All change – A further year of regulatory change ahead

Nick Arron of Poppleston Allen LLP explains why change will remain a constant in 2022.

Nick Arron

We have had to get used to change. COVID-19 resulted in unprecedented new laws to govern our bingo industry – when must we close, when can we open? And again close, open… changing permitted hours, mandatory seating, table service, masks, distancing, signage, alcohol with or without food – at times all dependent on your location. At one stage in late 2020 statutory instruments were being published almost daily. And we learned to live with this change.

This theme of change is set to continue in 2022, although hopefully for different reasons.

The seeds were sown early last year, with the DCMS Review of the Gambling Act 2005, Terms of Reference and Call for Evidence Consultation. The consultation contained 45 questions, which went to the very core of gambling regulation, seeking opinion on the role of the Gambling Commission, on increasing protection online, limiting stakes, speed and prize limits, and on harm caused by gambling advertising. The DCMS review sought opinions on changes to the regulation of landbased gambling, and the powers attributed to licensing and Local Authorities in their responsibilities in respect of Premises Licences granted under the Gambling Act 2005.

These changes could amount to wholesale change of the Gambling Act 2005, potentially with a new Gambling Act 2023 or 2024? For bingo clubs land-based regulation could move away from the council licensing authorities “aiming to permit” the use of premises for gambling, to give councils greater control over gambling venues. Should this happen, it would not be based on evidence of issues with the operation of those venues (as there are few), but rather political will based on morals and ethics.

A broad brush of regulation
The DCMS Call for Evidence and Review had greater focus on online gambling. But we all know that changes to remote licensing and regulation can and do bleed into the regulation of land-based bingo, as we have seen with the development of the concept of Customer Interaction in the Licence Conditions and Codes of Practice (LCCP), primarily aimed at remote operators, but implemented in the LCCP across the entire industry.

Inevitable delays due to the pandemic
The Government had originally said that they would respond to the Call for Evidence and publish a white paper before the end of 2021, with statutory changes potentially in late 2022. As I write this article it appears that the Government are delaying their response until the spring of 2022. This delay is a result of the roller coaster that is the COVID-19 pandemic (or the Coronacoaster!) and is also probably due to the changes at the helm of gambling regulation during 2021.

Back in June of last year, Andrew Rhodes was appointed as the interim Chief Executive of the Gambling Commission. He will be in post for 18 months, whilst the Commission find someone to fill the role permanently. The previous Chief Executive, Neil MacArthur, left his role last March, and it was decided to recruit an interim CEO in order to allow the successor to the then Chairman Bill Moyles, whose term of office ended in September 2021, to appoint a permanent Chief Executive. This could happen late 2022.

The new Commission Chairman is Marcus Boyle, a former strategy chief at the accountancy firm Deloitte. It is thought that his experience at Deloitte, dealing with clients transferring their businesses, has been seen by the DCMS as relevant in modernising the Gambling Commission, with the changes expected following the Government review of the Gambling Act.

The political merry-go-round
In 2021 we also witnessed changes to the political leadership of gambling, with Oliver Dowden out and Nadine Dorries replacing him as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and Chris Philp replacing John Whittingdale as our minister. Let’s hope this is the end of the recruitment process and that we have some stability in government and at the Commission during 2022.

The significant personnel changes during 2021, likely delayed the government response to the Call for Evidence and Review of the Gambling Act 2005 as each will want to imprint their personalities on the outcome. We are also hearing that the government response may not provide the certainty we crave. The view had been that the response would detail legislative and regulatory changes. The latest we hear is that the response maybe permeated with further questions, rather than suggested regulation. This will be frustrating.

Open all hours?
The Bingo Association submitted a response to the DCMS Call for Evidence, which contained evidence to support changes to the regulations to provide greater flexibility and diversification to the bingo game. Firstly, the DCMS have been asked to consider the removal of default hours, which currently limit bingo to 9am until midnight. In recent years there has been a surge in interest in late night social bingo entertainment such as BADA Bingo, Batty Bingo, Bonkers Bingo, and Bongo’s Bingo to name but a few. Bingo can be played after midnight but to do so requires a variation application made to the council licensing authority, to amend the bingo licence. This is bureaucratic and expensive. Removing the default hours would provide greater flexibility for the evolution of the game in our bingo halls, and opportunity for entertainment bingo attracting a younger crowd.

Flexibility is key to broaden bingo’s appeal
Similarly, to broaden the appeal of the bingo game, the Associationsuggested changes to the regulations to allow development of the product, for instance allowing operators to offer more side bets based on the outcome of game. Further flexibility was sought, with the Association requesting changes to allow limited remote gambling associated to sit with bingo premises licences, for instance games via Zoom or Twitch. The Association suggested changes to the gaming machine ratios to allow for more B3 gaming machines and reduce the need for artificially large numbers of the less popular Category D machines, which can create an unsightly and unnecessary machine warehouse effect in bingo halls. This change might be the more difficult to achieve in the current political climate, but it is not about having more B3 rather about having less Category D and C. We have suggested the return of the triennial review of the stakes and prizes on gaming machines. Finally, the Association stood behind the call for cashless payment methods on gaming machines. This is crucial to prevent the demise of the gaming machine (who has cash in their pockets anymore?!) and indications from government and the Commission are that this change is one they could support, in part due to the potential for safer gambling benefits with cashless, to develop our understanding of harm and provide additional safer gambling tools to players. This change could be accomplished with a change to statutory instrumentation, rather than primary legislation.

So a year of regulatory uncertainty ahead in 2022. But after the last few years, we are all used to that – right?!

Nick Arron is a partner at niche licensing law firm Poppleston Allen. Poppleston Allen act for The Bingo Association and advises its members.