The government’s heavy-handed approach to these matters is not unprecedented, and it may well pave the way for further restrictions on individual freedoms to spend and behave as they choose.
It comes alongside a proposed outright ban on smoking for all people born after 1 January 2009, as well as reduced speed limits and other restrictive measures.
The petition opposing the introduction of financial risk assessments for online gamblers is likely to reach its 100,000 signature target, but whether or not Parliament will treat these objections seriously, or factor them into the new legislation, remains to be seen.
What is clear is that, in protecting vulnerable and at risk individuals from harmful gambling-related behaviours, the government and Gambling Commission must also consider the individual freedom of those – the vast majority – who already gamble responsibly, as well as the wider economic implications.