Winning Post – Gambling Commission consults on harm prevention

Regulus Partners, the strategic consultancy focused on international gambling and related industries, takes a look at some key developments for the gambling industry in its ‘Winning Post’ column.

UK: Regulation – It’s not funny that we don’t talk anymore

Reports this week that British gambling operators will take action to effectively bar themselves from advertising on television during live sports broadcasts represents a rare triumph of pragmatism. It may have a very limited effect on gambling-related harm but it does at least provide further evidence that the major players in this market are learning how to bend with the wind.

It may or may not be the ‘right’ thing to do – and there is something unsettling about the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright applauding an action that his department felt unwilling to pursue through legislation – but the industry deserves far more credit than it has so far received for stepping up to resolve a damaging issue.   

On a less positive note, the announcement also highlighted the monumental hubris of the public health lobby’s current approach to harm reduction. The leaked announcement came just a little over a week after the launch of GambleAware’s ‘We Want Our Ball Back’ advertising campaign – which as we reported last week was an apparent attempt to shame the industry into taking action on advertisements.

This campaign, which seemed misguided in the first place now looks thoroughly redundant (yes, there is still the matter of sponsorship, but this was primarily an advertising-driven vehicle), which leads to the question of whether it might have been avoided entirely.

Anyone familiar with the politics of gambling and the machinations of trade associations will realise that the Remote Gambling Association’s proposed curbs are the result of months of painstaking discussions. No-one should be deluded into thinking that there is cause and effect between ‘We Want Our Ball Back’ and the industry’s self-denying ordinance on advertising.

It seems obvious that better engagement between GambleAware and the industry that funds it would have made it clear that the ad campaign was not required. Thus the money that paid for the ads might have been spent on more worthy endeavours (increased support for front-line services for example). Sanity dictates that the much larger GambleAware and Public Health England advertising campaign (conceived as a DCMS fudge to justify non-intervention on advertising) should now be reassessed and, if necessary, binned. We suspect though that a range of vested interests will be keen to see matters through (assuming of course that the assumed funding mechanism still works).

The breakdown in relations between GambleAware and the gambling industry ought to be a matter of concern to all involved. The dysfunction appears to be an exaggerated response to past criticism that the charity enjoyed an unhealthily cosy relationship with operators. Its chief executive, Marc Etches was unkindly and unfairly pilloried during the FOBT debacle and also had to suffer the indignity of a Charity Commission review (based on unfounded allegations). We should not be surprised if these things left their mark on a board of trustees now shorn of industry representation.

GambleAware faces an invidious task of trying to find a soft spot between a rock and a hard place but the events of recent weeks suggest that the balance is not quite right. In particular, we need to nix the mistaken notion that close engagement with the industry that funds it might somehow corrupt the important work with which the charity has been entrusted.

UK: in Parliament – red mist clouds seasonal cheer
Tom Watson has written his list. He’s checked it twice. He’s pretty sure he knows whether the Government’s gambling policy is naughty or nice.

Watson, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Culture Secretary and Honourable Member for West Bromwich East fired in a salvo of parliamentary questions this week with the aim (at least in part) of raising concerns about whether gambling-related harms may be particularly acute at this time of year.

We are not sure how valid such concerns are (call volumes to GamCare’s national helpline may be a useful guide) but it seems reasonable to ask such questions. Watson’s wide-ranging enquiries (he considers that there is a sufficiently large number of issues with current legislation to warrant a new Gambling Act) also took in sales of scratchcards to children (currently legal for 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds) and the use of cartoon characters within adverts for gambling.

The DUP’s David Simpson (Upper Bann) also wanted to know how the Government planned to address concerns about gambling advertisements (when as it turned out, he ought to have been asking the RGA).

In the upper chamber, the Liberal Democrat Lord Storey (a career educationalist) asked about resources to tackle “gambling addiction” (and to provide preventative education) amongst children; while the Conservative peer Lord Chadlington once more raised concerns about youth gambling (and harm) via loot boxes in video games.

Next week (Brexit permitting) brings the final round of DCMS oral questions in this most bruising of years in Westminster for Britain’s gaming and betting companies and for the Government’s gambling policies.

