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Call for radical overhaul of online casinos by select committee 12/11/19
Rob Davies
• MPs favour reforms such as £2 limit on stakes, with Boris Johnson seen as sympathetict

Online casinos should be subject to maximum stake limits similar to the £2 limits imposed on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), according to a report released by a group of MPs who are demanding a “root and branch” overhaul of gambling law.

In a wide-ranging report, members of the cross-party group on gambling-related harm – who include high-profile Conservatives such as Iain Duncan Smith – called for a raft of measures to protect vulnerable people.

Their recommendations include:

   -  A £2 stake limit on online slot machines.
   -  An end to betting by credit card.
   -  Restrictions on “VIP” accounts.
   -  An investigation into non-disclosure agreements.

The report also echoed Labour’s call for the Gambling Act 2005 to be replaced, dismissing the existing law as “analogue legislation in a digital age”, ill suited to regulating an online sector that pulls in £5.6bn a year.

MPs in the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on gambling-related harm are understood to believe that they have a good chance of influencing gambling policy, regardless of the outcome of the general election.

Labour, which liberalised gambling laws under Tony Blair, has already said it favours a stricter regime, while the prime minister, Boris Johnson, is thought to be sympathetic to calls for stricter regulation. He was among MPs who openly criticised the government over a proposed delay to the curbs on FOBTs introduced earlier this year.

The interim report from the APPG, led by Labour’s Carolyn Harris, Duncan Smith from the Conservatives and the SNP’s Ronnie Cowan, is the result of a six-month inquiry including evidence sessions with gambling companies and addicts.

Among the more eye-catching recommendations in the report, due to be published this week, is a maximum £2 bet on online slot machines. This would echo the ban on £100-a-spin FOBTs introduced earlier this year after the government branded the machines a “social blight” following a lengthy campaign.

“If they are not acceptable in land-based venues they should not be allowed online,” the report said.

The MPs also backed calls to stop credit cards being used to gamble – as well as the introduction of mandatory affordability checks – to make sure customers don’t get into financial difficulty.

The average disposable income in Britain is £450 a month but online casinos and bookmakers often check on a customer’s finances only after they have lost thousands of pounds.

And they also recommended restrictions on “VIP” accounts, frequently cited in cases where problem gamblers racked up huge debts after being offered incentives such as free sport tickets or bonuses.

Brigid Simmonds OBE, the chair of the industry’s Betting and Gaming Council, said gambling companies were “committed to ensuring a safe gambling experience for all customers, using the wide range of tools that online operators have at their disposal”.

“Our members continue to invest significantly in new technology to make full use of data and algorithms to identify risk of harm and interact with customers at an early stage, and to introduce new affordability checks on customers.”

But the report said gambling companies had not been able to tell MPs what level of gambling they considered affordable and therefore could not reliably intervene when customers are losing dangerous amounts.

“This report highlights the urgent need for a root and branch review of the regulation of online gambling,” said Harris, who oversaw the report.

She also singled out the industry’s regulator the Gambling Commission, saying it was not fit for purpose in the age of internet gambling and required greater powers to sanction companies.

A spokesperson for the Gambling Commission said: “We are disappointed that this report has been released before we have been given the chance to give evidence.”

They added: “The report does not reflect our considerable action and progress on most of the areas of concern set out in the report and we look forward to being given the chance to outline that work to the APPG.”

The commission said last week that it would not fine Ladbrokes after the Guardian revealed the bookmaker told the victims of a problem gambler’s £1m theft that it would only repay them if they signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

The regulator has issued guidance to firms advising against the use of such NDAs, and the cross-party group’s report called for a change in the law to prevent bookmakers using them to keep information from the regulator.

The report also calls for online firms to improve their systems to identify vulnerable people and protect children, as well as to simplify terms and conditions.

Duncan Smith, the vice-chair of the APPG, said: “It is outrageous that there are not stake limits online, that gamblers are still able to gamble using credit cards online and that operators are able to continue to offer inducements to the vulnerable without proper sanction.”