Operators must make “big, bold gestures" on fairer and safer gambling

Operators must make “big, bold gestures" on fairer and safer gambling

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Gambling Commission CEO Sarah Harrison delivers hard-hitting keynote speech at the International Casino Conference and World Regulatory Briefing (WRB).

Departing Gambling Commission CEO, Sarah Harrison MBE, said industry operators must build public trust in order to create a positive future for the UK gaming industry at her keynote speech yesterday.

Harrison will be moving to a position at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy at the end of the month, having spent two and a half years in her current role. She used the session to reflect on her time within the Commission and highlight “the good, the bad and the damn right ugly” aspects of the UK gaming industry.

The positives

For the good, Harrison picked the people who worked within the industry. She said: “I have tried hard to be a regulator that hasn’t sat in an ivory tower, or in our case, a former Victorian post office in centre of Birmingham and pontificate from on high.”

“I have had the privilege to talk to people working in and around the industry who are very talented and passionate about what they do – be it on the shop floor or the boardroom.”

Harrison also praised consumer groups such as Justice for Punters which seek to create a fairer industry. “They are working incredibly hard to make the industry better. Seeing customers push for positive change makes for a healthier industry and we should all encourage more of it.”

Room for improvement

For the “bad” aspects she highlighted the current industry funding for GambleAware which stood at just £3.50 for every problem or ‘at risk’ gambler. She said this compared badly with other countries.

She also added that customer service was frequently lacking, with operators failing in basic tasks such as responding to complaints. She expressed her frustration that operators failed to see the  “commercial benefits and avoided costs from treating customers well".

For the “ugly,” Harrison said there was “short-termism and short-sightedness” within the industry, especially in relation to issues such as the debate on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals.

She said: “The Gambling Commission is sometimes accused of taking a headteacherly tone. Whilst that is not what we intend or want, it is perhaps nevertheless unsurprising when the nature of debate between different parts of the industry is often no better than what you might find in the playground. The spectacle of different sectors ripping chunks out of each other does nothing to improve the lot of consumers, or the industry and its reputation. Moreover, it represents a shameful waste of energy, a massive missed opportunity among industry leaders to take control and responsibility for this industry’s long-term future, on behalf of their customers and staff.”

Diversity

She added that the industry also needs to highlight and challenge a “significant stain” on the industry’s reputation – a lack of diversity.

“This is an industry where we have a number of talented, powerful and successful women,” she said. “Indeed a woman from the gambling industry is Britain’s highest paid boss - not highest paid female CEO - but the highest paid CEO. Yet from walking around the exhibition you wouldn’t know this. Instead you [see] men representing their companies wearing expensive tailored suits whilst their female colleagues [are] expected to wear nothing more than swimsuits. Bring this to an end now! It is far from reflective of the modern society and economy of which this industry is a part.” 

She said the move towards a more diverse industry makes good commercial sense as it will allow operators to better understand their consumers and the wider public. It will also open the doors for new ideas and opportunities.

Future priorities

Turning to priorities for the future, Harrison said the Commission had set out a strategy which would reduce harm, empower consumers and raise standards within the industry.

“We will look to operators, both B2B and B2C, to demonstrate how they are confident that the nature and features of their products are consistent with the licence and safer gambling. This is not just about putting in place mechanisms to mitigate harms after they have occurred, but it is about designing in protections to prevent harm in the first place. “

She said this would also encompass marketing and incentives as well as the products themselves, “in particular the practices of intense bonusing and free plays which are so prevalent in the highly competitive British market. We know from our work with the Competition and Markets Authority that some of these features have led to customers being treated unfairly. But we are also concerned about their impact on safer gambling. Under the new strategy, it will be for operators to show us, and not just tell us, how they are mitigating the risks in products and marketing, and how they are working to keep play safe. “

Preventing harm

On preventing harm, Harrison said a joined up approach was needed between the industry and regulators with more work undertaken on building in consumer protection from the start, plus a greater financial contribution to GambleAware.

“In our strategy the Gambling Commission gives a clear commitment to provide leadership to forge a sustained, world-leading approach to tackling gambling-related harms - the hidden addiction. Work is underway now with input from our expert advisers, the RGSB, to develop a methodology that will establish a range of costs on which we can build future consensus about the scale and impact of gambling-related harm in Britain. This will also build on existing operator requirements to identify the revenues associated with problem gambling – a requirement which is based on the simple premise that what is measured is managed.”  

Harrison praised the new ICE Consumer Protection Zone – at Stand 8 - which features for the first time during the 2018 conference. She said the Commission would continue to put more power into the hands of the consumer. “In a well-functioning market it is the consumer that is the change-maker. Currently, in this industry, there is an imbalance between businesses and consumer. The consumer bears a disproportionate share of the risk and tends not to have much access to information and data about their own pattern of play. The Commission wants this to change, with better access to information and the means to take control - information that can help consumers to manage their gambling, better educate them about risks and inform their choices.”

Greater transparency would also be created by putting more information into the public domain, including the risks of particular products, level of payout to good causes from lotteries, treatment of customer funds and the level of customer complaints. She described this as the equivalent of a “Tripadvisor” site for the industry which would help consumers differentiate between operators on aspects of customer care and welfare.

The National Lottery licence would be renewed in 2023 with the Gambling Commission given the responsibility for awarding the licence for the first time.
Closing the session, she challenged operators to play their part in challenging the negative image of the industry portrayed in the media: 

“You are not powerless - the ability to change public perception lies entirely within your hands. You are stewards of a century’s old industry and as current leaders now is the time to think about what type of industry you want to hand on to the next generation.”

Watch our video interview with Sarah Harrison: