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Speech: CEO Breakfast briefing - Anna van der Gaag - October 2019

Posted on 3 October 2019
I am pleased to be here this morning, delighted to have taken up the role of Chair of the new Advisory Board for Safer Gambling.

I want to use this time to talk about three things

  1. the new name and new focus for our Board
  2. to talk about what has changed and what needs to change in order to realise the collective ambition to make sure no-one in this country is harmed from gambling activity
  3. to talk about the role of industry in realising this ambition.

New name new focus

Some of you may be aware that we have a new name and a new focus. We were the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board, we are now the Advisory Board for Safer Gambling. We are keen look outwards, to listen and learn from those with expertise who are committed to reducing harm, and will be working with our colleagues at the Commission to create engagement opportunities which really get into the detail of what can be done to make gambling safer for all.  We will continue to provide independent advice to the Commission. A recent example is the work we have done to gather evidence and make recommendations on reducing on line harms.

What’s also new is that in April the Commission assumed responsibility for the National Strategy to reduce gambling harms, and in that moment

  • ABSG handed responsibility for the Strategy to the Commission as a more effective vehicle for galvanising change
  • We gave prominence to the fact that the landscape had changed and the evidence was increasingly pointing to the need for a new and radical interpretation of gambling harm – with the onus on us all, as a society, not the individual who was experiencing harm, to be proactive in tackling harms.

We recognise that harms are generated at many levels, from the way we promote and regulate gambling products, from the actions taken by industry and the actions taken by individuals. All of this means that the onus is on every actor in the system to prevent harms. This requires a whole system approach, an approach that has been used successfully in other areas….

Let me give you one example. I lived in Glasgow during the 1980s and 90s, where the knife crime epidemic was growing and Glasgow was called the murder capital of Europe.

Some of you may have read about the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit or VRU, which took a radical, evidence-based approach to addressing knife crime, an approach not yet applied to cities like London. In Glasgow, it began by bringing together gang members, youth workers, police, community activists, hospital doctors, families of wounded gang members.  It used enforcement and incentives - carrots and sticks - incentives to gang members to relinquish knives, and enforcement - pursuing all members of a gang if one member committed an offence.

It recognised, and trained people to appreciate the link between early childhood trauma and violence, that adolescent brains are hard wired for risk, that alternative adrenalin fuelled activities were needed to divert young people away from fighting.

Above all, the VRU brought together multiple organisations who approached the problem as an epidemic. Police officers in schools, hairdressers trained to spot women at risk from partners, specially trained ‘navigators’ in A and E departments who got alongside young people admitted for stab wounds to listen, counsel, support them

The results have been remarkable

  • Homicides down from 137 in 2005 to 59 in 2018
  • 59% drop in school exclusions related to knives
  • gang fighting dropped by 73%,
  • weapon possession by 85% violent offending by 56%

So what has all this got to do with you who are CEOs of gambling companies?

I could have talked about other examples – the shift in action on corporate social responsibility at Unilever, driven by a relentless desire by the leadership to change the culture from bottom up. Unilever has gone from being one of the most criticised multi- nationals on CSR to being one held up as an exemplar of good practice. Becoming an ethical corporation was at the heart of these initiatives, and approaching change at the local level, was key to success.

But I chose violence reduction in Glasgow because it illustrates the absolutely critical multi- agency approach that is also needed to address harm from gambling. Uncomfortable as it may be, the rise in gambling activity and the harm it creates has many parallels. Calling it an epidemic, coming face to face with its harmful consequences may actually galvanise us into collaborative action that brings tangible results.

You will know better than I that one change is in public perceptions of gambling. In past decades, the newspapers would frequently carry stories of big wins, transforming lives. Today, you are more likely to read stories of harm, debt, damaged relationships, death. One of your colleagues with over 20 years in the business told me the other day that the industry had ‘lost the narrative that gambling is a leisure pursuit’

There is a huge reputational challenge for the industry.

