As you are aware, today is Responsible Gaming Day, and Governments, industry and regulators all have a responsibility to ensure that consumers in countries all over Europe enjoy proper protection when they gamble online. But gambling is a contentious, emotive and, dare I say it, political issue - governed by twenty-seven differing national systems.
In my view, there is scope for practical co-operation to take place Europe-wide, whilst ensuring that we avoid unnecessary bureaucracy, duplication and a “tick-box approach” to regulation. The recent Green Paper has been a very useful starting point, and I would like to thank all the officials who worked so diligently on it. I also look forward to the next stage.
In the Parliament’s report on online gambling, you pledge to respect each Member State’s right to regulate gambling at a national level. And I agree. Different cultural attitudes and norms vary enormously across Europe. In the UK, we have light touch regulation and an open market, much like Denmark will have once its new legislation comes in. But Member States such as Poland or Portugal have more conservative views on gambling, and thus their gambling legislation is more restrictive.
These differences have deep roots, ladies and gentlemen. They spring from fundamentally different religious traditions, cultural attitudes, legislative styles and approaches to managing the always-fuzzy dividing line between things which are harmless and enjoyable for the majority of the population, but potentially seriously harmful for a small minority nonetheless. It would be wrong, therefore, for my country to impose its regulatory system on, for example, Bulgaria, and vice versa.
Not only that, but respecting these deep-rooted, different traditions is a good thing in its own right. We need to have local versions of regulations to reflect our cultural differences, and we should all respect this. Each Member State has different ways of protecting the consumer, and therefore national regulation is not only right, but desirable.
Indeed, in Britain we have reviewed our own remote gambling regulation and found it was not working as well as we’d liked it to. So in July I proposed measures for reforming it, which will move from point of supply to point of consumption. In future, all operators selling into the British market, wherever they are based, will be required to hold a British Gambling Commission licence. This will mean increased protection for British consumers as all overseas operators will be subject to the same regulatory standards and requirements as British-based operators.
Put simply, in Britain we want an open and free gambling market, but also to protect the British consumers within it. But, crucially, I don’t expect every other Member State to have to regulate their markets in the same way.
But even though we are all choosing different, locally-tailored routes towards responsible, well-regulated gambling, I suspect we are facing very similar underlying problems: keeping criminals out of the industry; protecting children and vulnerable adults from the effects of problem gambling; arranging for money to go to good causes of one sort or another. These are all issues which we will have to face, and there may be valuable, practical lessons we can learn from each other. Let me illustrate with an example - betting integrity.
It is no secret that the British public is used to betting on sport, and we have sophisticated legal betting markets that operate both through traditional outlets such as bookmakers and betting shops, and via remote methods such as internet, telephone etc. But illegal and suspicious sports betting does still take place, even with a regulated system. So for the first time, overseas-based remote gambling operators will be required to inform the Gambling Commission directly about suspicious betting patterns to help fight illegal activity and corruption in sports betting.
But although sharing data on suspicious sports betting is central to regulation, the logistics will again vary from Member State to Member State, due to differing betting patterns and cultures of gaming. For example, in the UK and in France betting on horse racing is extremely popular, but the Finnish bet on football more than any other sport. And all of us will have different exposures to less regulated gambling markets outside Europe, particularly in parts of Asia, some of which pose big problems to sports betting integrity. Even so, there’s an enormous amount we can learn from each other at a detailed operational level about how to identify suspicious betting patterns if we are willing to share experiences.
And there’s another problem, which I suspect we all share. Without knowing what the causes of problem gambling are, how can they be treated, or even prevented? In general, the research evidence suggests that rates of problem gambling are higher among online gamblers, but there are no empirical studies which establish whether online gambling is a cause of problem gambling, or its effects.
Thus there is a danger that, without a strong, robust and factual base of independent, relevant and practical research, backed up by credible and trusted institutions, public debate will be overwhelmed by honestly-held but contradictory beliefs and preconceptions about gambling.
But this is not just a British problem. Indeed, the latest gambling prevalence survey suggests that Britain has a similar prevalence of problem gambling to Germany, where all forms of online gambling has been illegal since 1st January 2008. So every Member State needs to do more to understand the causes and effects of problem gambling as well as the measures that can be put in place to prevent, limit and treat the damage it can cause.
And we can all benefit by sharing the results of our work. Because the risk factors causing problem gambling will probably be the same - or very similar - in Britain, Italy or Germany, even if the solutions for reducing or treating it have to reflect the distinctly different social and cultural heritages of each country.
And finally, there is another danger that consumers need to be protected from - economic detriment. Even though I believe passionately that every Member State should have the right to regulate gambling based on their particular cultural concerns and national attitudes, this must not be used as a thinly veiled attempt to protect state monopolies. Once the local regulatory environment has been set up, the mechanisms should be in place to allow providers based anywhere in Europe to have access to each Member State’s gambling market. Otherwise we will have entire countries full of consumers who may be protected from the risks of problem gambling, but are also being ripped off by high-cost and inefficient monopolists as well. Consumer protection and a competitive marketplace are not alternatives. We can, and should, have both.
The gambling industry is different from most other industries, in that what is a harmless leisure pursuit for the majority can become a terrible addiction for a few. It is a pastime that can raise lots of money for good causes, but needs to be regulated to protect the vulnerable. We need good regulation to protect, to monitor and to enforce, but we also need it to reflect our own cultures, our own laws and our own consumers. With the kind of practical sharing and operational co-operation that I have described here, I hope and believe that European consumers will be able to enjoy themselves safely, with the widest possible choice of games and providers to choose from, for many years in future.