The Gambling Commission’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis
The world is currently facing its greatest health emergency since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression following the stock market crash of 1929. For the gambling industry this means a global shutdown of land-based venues and a dearth of sports betting opportunities.
The British Gambling Commission (the “Commission”) issued guidance and FAQs last Wednesday, 18 March 2020, recognising these “unprecedented circumstances” and reassuring the industry that they have a plan which will minimise the impact on their regulatory work. The remainder of the guidance reminded licensees of their compliance obligations. Whilst those in the industry who remain able to continue to operate must of course do so in accordance with the law, and the LCCP, this is almost certainly as obvious to them as it is to the Commission, and was probably not necessary to repeat.
In any event, it is only a part of what the industry is entitled to expect from its regulatory authority at such a critical time. The Commission’s own Statement of Principles for Licensing and Regulation provide that the Commission will:
- not impose unnecessary regulatory burdens in upholding the licensing objectives;
- not unduly hinder the economic progress of licensees;
- have regard to the desirability of promoting economic growth and its duty to permit gambling; and
- provide a fair regulatory framework within which licensees, both new and existing, can compete and grow with as limited a regulatory burden as is compatible with the protection of consumers, the public and the licensing objectives.
No-one would reasonably expect the Commission to stop regulating as it is required to do. However, its guidance is disappointing in what it does not say; congratulating itself for its own preparedness and repeating the need for compliance, coupled with its apparent lack of engagement with the industry, serve to suggest a lack of interest and understanding of the industry which they regulate, whether this is or is not the case. Some licensees may not recover from this disaster. Many thousands are employed in gambling and are at risk of losing their jobs. The corollary of the Commission’s own policy statement ought to have provoked the Commission also to ask, “how can we help?”
In its guidance the Commission itself asks for understanding of its position; for example, that it may be slower in responding to consumers who call its contact centre and regarding applications to vary to add new licensable activities, which would allow licensees to accept bets on virtual events. And yet it extends no such understanding to the industry.
There are steps which the Commission could at least consider and discuss with the industry to alleviate the burden of regulation, without unduly risking the licensing objectives; for example:
- to delay or postpone enforcement activity which is not critical to protecting consumers in the short-term to allow licensees to focus on supporting their customers during this difficult period;
- postponing the payment of financial penalties;
- suspending the payment of licence fees;
- postponing regulatory updates and developments such as the VIP code of conduct and industry code for responsible product and game design;
- postponing policy statements and changes to the LCCP and Codes of Practice;
- dispensing with PML maintenance requirement; and
- assisting the industry in its interaction with Government and advocating on its behalf, for example, on the exclusion of casinos and bookmakers from the recently announced business tax relief intended to ease the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
None of these measures would impact on the regulatory role of the Commission, nor would they risk the licensing objectives. They might help the industry come through this difficult time with fewer business casualties and job losses. This is an opportunity for the Commission to mitigate the risk to the industry without risking the public or consumers. All of us – industry, regulators, advisers – need to come together to lessen the impact of the crisis, and to ensure that there is a healthy and well-regulated industry for consumers to continue to enjoy in the future.