The Affordability Debate: Protection, Responsibility and the Right to Choose
That affordability checks are a critical issue for the British gambling industry is undeniable; they place a yet further onerous burden on an already stretched gambling industry. However, without fear of exaggeration, they also raise a question about the rights of British adults to make their own free choices, both good and bad and to have responsibility for their own actions. Other industry commentators have written at length on this controversial issue, but its importance is such that it bears further examination, not least as to the way in which this line of regulation is developing.
Where’s the evidence?
In its Consultation and call for evidence – Remote customer interaction requirements (the “Consultation”), the Gambling Commission identify the problem leading to the consultation and proposed new measures as being that some operators have inadequate customer interaction processes and triggers which are set too high, as evidenced by research, casework and “lived experience” evidence. They conclude that the resolution of this will be defined affordability assessments at thresholds set by the Gambling Commission.
Ultimately, the Gambling Commission seeks to reform the way that operators are required to identify customers who may be at risk of gambling harms, by imposing mandatory triggers for activity that should flag such customers to the operator, what action must be taken by operators when such triggers are identified, and how operators must ensure that they evaluate the effectiveness of their approach to interacting with customers. A new customer interaction ‘manual’ is proposed as part of the customer interaction reforms, which will explain the new requirements of the Licence Conditions and Codes of Practice and how operators are expected to meet these requirements. This would replace the current guidance, Customer interaction – formal guidance for remote gambling operators (July 2019). The actual spending limits on which the Gambling Commission will settle, remain to be determined following the Consultation. However, the references in the Raising standards for consumers – Compliance and enforcement report 2019-20 (the “Enforcement Report”) and the Consultation suggest very low figures indeed before intervention is mandated and evidence required: the Gambling Commission have referred to “firm requirements”.
We are concerned that the Gambling Commission is not adopting a risk based and proportionate approach, combined with the fact that the evidential basis for this Consultation includes research in which customers admit to having sometimes lost more than they can afford, rather than their gambling being unaffordable. Have not we all sometimes had more to drink than is good for us, without being harmed by alcohol any more than we choose to be? Further, the Gambling Commission cite the Enforcement Report, as evidence in support of these measures, when in fact the Enforcement Report deals with “clearly unaffordable’ gambling, whilst the proposed affordability constraints go far beyond customers losing tens of thousands, extending to affordability checks after lifetime losses of as little as hundreds of pounds. The Gambling Commission seems intent on eliminating any harm at all from gambling, seemingly believing all gambling to be inherently bad.
It is unfortunately the case that, as the Gambling Commission’s casework demonstrates, some operators are having insufficient regard for the existing requirements as to intervention and triggers at appropriate levels, leading to licence reviews and sanctions. This, however, is manifestly a problem which the Gambling Commission is addressing as regulator. Operators may not all have adapted to the tsunami of changes and additional requirements as quickly as they should, but progress has been made, and the cases referred to in the Enforcement Report are not sufficient evidence for a de facto penalty against the industry as a whole. Better surely to educate, persuade and, where necessary, take action to ensure compliance with current measures.
A further cogent reason for adopting this approach is that by prescribing fixed thresholds, the Gambling Commission would be moving away from the risk based system of regulation which is the basis of the legislation and regulation.
One additional word of caution; currently the Consultation is expressed to apply only to the online gambling industry. Do not take from this. In our opinion it will inevitable be applied to the land based sector as well; indeed the signs are that it already is.
Does the end justify the means?
One of the stated objectives of the Government’s Response to the House of Lords Gambling Industry Committee Report (the “Report”) is to “ensure balance between consumer freedom and preventing harm to the vulnerable”. We share the concern of others, that these fine words, stating a noble aim, may not reflect genuine intent. As yet, there is no new legislation, the Gambling Review has only just commenced, but already draconian new measures requiring affordability checks are effectively in force. Support for this approach is to be found as early as paragraph 5 of the Report’s introduction, which states:
“The Committee is also right to say that further progress to make gambling safer does not need to wait for the outcome of the Act Review.”
We have written previously of the Gambling Commission’s worrying foray into creating what is in effect new law and regulation without due process or consultation, commenting then that the Gambling Commission was “taking a novel approach that facilitates prescriptive changes to its regulatory framework without consultation or notice” (our blog on 18 May 2020: “New Gambling Commission Guidance for Online Operators: Changing the Basis of Regulation?”). Now that approach is apparently beingsanctioned by Government. Not that the Gambling Commission even waited for that rather pale green light; in the Enforcement Report, the Gambling Commission stated that operators must interact with customers early on to set adequate affordability triggers to protect customers from gambling related harm, threatening that “failure to do so could render the operator non-compliant.” Customers wishing to spend more than the national average disposable income should, according to the Gambling Commission, be asked to provide evidence to support a higher trigger. The Enforcement Report was published on 6 November 2020, just three days after the Gambling Commission launched its consultation on further checks.
Without being unduly cynical, once again the Gambling Commission has jumped the gun. It appears, as has been previously established with such consultations, that they are little more than a box ticking exercise; at worst, with no real intention to entertain alternative opinions and suggestions, or even expertise.
In this case, the emperor truly has been shown to have no clothes; the Gambling Commission has not simply disregarded the results of the Consultation, it has pre-empted it, demonstrating that the exercise is a sham. In effect, the word of the Gambling Commission is now law. We do not need to question their motives, which may be all to the good, with a genuine desire to protect the vulnerable. However, the end cannot always justify the means. The idea that the Gambling Commission has the power, in effect, to regulate by decree, an instrument reminiscent of autocracy or totalitarianism, is abhorrent.
Where’s the balance?
Tim Miller of the Gambling Commission has expressed the intention of having “an open discussion with the gambling industry, consumers, people with lived experience and other stakeholders, to ensure we strike the right balance between allowing consumer freedom and ensuring that there are protections in place to prevent gambling harm.”
Operators will no doubt do their utmost to challenge as part of the Consultation, the levels at which these inevitable new requirements are to be set. However, the evidence on which the Gambling Commission is likely to rely, will almost certainly not include the views of the silent majority of consumers who safely enjoy gambling; they are not included in the group of “people with lived experience”, which is made up solely of those adversely affected by gambling. But the real issue of liberty here is the principle that adults should be free to make their own choices: even bad ones. Most people would regard as unacceptable, the suggestion that their spending should be questioned by any authority; for example when buying alcohol. Nor do most consider it right that anyone, and certainly not a commercial enterprise, should demand private financial information from them. The fact that this is coming to pass in this industry perhaps illustrates the strength of the anti-gambling lobby and its sympathisers, if not supporters, within the regulatory authority. This is a threat to us all.
What are the implications? It does not need a Sherlock Holmes, or even an Inspector Clouseau to understand that in the absence of operators adopting affordability checks now, their licences are at risk of review, and consequently, of suspension or revocation. Indeed, we have already seen the Gambling Commission requiring such checks of those numerous operators currently the subject of regulatory action. Inevitably this, temporarily at least, places them at a disadvantage to their competitors. The means to protect the vulnerable are already in place. We do not need to assume that all gamblers, or all drinkers or any other class of consumer, is inherently and automatically at risk of harm. We must preserve the principle of freedom of choice.