Gambling watchdog under fire over betting firms' role in addiction taskforce

Rob Davies
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

The gambling regulator has denied allowing betting firms to “mark their own homework”, after it asked companies behind a string of high-profile transgressions to lead a push to improve standards.

The gambling commission has set up three working groups to look at ways to strengthen safeguards designed to protect vulnerable people, amid mounting concern about the spread of gambling addiction.

One group, which will examine how the industry can better design products to mitigate the risks posed to problem gamblers, is led by SG Gaming and Playtech.

SG Gaming is one of the companies that manufactured hardware and software for fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs). It has been criticised for its design of gambling-style games available on Facebook to people under 18. Playtech’s designs include software used by FOBTs.

SG Gaming did not return a request for comment.

A Playtech spokesperson said the industry groups would be doing “important work, which builds on our existing work into problem gambling and game design”.

The second industry group will examine VIP incentives, the prevalence of which was laid bare earlier this month in the Guardian.

It will be led by GVC, owner of Ladbrokes, which showered a problem gambler with VIP gifts as he bet £1m of stolen money.

Ladbrokes agreed to repay his victims, but only if they signed a non-disclosure agreement promising not to tell the regulator.

GVC did not own Ladbrokes at the time it was still advertising for VIP managers late last year, seeking staff who could increase “overall player lifetime value and the revenue contribution for the VIP player base”.

GVC said it was pleased to be invited to contribute and was reviewing its own use of incentive schemes.

The third industry working group will look at safer advertising online and will be led by Sky Bet, an online gambling company that licenses the branding of the commercial broadcaster Sky.

Sky Bet has been criticised by the regulator and campaigners in the past year for featuring the ex-footballer and recovering gambling addict Paul Merson in promotional material.

In 2018 it accepted a £1m penalty for allowing hundreds of potentially vulnerable people to keep betting after they asked to be barred from doing so, while sending promotional material to 50,000 more.

The Labour MP Carolyn Harris, who co-chairs a cross-party group of MPs investigating gambling regulation, said: “This is the gambling industry marking their own homework.”

But the gambling commission chief executive, Neil McArthur, denied the claim and said the industry could expect to see tougher regulation imposed upon it unless it came up with robust proposals by March.

“If results don’t follow quickly, and I mean really quickly, all the other options are on the table,” he said.

He added: “We’re controlling this process, I’ve set the agenda and the timetable, and I’m determined to hold operators’ fees to the flame to deliver what’s promised.

“Some of the operators involved in this have been on the sharp end of our enforcement activity but as a result they’re in no doubt about the consequences of getting this wrong.”

Dr Steve Sharman, a psychology research fellow at the University of East London who specialises in gambling addiction, said the industry had a vital role to play but should not be in charge of the push to make gambling safer. He said the commission’s decision was “extremely surprising and disappointing”.

He said: “Whilst the experience and knowledge that such figures possess could undoubtedly be useful, it appears the commission is ignoring those that could also make a significant contribution, particularly those with lived experience of gambling harm.

“Allowing companies that maximise profit by extracting money from gamblers to lead on the design and (presumed) evaluation of safer gambling measures is illogical and potentially harmful.

“The groups should be led by an independent body, not the gambling industry.”

Free help and advice about problem gambling is available online at or by calling the National Gambling Helpline on 0808 8020 133