Consumers with few rights; it’s not right

Gambling consumers are not regarded or treated as such.

Historical attitudes relating to gambling and ‘the gambler’ reveal many negative stories.  These narratives are perfect for the relatively new gambling corporations.

Gambling corporations market their industry as entertainment.  They also strongly promote that they provide income, not just for governments, but for other industries, sports and communities; of course this is true. The gambling corporations have been able to position themselves as some sort of saviour, especially in governmental circles: If you let us provide regulated gambling services, we will run the rogue providers (black marketeers) ‘out of town’ and offer you, the government a large bag of riches in jobs and tax (see thousands of recent Betting and Gaming Council reputation management statements).   What could be negative about any of this, surely the new gambling corporations have brought a new level of morality to gambling?

Amazingly and disappointingly, this modern narrative is causing problems for those who choose to gamble (the consumer), e.g. they rarely, if ever get given any credit for being the provider of these ‘riches’.  Gamblers don’t have the advantage of million pound budgets to spend on reputation managers to try and influence governments.

The UK population of gamblers paid £14.4 billion for their gambling entertainment in 2019, i.e. lost £14.4 billion.  Without their very substantial losses there would be no ‘riches’.  The gambling consumer, minus a tiny few, should be on the pedestal and viewed as the ‘saviour’, nobody else.  The UK government and its regulator should be going out of their way to make sure these consumers get a safe and fair deal.

The last two weeks have seen another example of the lack of protection for gambling consumers. Despite their adverts around football grounds, the name of ‘Football Index’ (FI) isn’t as recognisable as Bet365. If FI was regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, it would have featured frequently in the mainstream media long before it did.  But FI was regulated by the Gambling Commission and the vast majority of specialist gambling media is noted for its lack of criticism of gambling providers, meaning the chance of any investigatory work was virtually nil.

On August 31st 2020 you could buy a ‘share’ in Lionel Messi for £7.61 from FI. Just over six months later you could sell that share for 69p. Using the same dates, Arsenal’s captain Patrick Aubameyang’s value (price) had dropped from £2.08 to 11p: “So what” can be heard; in any form of share trading your investment may go up or down.

The ‘so what’ is complex; in J4P’s opinion the UK has sensibly legalised and regulated gambling. For this to work though, the person who gambles must be treated like any other consumer, not as a second class citizen.

For many months FI had been changing its T&Cs, in effect, changing the terms of a bet placed whilst that bet was still in-play (running).  Despite the regulator being informed regularly on social media and privately about this practice, on the surface, nothing appears to have been done, and now following another price crash on the FI platform due to another T&C change FI has gone into administration. This means many consumers have player portfolios worth thousands less at best and worthless at worst. It’s rumoured that some consumers are facing six figure losses.  The role of the regulator has been widely criticised.

The gambling industry, the government department that holds responsibility for gambling, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and its appointed regulator have had to deal with many disasters since the 2005 Gambling Act, e.g. exploitation of vulnerable people, the use of unfair T&Cs, daily privacy law breaches, corporate exclusion from gambling for the tiny number of consumers who might win using skill, etc. You would have thought all these matters would have been seriously addressed by now. The FI saga and plenty of other examples confirm this isn’t the case.

The gambling industry is huge; helped by being awarded serious freedoms by the aforementioned Gambling Act despite the already well known dangers of addiction (gambling disorder).  The 2005 Act is being reviewed. However, it’s already clear that gambling industry lobbyists have obtained regular access to the DCMS to campaign for their paymasters. The main lobby group, the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) calls itself a ‘standards body’, but much of its media output appears to contain reputation management themes.  Football Index was a BGC member, so it must be asked; what ‘standards’ are required for membership and how are those ‘standards’ monitored?

‘Justice for Punters’ was set up in 2016 following work in private with both the Gambling Commission and the Competition and Markets Authority. It is self funding, i.e. all the volunteers give their time freely and pay their own expenses. J4P accepts no funding, it’s truly independent. For five years J4P has collected a huge amount of evidence from hundreds of consumers and helped them obtain over £2 million in refunds from gambling companies (all for free, no charge).

Initially, J4P was welcomed with ‘open arms’ by the ‘powers that be’. This acceptance has dwindled for reasons unknown; maybe J4P knows too much? Nevertheless, if the Gambling Act review is to achieve the best outcomes possible, consumers with no financial conflict should be welcomed with ‘open arms’.

J4P starting using the term ‘ban or bankrupt’ in relation to the gambling industry a few years ago, on the plus side things have improved, but the reality still is; if you try to win using skill your betting account will be stake restricted to pennies and if you lose you will be encouraged to lose more. For some this leads to financial, social and psychological harm, even suicide.  Anyone with any moral compass would surely conclude that this situation is unacceptable.  Light-touch regulation since 2005 has failed.

No government or regulator can solve everything alone, but it is beholden of both to reduce the unfairness and the harm as quickly as possible.  Treating gamblers like any other consumers and establishing a new gambling ombudsman should help hugely.  A high quality, responsive service is needed and is what many of the limited number of active gambling campaigners wish for.  Interestingly, this includes both the tiny number of campaigners who may win when betting and groups who support those with a gambling disorder.

The regulation of the UK gambling industry requires serious change, not just the smoothing off of rough edges.  During the Gambling Act review it’s important the DCMS recognises this and develops a mindset that gamblers are consumers who deserve the best protection possible and a fair deal.  The DCMS must also never forget that without gamblers, there are no gambling corporations and there are no ‘riches’.  As the UK government has legalised, regulated and receives tax income from the gambling industry, there is no room for outdated attitudes towards those consumers who provide that tax income.