How to regulate online gambling

I was optimistic when Commissioner Barnier, the EU’s Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, launched the Europe-wide action plan to regulate online gambling last week.

It’s not new legislation, which given the differences of opinion that currently exist on gambling between member states would be hard to pass through EU institutions. Rather, Barnier has introduced mechanisms to increase cooperation between member states and respective regulatory bodies. Its a step in the right direction, but what would really help is a centralised self-exclusion button.

Self-exclusion stands as one of the pillars to how we seek to help problem gamblers in this country. What happens is that a gambler tells his local bookies that he wants to exclude himself from gambling, which means that the bookies then do not let him place bets for a set time, helping him to regulate his betting, or cease completely.

Sadly with remote gambling the pillar is not as effective as it should be. Compulsive gamblers, recognising their addiction, can opt to tell the website with which they have an account not to allow them to gamble, for a set period of time, or indefinitely. But self exclusion from gambling websites is only possible if a person already has an account with a web-based gambling firm. This makes it impossible for a problem gambler to properly self exclude because there are so many websites which offer gambling services. It’s just not feasible for somebody to open an account on all websites in order to self exclude from all of them.

What is needed is a third-party centralised self-exclusion mechanism, a one stop shop of self exclusion, enforced by individual member states' Gambling Commissions. Under the current proposals put forward by the Commissioner, this would be very unlikely. But in two years' time there will be an evaluation of how the cooperation and voluntary self regulation has worked. At that point all options should be on the table including the introduction of a directive which would standardise and offer a minimum platform for regulating remote gambling in the EU. The directive is something that the European Parliament has asked for in an opinion report voted for by a sizable majority of MEPs.

Closer to home Government Ministers have pledged that all websites operating in the UK will have to apply for a UK gambling commission licence. This is something church groups have been campaigning on for 5 years. The new measure will mean that all website will have to comply with the UK licensing code of conduct. It’s a real positive victory for the faith-groups. This code offers some safeguards to the vulnerable, including proper age and identity verification but does not go as far as offering self exclusion from all websites.

The slow pace, whether in the EU or at Westminster need not deter campaigners. The UK does not have to wait for the EU to legislate in order for us to lead the way in online gambling safety by setting up a one stop shop self exclusion button. According to the latest statistics there are 400,000 problem gamblers in the UK, whose addiction affects not only themselves but also their friends and loved ones. If it was possible to create a safer environment for these people to be ensuring they can self exclude properly, we should be doing it. Anything less is irresponsible.