UK Regulator Again Warns Gambling Industry

Harrison repeats warning that the customer treatment bar has been set too low by online operators and that “change is now coming”

Addressing the annual ‘Raising Standards’ conference in Birmingham Tuesday, UK Gambling Commission chief Sarah Harrison reiterated her warning that the gambling industry has set the bar too low in treating customers fairly and that “change is now coming”.

She cautioned operators that they were reaching a tipping point and that some of their numbers could find their future “increasingly in peril”.

She recalled that last year at the same conference she had stressed the need for operators to take action and not wait for a crisis that would shake customer trust in the industry.

“Did that happen?” Harrison asked. “Looking honestly at your businesses, with open minds, have you done enough? I think the need is more pronounced now than it has ever been, and the bald facts are that you haven’t done enough to demonstrate to us that you’re there yet.”

She added that while public and political focus had been on fixed-odds betting terminals, the Commission had been concentrating on online gambling.

“The bar has been set too low by operators in relation to identifying customers at risk and treating them fairly,” she said. “The [commission’s] strategy makes clear change is now coming. Fairness, transparency and harm-prevention are essential.

“Unreasonable behaviour and slow progress will not be accepted by us, by our partner organizations and certainly not by consumers.”

Harrison added that the Commission preferred to work with operators in reducing the harmful effects of gambling, but warned that those that do not share its commitment will “…find themselves in an uncomfortable position, with their future in this industry increasingly in peril.”

The latest on the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) investigation of potentially unfair and misleading terms and practices in the remote gambling sector was presented at the conference.

CMA project director George Lusty outlined six key concerns at the center of the project thus far, including lack of transparency and fairness around promotion and play restrictions, restrictions on withdrawals, the withdrawal of free bets and compulsory publicity.

He said that operators have been told to halt some practices.

“We were concerned a number of important terms placed significant restrictions on consumers’ own funds, afforded operators a wide degree of discretion and exposed consumers to disproportionate sanctions,” he said, revealing that William Hill and Ladbrokes Coral are among those in the process of undergoing CMA enforcement action, and a decision is expected next month about whether they would proceed to court, or if the CMA could instead secure “acceptable undertakings to address our concerns”.

Ladbrokes Coral chief executive Jim Mullen was one of the speakers at the conference, and told delegates that he believed the gambling sector needed tight regulation.

“Don’t mistake that for thinking I agree with everything that comes from Westminster or Birmingham, I don’t,” he added. “But I do believe regulation has to be a pillar around which the sector is built.”

Mullen acknowledged his company’s recent GBP 2.3 million penalty from the Gambling Commission (see previous InfoPowa reports) and the ongoing CMA investigation, and observed that the fierce competition within the sector had led operators to push boundaries, and that the industry needed “a referee on the pitch”.

Continuing with football metaphors, Mullen said that action against offenders should be forceful and direct, perhaps including the equivalent of a yellow card, because the call for voluntary action sees too many take different approaches and move at different speeds.

“The result is uneven practice, customers getting differing levels of service on basic matters and a frustration from some players that others are getting away with it,” he concluded.