UK: horseracing – when is a pay rise not a pay rise?
There was good news for workers who care for racehorses this week, after a more flexible working week, and wage increase were announced. Negotiations between the trade bodies representing ‘stable staff’ and racehorse trainers (their employers), resulted in a 4% minimum wage increase with a 40 hour week to replace the current arrangement of 85 hours per fortnight. Overtime payment of ‘time and a half’ are to take the place of double time Sunday payments, however, 5 hours compulsory Saturday morning work will remain. In theory, this should mean better basic pay, the ability to earn more through overtime payments and a better work life balance.

However, the EU working time directive (which the racing industry often struggles to comply with due to the nature of the job – particularly when driving and caring for horses at the races) may cause a headache for some (1 day off per 7 days of work, 11 hours off between each 24 hours and a maximum quota of 48 working hours per week).  The reality is a decrease in annual basic pay of £373 (using the national minimum wage as the starting point), and an even more irregular working week, which is likely to be less attractive to those with young families. While any effort to making working within the industry more attractive to all age groups should be applauded, this may be considered a sideways step. Racing is reliant on its workforce and while many trainers are responsible employers, there are a still some who do not comply with basic employment laws and procedures. It may be that the BHA should review licencing criteria for trainers in order to prevent this further damaging the reputation of the sport. Perhaps most importantly, after Britain leaves the EU in March next year (as it still likely) British horseracing will need to ensure an attractive working environment for home grown and broadly international workforce given that the option to access relatively cheaper EU labour is likely to become materially harder.

UK: regulation – Gambling Commission consults on harm prevention
This week, the Gambling Commission commenced its consultation process for the next three-year strategy for harm minimisation.

The initial consultation period runs to 15thFebruary and represents a critical opportunity for all those concerned about gambling-related harm (and by association the health of Britain’s licensed gambling industry) to have their say on what happens next. In particular, the strategy will set expectations for licensee efforts to reduce harm.

It seems highly unlikely that the current strategic plan (which is entering its final six months) will be judged as a success; and equally as likely that licensees will be blamed for falling short. However, the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board and the Gambling Commission ought to resist the temptation to simply blame the industry – in part because to do so would be unfair (the strategy was conceived as a collaborative effort with operators allocated responsibility for a minority of its 12 priorities) but more importantly because misdiagnosis of failings tends to result in poor solutions.

Some fairly obvious mistakes were made with the formulation and execution of the present three-year strategy. Weak engagement with the industry at the outset meant that operators never truly considered it to be their strategy; the promised support for licensees from GambleAware and the Gambling Commission has not materialised in any meaningful or constructive fashion; and crucially the strategy did not incorporate a plan for delivery. In truth, the National Responsible Gambling Strategy for 2016 to 2019 has been more a set of noble aspirations than a strategy.

The RGSB’s progress reports on the plan (highly subjective and arguably not in keeping with its own evaluation protocol) have tended to focus on the state of progress rather than attempting to understand its causes. None of this is the fault of the RGSB (a group of highly respected but poorly resourced experts from a range of disciplines and backgrounds); but it does illustrate the extent to which there is room for improvement.

Judging on the nature of the Gambling Commission’s consultation process, the regulator is keen to learn from past mis-steps, which is in itself highly encouraging.

If licensees are once again expected to play an important role in the attainment of the new strategy, it is essential that they engage and are engaged with the process. Other stakeholders (including concern groups) should also be involved; but we must not allow dogmatic mistrust of the industry to cloud the obvious fact that a successful plan to reduce gambling-related harm requires the insight and enthusiastic support of operators rather than their grudging acquiescence.

These are busy times for an embattled industry – but carving out some space over the next two months for a properly considered response to the formal consultation is likely to be in the best interests of operators and also of their customers, who are at least notionally meant to be at the heart of gambling policy.

Australia: regulation – Canberra takes a lead on remote gambling protections
The publication of Australia’s National Consumer Protection Framework for Online Wagering represents the jurisdiction’s attempt to catch up to the changes in the gambling market wrought by online gambling; as well as some new leading practices that are likely to be copied in other parts of the world.