The second is that more and more gambling products are available 24/7. The remote sector now has 39% of market share. Accessibility, together with advances in game design, the growth of frictionless transactions for the purchase of absolutely everything, including bets, has transformed consumer behaviour and brings with it new risks of harm. Freebets, matched bets, as well as loot boxes, gambling with skins, social casino games, gambling and esports, are giving cause for concern, and through these initiatives gambling is increasingly associated with stories of debt, criminal behaviour, domestic abuse, money laundering, anxiety, depression, and suicide.

The third is that marketing and advertising of gambling products has increased enormously, so much so that its ubiquity has become linked with negative perceptions of the industry, and there has been a growth in complaints, penalties and enforcement actions.

Not good press. Not good for the industry’s reputation.

What needs to change?

I could mention the need for a new national infrastructure in the NHS, so that people with addictions can access help and support wherever they live. Or I could mention the need for more work by third sector organisations with children in schools, young people in youth and community centres, money management and debt advisory centres, 24-hour helplines. The good news is that these are happening, and the NHS Long Term Plan makes a commitment to increasing services and support that is fully integrated and publically accountable.

I could mention the need for greater transparency and independence in research and evaluations of gambling, which are critical to improving credibility and adding real improvements and change. We know from other sectors that research and evaluation that is not independent or perceived as having conflicts of interest, is unlikely to carry weight, and without doubt this is one of the key issues in the debate on the statutory levy.

But what for the industry?

At last months APPG evidence session, Ronnie Cowan MP asked the question Why have things gone so wrong in the first place? The answer was ‘four to five years ago, we didn't have the tools we have today’ to identify those at risk.

The good news is that you do now, and in the next five years the tools will be even more sophisticated and will help us to gain a much better understanding of risk and harm and how players move between low risk to moderate risk to high risk of harm. I think the term problem gambler is actually unhelpful. One large study in Australia over a 4 year period showed that 14% of gamblers at moderate risk became high risk. Its time to think differently about how we categorise and classify.

So first, use the tools you now have available to you. You have the expertise.

Secondly, habits on sharing of data need to change. Online gambling activity can be tracked, analysed, aggregated in ways that land based activity cannot. This creates a huge opportunity for understanding player activity across operators. Doing this work in silos will not find the solutions that we need. The ultimate goal is a repository of regularly updated anonymised data, accessible to researchers under agreed governance arrangements. I know that six of you are already involved in the Patterns of Play project.

Learning from other sectors where there are flourishing Innovation labs  Neil called them ‘Tech Sprints) across the UK, that are collaborative rather than single company initiatives, which bring together customers, employees, game designers and experts by experience – these could create much better understanding of how to address risks and harms.

Third, Language.

There needs to be a radical shift to clear visible warnings on products so that customers know what they are buying. Pop up messages about losses, time spent on games, odds of winning in language that is clear. Signposting where to get help. Not small print at the bottom of the app. As a society we expect this for other products – food, alcohol, films, so why not gambling products?

Underpinning all of this is the need for greater openness and transparency.

Transparency means allowing others to know what you are doing, openness allowing others to come and see what you are doing to make gambling safer. The industry has much to learn from financial sector initiatives on understanding who vulnerable customers are and taking action to assist them. Where there are new tools being developed, they must be subject to independent evaluation, with results shared and in the public domain. And to reinforce Neil’s point, if any evaluation finds that something is not effective, stop doing it

What is the role of ABSG in all of this?

ABSG is going to be monitoring the progress of the National Strategy over the coming years We will be measuring impact in relation to three.

And asking how are these being reduced? What evidence is there that action is being taken?

When Neil says there are three areas where standards must be improved by the industry

Better controls on gambling on credit, online stakes limits and incentives to gamble - these all relate directly to the three areas I’ve just mentioned, and if standards improve, then I hope we will see a reduction in gambling related debt, we will see better support for money management, we will see faster, better and more widespread responses to customers who are vulnerable, and  far fewer people who isolated, anxious, depressed or suicidal as a consequence of their gambling.

The Commission has set an ambitious and commendable strategy to address harm. It will require a whole systems response, involving multiple agencies. The industry has a critical role to play in this. Reducing harm from gambling has an ethical imperative. It is also in your commercial interests. It is the only way you will change the narrative and it is the best way for us to achieve our collective ambition to tackle harms.

Thank you