Gambling Commission Special Measures: Trick? or Treat?
For better or worse, a number of licensees have now experienced the Gambling Commission’s special measures process. Although we remain of the view that much greater informal engagement by the Gambling Commission with individual licensees would be preferable and appropriate when compliance issues are identified, it was encouraging to note the Gambling Commission introducing a less draconian form of engagement than commencing a licence review under section 116 of the Gambling Act 2005 (“the Act”). We now examine those measures, the implications for licensees and whether a cautious welcome for the new process is justified.
Following the completion of an operating licence review under the Act, the Gambling Commission have specifically granted powers to:
- suspend or revoke an operating licence
- attach an additional condition to an operating licence
- give the holder of an operating licence a warning
- require the holder of an operating licence to pay a financial penalty.
To that armoury the Gambling Commission have added certain lesser measures over the years since the Act came into force, including issuing advice as to conduct to licensees.
Whilst the Gambling Commission say in their Enforcement Report for 2020 to 2021 (the 2021 Report”) that these measures served a useful purpose, they did not always result in swift intervention and remediation.
To counter this, as part of its regulatory toolkit, from September 2020, the Gambling Commission piloted the use of special measures, “to bring operators to compliance at pace” following the identification of failings during a compliance assessment. The 2021 Report stated that the pilot scheme was used in relation to eight licensees.
In the 2021 Report, the Gambling Commission explain that the special measures process was introduced for “isolated situations” where the Gambling Commission had a high level of confidence that, for example the licensee had accepted its failings, as identified by the Gambling Commission and is committed to raising standards.
Of late, those situations have become less isolated and have become more common in their application to licensees where, whilst there have been infractions or failings, there has been no criminal spend, serious consumer harm, or systematic failure to comply.
The current position
The new special measures process formed part of the consultation for the revised Licensing, Compliance and Enforcement Policy Statement published on 23 June, 2022. The process is now embodied in and included as part of that revised official Gambling Commission policy without any changes from the pilot scheme previously being trialled.
If considered appropriate by the Gambling Commission, the process of special measures is commenced following a compliance assessment in which serious failings are identified. The Gambling Commission explains in the 2021 Report that “special measures are appropriate where the licensee has reached the threshold for a section 116 review but [the Gambling Commission] determines [it has] a very high level of confidence that there is no, or limited, ongoing risk of consumer harm, with demonstration of early acceptance of failings and a clear, proactive commitment to swiftly remediating the failings.” In order to qualify for the special measures process, the licensee must meet the following requirements:
- the licensee must acknowledge and accept the failings;
- a formal action plan detailing improvements to be made must be submitted within five days; this plan should implement controls that immediately mitigate the risk of consumer harm; and
- key persons must attend a formal meeting and explain why there are failings and what will be done immediately to mitigate the risk of consumer harm.
The Gambling Commission will consider the submitted action plan and decide whether it appears acceptable. A further short extension may be given if some alterations are required (not more than two days) to enable agreement on the suggested revision. Thereafter, the licensee is required to adhere to the following requirements and timetable:
- report weekly on the progress against the action plan and meet the deadlines proposed
- complete the action plan within three months
- pass a further compliance assessment after three months
- calculate how much they have financially benefited from non-compliance and propose how they will divest themselves of this amount.
Cases which the Gambling Commission do not consider suitable for special measures will not enter this process and will be subject to the usual suite of regulatory action. Where there is evidence that consumers may be at significant risk of harm, the Gambling Commission will consider suspending licensable activity immediately and special measures will be deemed inappropriate.
If the licensee fails to agree an action plan, or fails to implement the agreed action plan, the Gambling Commission is likely to proceed to review the licence. Importantly, the Commission specifically state that “compliance with the action plan does not prevent the Commission from reviewing the licence in any event, but that such compliance will be treated as a mitigating factor”: this point is dealt with further below. Where the licensee has fully complied with the action plan, it may request release from Special Measures. The Gambling Commission will consider such a request following a further compliance assessment.
The process of special measures deserves a cautious welcome, especially if the alternative is a full licence review, with all that entails for licensees: the cost, the length of the review, the management time involved, the potential for substantial financial penalties, warnings, public statements, as well as the ever-present threat of suspension or even loss of licence. Against that background, the alternative of special measures is an attractive one.
For licensees, a further advantage of the process is that the Gambling Commission cannot impose either a financial penalty or warning. However, they will usually expect a divestment proposal, which we address below.