Citing concerns that problem gambling rates for online is three times the level of traditional platforms, Canberra’s Department of Social Services sets out ten measures to address concerns.
These include a speeding up of customer verification requirements (from 90 days to a still fairly generous 14), simple account closure policies, staff training for “responsible gambling”, a national remote industry-wide self-exclusion register and the prohibition of adverts for payday loans on betting sites (which presumably some bright spark somewhere thought was a good idea).

More novel developments (potentially coming to a jurisdiction near you) include bans on payment by credit, an end to sign-up offers, a requirement (in time) for operators to issue customer statements of betting activity and switching limit-setting tools ton an opt-out basis.

EU: online regulation – harmony or orchestrated discord?
With Slovakia bringing the number of EU Member State POC regimes up to 18 in 2019 (counting UK for the first 3 months at least; treating Malta as POS), the currently debated question of EU harmonisation is perhaps more relevant than ever. With the Expert Group on Gambling Services due to be wound up by year end, formal progress remains non-existent and even this weak impetus is now being removed. However, regulators are likely to continue to meet and discuss areas of cooperation. On many levels this is a good thing, but it is not, we believe what most of the industry is hoping for.

Harmonisation of technical standard, probity checks and even harm minimisation methods are to be welcomed in creating better regulation across jurisdictions, in our view; discussing issues across a broader geographic framework may also improve regulatory responsiveness, industry knowledge and effectiveness. But the big questions of tax, product and licensing openness are highly political and still highly state-specific. Any hopes that harmonisation means liberalisation are dangerously misplaced, in our view. Instead, it would be worth considering that at least three major licensees will start 2019 on Sweden’s naughty step for breaches of licensing conditions in the UK. In other words, greater harmonisation at the regulatory layer will likely make regulators more effective, but not in ways that many operators necessarily want.

Europe: sports integrity – Mims the word
The UK has joined the 32 of 47 Council of Europe Member States in signing the Macolin Convention. The convention was introduced in 2014 in an attempt to coordinate nations in the fight against corruption within sports. It has gained support from member states and non-members, and with ratifications from Norway, Portugal and Ukraine, it needs two further member states to ratify before it can be promulgated.

US: sportsbetting legislation – bring in the feds…
The latest Federal sportsbetting bill calls for a level of Federal oversight to state betting legislation, with a Federal approval system for operators, including a UIGEA-specific bad actor clause (potentially an issue for Stars, though with some interesting Wire Act interpretation issues to contend with), a national betting integrity data body, as well as a requirement for operators to use ‘official’ sports data. It is hard to see states tolerating this or for the ‘compromise’ to satisfy proponents of federal intervention. However, that the debate is being had should highlight an underlying issue that is unlikely to go away, in our view. A patchwork of state-by-state regulatory regimes is probably only as stable as it is collectively competent. A big scandal involving integrity, graft, bad actors or gambling related harm (not yet fully a ‘thing’ in the US) is likely to have profound repercussions on the entire model and potentially invite full Federal intervention. With so many operators, stakeholders (and some regulators) rushing in, the systemic risks being built up are probably greater than is currently being appreciated or planned for.

US: sportsbetting legislation – DC’s comic approach?
Washington DC is in the process of passing legislation that will create a sportsbetting regime with one app powered by its lottery. Most commentators (which would be frozen out of the market) are calling the proposed scheme flawed, though one political response that to invite competition would cost the state US$66m follows a logic lost on us. The hoped-for return of US$92m over four years on a 10% levy suggests an annual average GGR of US$230m – or US$330 annual spend per head if 10% of the DC population participated. On the face of it, this looks at the upper end of reasonable. However, while c. 50% of the more casual player population might be happy with a monopoly, this starts to decouple with harder gamblers and the budget suggests harder gamblers are necessary to raise the expected taxes, which could be challenged by leakage. Possibly the one positive from the emerging US patchwork is that nearly every notion of fiscal-economic-commercial model is likely to be tested over the next five years or so, no matter how stretched the underlying theories…

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