Winning Post: Better Informed but None the Wiser…

By | December 13, 2021

Regulus Partners reviews the keynote speeches of DCMS under-secretary Chris Philip and UKGC Interim CEO Andrew Rhodes delivered at the 2021 GambleAware Conference. Whilst leadership can take some comfort on the regulators’ grounded approach to governing the sector, UK gambling remains none the wiser on the outcome of its generational review.

Last week, the Government bestowed the early Christmas gift of a curate’s egg on the Gambling Act review this week, as the minister responsible delivered the keynote oration at the GambleAware Conference. In what was generally a balanced and considered speech, Chris Philp MP told attendees that plans by the Gambling Commission and others to require consumers to provide bank statements and tax returns in order to spend £100 or more in any given month were “likely to be unwelcome, disruptive and disproportionate to the risks.”

The minister’s words will no doubt have been received with some relief by the gambling industry, horseracing and pretty much anyone with an interest in civil liberty. His claim however that the Gambling Commission shared this view is of particular interest, given that under the regulator’s former CEO, Neil McArthur this was anything but the case (and we are unaware of any public retraction). As we note elsewhere, the much-needed reform of the Commission is a work in progress.

At the heart of the muddled debate around affordability checks is a failure to define precisely what problem is in need of fixing. For some, it is a question of controls to prevent serious financial harm (as distinct from opportunity cost); while others contend that the state should determine how much of an adult’s own money he or she should be permitted to spend on wagering (and presumably in time a range of other activities).

Given that the Gambling Commission’s enforcement team has leaned towards the latter view (as evidenced by last year’s Enforcement report), some licenses may now be feeling even more confused. Chris Philp is right to point out that the industry at large still has much work to do in order to protect vulnerable consumers from financial harm – and his ambition that checks should “work smoothly in a way that is acceptable to customers” reveals a streak of common sense all too often absent from debate (where the consumer is habitually infantilised).

What this means in practice will likely be revealed when the Gambling Commission publishes its report on the matter (coming soon, according to the DCMS) and in the Government’s White Paper on legislative reform, which is now tentatively expected in March next year.

In the House of Lords this week, there were suggestions that the Liberal Democrat peers, Lord Foster of Bath and Lord Clement-Jones may soon be looking for a new party. In a debate on the latest pea-brained research from the University of Bristol (see WP passim for details), Lord Foster claimed that one-in-three school children gambled illegally.

This of course is untrue, unless one considers playing cards with family members or having private bets with school friends to be illicit. We are forced therefore to conclude that either the chair of Peers for Gambling Reform does not know what he is talking about (just throwing it out there); or that he believes that card games in the home should in fact be outlawed. This is hardly a very liberal attitude.

Meanwhile, Lord Clement-Jones asked whether the threshold of adulthood should be moved from 18 years to 25 years for the purposes of advertising regulations. This poses a number of further questions, such as whether those below the age of 25 should be permitted to bet at all (it is patently absurd to suggest that advertising is more risky than participation); and if so whether the revised age of majority should be applied in law more generally.

Quite when the noble Lord decided that 24-year-olds are not adults is unclear, but we imagine that it may have been some considerable time after his own 25th birthday. Given the profound societal and political consequences of this view, proponents can have only the loosest claims to liberalism or democracy.

UK: Regulation – Will the real Gambling Commission please stand up?

This week’s events suggest that the reform of the Gambling Commission is very much a work in progress, with mixed signals emerging from Victoria Square House. Speaking at the GambleAware conference, the Commission’s chief executive Andrew Rhodes delivered a refreshingly grown-up assessment of the state of the industry and of regulation.

Rhodes speech revealed a determination to get tough with irresponsible or non-compliant licensees (particularly recidivists) while recognising the legitimate interests of a licensed industry serving the legitimate preferences of adult consumers. Here was a common sense of the kind that has been vanishingly rare in recent years.

The Interim CEO has his work cut out as the publication a day later of the Commission’s Compliance and Enforcement report revealed. The document is replete with claims that “too many” licensees are failing in their social responsibility and prevention of crime duties. The problem is that, in a world where one failing is one “too many”, such rhetoric does little to aid understanding of the scale of the issues to be addressed – or of the regulator’s effectiveness.

The report is woefully short on context and meaning. The fact that the Commission revoked ten Personal Licences is all very interesting but requires more information to achieve salience – how many personal licences are currently held?; why were the licences revoked and have the reasons for revocation changed by comparison with prior years?

The section on fines and settlements is by definition largely concerned with historic failings (in the case of the £13m settlement with Caesars Entertainment UK, the problems occurred between three and five years ago) – but this is not even mentioned.

The report affords the reader much in the way of invective but very little perspective. More than that, it suggests a reluctance to accept the recommendations of the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, both of whom have been publicly critical of the regulator in recent years.

Given pronouncements on the importance of data from both Andrew Rhodes and his minister, Chris Philp, the regulator’s laxity in this area could be seen as hypocritical. With the Commission under new management, it seems unlikely to be tolerated very much longer.

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Featured article edited by SBC from ‘Winning Post’ Sunday 12 December  2021 (click on the below logo to access a full unedited version). NB Winning Post will return for 2022 on Jan 9th. 

 

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