Latest meeting with the Gambling Commission (March 2018)

Two years ago a number of well connected people told J4P that we’d never get through the doors of the UK regulator for gambling and if we achieved that we’d never get them to listen to gambling consumers.  We achieved the former quickly, have we achieved the latter yet?

When you’re a friend of Prince Charles the former was easy and in the case of the latter we have the Gambling Commission (GC) ‘eating out of our hands’.  Anyone interested in gambling will recognise this as a PR alert that is similar to an Association of British Bookmaker’s press release about problem gambling research.  Joking aside, J4P is amazed how many meetings they’ve now had and how the work of the GC over the last 12-months has reflected what we have discussed, e.g. unfair terms and conditions, unfair promotions, etc.  The GC’s three year business plan reflects this situation also.

J4P does not represent gambling consumers; it’s never claimed to do so.  All the group of volunteers has done is work hard gathering evidence by helping consumers for free who are in dispute with gambling companies, and reading as much information as possible relevant to the modern gambling market and its regulation.

At our first meeting a minimum liability (bet) rule (MLR) was on the agenda. It took about 20 seconds to discuss.  Sarah Harrison the now departed CEO of the GC (good she was too) quickly announced that this was something for the Department Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), not the GC.  We’ve met with the DCMS twice since then: Damned expensive those train tickets are. We were, therefore a little surprised at our last meeting when the GC, with Sarah in attendance, requested that the exact same topic should be the main agenda item for our next meeting.

On reflection, maybe we shouldn’t have been as surprised as we were.  A lot has happened in two years.  The gambling industry lost their control of the media, which has meant J4P evidence and that of others, e.g. anti-FOBT groups and the Horse Bettors Forum has exposed a series of gambling industry misdemeanours.

In many ways it was not a ‘loss of media control’, it was an awakening of the media that don’t rely on gambling company income.  J4P’s founder will never forget his first meeting with the BBC at Media City in Salford. He still suspects BBC consumer programme staff did not believe everything he said, to which he responded, “Give it six months and you will.” The outcome is clear; they do now and they have a long list of gambling cases waiting to be broadcast.  Even some, but not all, horse racing industry media has started to change their views on some gambling industry practices.

Secondly, MLR has become a positive feature of horse racing in major Australian states, so there is now evidence it works for all interested parties. Thirdly, a group of MPs and Lords who support the work of the gambling industry in parliament recently contributed to

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a seminar where they all said, not laying sports bets to all with a set minimum liability was unfair.  There are other factors and other people, too many to mention, who’ve contributed to moving the MLR debate forward.  Nevertheless and last, but not least, the present way gambling companies restrict the stakes of their customers who show any hint of sports betting ability whilst allowing others to lose their house and car is an immoral, unsustainable way to run an industry.

About three weeks ago we began to plan for this latest GC meeting and we came up with nine mutual benefits of a MLR (click here), which we were going to propose for discussion. We also prepared appendices covering the Victorian Racing MLR (click here) and how present gambling company practices reduce income for some ethical sports information services whilst encouraging unethical ones, e.g. Social media tipsters who survive using affiliate income from gambling companies generated by customer losses.

There were nine people at the meeting including four J4P representatives who were ready to present the case for a MLR.  It quickly became apparent that the GC was open to our arguments about MLR.  A big thank you must go to everyone who has contributed to the on-going GC licensing consultation, because the GC staff said they’d never had more submissions from consumers for a consultation, meaning they could not ignore the opinions being submitted.  The discussion then moved on to the best approaches available for achieving a MLR.

When you read our nine potential mutual benefits of a MLR (click here) there is no question it will make gambling more ‘fair and open’, which is a primary aim of the GC’s work.  J4P looks forward to being part of a group that works towards a MLR, be that a voluntary MLR led by forward-thinking gambling companies later backed up by primary legislation or getting new primary legislation passed without the help of the gambling industry, if need be.  Without breaking confidentiality J4P knows that a number of major operators are actively discussing the possibility of a MLR, both among themselves and with others.  This is very sensible, because a voluntary MLR will be a strong sign that the gambling industry is finally recognising that a UK gambling licence used fairly is not about ‘having your cake and eating it’.

Whilst a voluntary MLR would be an extremely welcome development it is J4P’s belief that this will need supporting by primary legislation as this results in all gambling operators playing by the same rules (i.e. being ‘fair and open’). Introducing primary legislation requires both a vehicle on which to attach the desired legislation and parliamentary time to discuss this. Sadly, both will be in extremely short supply within the life of the current Parliament due to Brexit.

Very briefly, we must not forget the new privacy laws coming into force during May 2018, which may also be a huge motivator for major operators to act on a MLR now?  Basically, many of the customer profiling methods gambling companies use to stake restrict customers are going to be illegal unless the gambling industry gains an exemption.  Importantly, these new laws are backed up by an ability to levy large fines if a company infringes the laws regularly.

There are potential downsides to MLR for consumers and it’s very fair to say that J4P has not given anywhere near the same amount of  thought about the potential downsides as we have to making sports betting ‘open and fair’ again, but it must be two years ago since we first discussed what customers may have to give up for a MLR, e.g. less or no promotions, slightly higher market over-rounds, fewer overnight and early morning prices (a MLR is unlikely to apply to these), multi-accounting becoming more expensive as account opening bonus trading may become uneconomic or non-existent, a decrease in the breadth of available bets, etc.  Of course, we’ll have missed some potential downsides and some of the above wouldn’t come true, but on balance, the J4P voluntary group, which includes people from many parties, including the industry, believe that the potential upsides are likely to outweigh the potential downsides.

At a second meeting attended by four people J4P discussed the processes gambling companies use to identify customers with a gambling problem.  Case data and experiences were used as evidence.

When a discussion is focussed on what happens in practice as opposed to what is outlined in guidelines, there can only be one conclusion; the system and processes are broken.  This conclusion is being polite to many gambling companies and it’s not news. 

As an example, how can a very large corporation have processes that cannot (they claim) identify a self excluded customer when the same person opens another account using the same name (a very rare name), date of birth and mobile number that’s already on file?  Under current guidelines this utterly useless process is acceptable and is currently being used as a defence, citing the person had moved house.  The whole process is a joke.

J4P will be providing a full report for the GC about these processes, not just ID, it will include discussion about the types of ‘intervention’, e.g. offering VIP status instead of placing a stop on gambling until affordability checks have been made (correctly, including income sources provided in writing).  As BBCr4 ‘You and Yours’ has recently featured more than once this is a common problem.  J4P’s report will be based on extensive anonymised data from actual cases. It will not show the gambling industry in a good light.

So, a busy day, a positive day, but one which highlighted that there is still a lot of hard work to do on making gambling ‘fair and open’ including a MBL.


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