From the Gambling Commission’s perspective, the process produces quick results in relation to perceived failures in compliance, particularly in relation to anti money laundering and safer gambling issues, specifically in securing the lowering of thresholds. The nature of the process means considerably less work for the Gambling Commission, but this applies also to licensees, many of whom have now been through the process.
It is well known that the Gambling Commission has concerns throughout the industry with the level of customer losses before customer interactions, affordability (often linked to AML) or EDD enquiries are undertaken. The special measures process is a much less formal one than a licence review and can be less antagonistic. It goes some way to answer the call from many independent advisers to the industry, including Harris Hagan, for greater opportunity for discussion between regulator and licensee to resolve issues, though, as we have said, there is more to be done in this regard.
In our experience, the meetings are relatively good spirited, with the Gambling Commission sticking mainly to the points raised in the findings letter following the compliance assessment, looking for broad insight into the failings identified, and seeking to understand what actions have been and or are being taken to address those concerns. Given that the licensee will have submitted an action plan by the time of the meeting, it can serve as a sensible agenda for discussion in the meeting.
Whilst special measures may not be a Trojan horse, neither are they a gift horse. Inevitably there are downsides and traps for the unwary. The special measures process is not in reality an attempt by the Gambling Commission to “trick” licensees. However, there are difficult decisions to be made during the process, for which careful judgement is required.
A licensee may refuse Special Measures; however, this would probably mean that the licensee, based on the identified failings, would be subjected to a review of its licence. As part of that review process, the Gambling Commission would want to understand why the licensee was unwilling to work to achieve compliance quickly. Such a refusal could be prejudicial to the outcome of the review, so a compelling explanation would need to be offered.
There is also potential risk associated with the necessary acceptance of alleged failings, as well as in the preparation of an action with remedial measures. Both may result in the licensee admitting more and promising more than it necessarily agrees with. There is no option to challenge alleged failings without the attendant risk of a licence review, where the Gambling Commission’s findings can be challenged in the licensee’s representations. Therefore, there is potential prejudice for the licensee’s position should a licence review follow.
As mentioned above, there is no power for the Gambling Commission to impose a financial penalty or warning as part of the process, but only where a licence review has been commenced; however, there is an expectation for divestment where there is a finding of potential harm to customers. Any proposal for divestment is therefore voluntary, but that proposal must be balanced against the risk of the Gambling Commission deciding to commence a review.
The Gambling Commission will not only expect a quantum assessment, but also a report setting out how that quantum has been reached. It is important that this report is carefully considered as (1) it needs to be realistic and justifiable (2) it needs to meet the Gambling Commission’s expectations, (3) with an eye on the risk of regulatory action, licensees will not want to acknowledge and divest for failings beyond those with which they agree, and (4) it is important that any divestment is no more than strictly necessary. This is because, in the event of a future licence review, this could result in a financial penalty and an attendant risk of having to pay twice for the same failings.
There is no formal methodology for calculating any proposed divestment. Identifying an appropriate figure is best achieved through judgement and experience, combined with an analysis of the findings identified. Here lies the conundrum: start too low and the figure may be interpreted by the Gambling Commission as not demonstrating sufficient insight into alleged failings and/or that it may aggravate the Gambling Commission. Go too high and the point at (4) above may apply.
Formulating the correct approach therefore requires careful thought; it will vary according to the circumstances and to the nature and extent of the Gambling Commission’s findings: identifying an appropriate figure is best achieved through judgement and experience, combined with an analysis of the findings identified.
It should also be remembered that special measures can be an interim process: it is not a fixed alternative to a licence review, which remains an option available to the Gambling Commission. It may follow up both in relation to proposed actions and divestment. Most frequently, the greatest difficulty often is satisfying the Gambling Commission as to the level of thresholds in operation, or in relation to proposed divestment in relation to certain customers.
But the greatest risk is that a licensee fails to meet the Gambling Commission’s expectations at the three-month revisit and assessment. This inevitably risks the threat of suspension and/or the commencement of a licence review.
Licensees should be aware that in the event of an unsuccessful special measures process, with a subsequent licence review, the Gambling Commission may seek to introduce failings identified on the first assessment. It is therefore important that in carrying out this exercise, a licensee does not provide the Gambling Commission with the opportunity to point to comments or admissions made during the special measures process in any subsequent review process.
In conclusion, our view is that perhaps two cheers, rather than three, are raised for special measures; the new process is often effective both for the regulator and for the licensee. However, the licensee should always bear in mind that a licence review may follow, and act accordingly. Great care needs to be taken from the very beginning. Our advice to licensees is therefore to seek legal advice as soon as notification of special measures is received from the Gambling Commission.