The time for reflection?
Harris Hagan and Regulus Partners have set out over the course of four articles our concerns about the Gambling Commission’s (the “Commission”) consultation (the “Consultation”) on the proposed Customer Interaction – Guidance for remote operators (the “Guidance”). Of these many concerns, the principal one is that the Guidance is so obviously bad regulation. It may have been inspired by noble intentions, but a combination of loose drafting, weak evidence, legislative incompatibility and a failure to fully and adequately consider the consequences threatens to result in a costly, ineffective and incoherent regime. All of these issues can relatively easily be avoided if the Commission revisits the Guidance in the light of responses to the Consultation.
Putting aside the fact that it is inappropriate, and arguably ultra vires, for the Commission to introduce formal requirements through guidance, the drafting of the Guidance is hopelessly ambiguous; key terms are either undefined or so highly generalised as to be meaningless. This creates scope for subjectivity, wildly divergent interpretation, market distortion and confusion about what constitutes compliance. Licensees are required, for example, to consider both “young adults” and “older adults” as vulnerable, but without any explanation as to when one stops being ‘young’, or starts being ‘older’. A customer using “multiple products” is said to be displaying an “indicator of harm or potential harm”, but the Guidance is silent on what a ‘product’ is, or what timeframe should be considered; is someone whose only gambling consists of annual punts on the Grand National and the FA Cup Final really exhibiting potentially harmful behaviour?
There is a lack of clarity as to what the Commission considers to be a “strong indicator of harm” in the Guidance. In the Consultation the Commission acknowledges previous concerns raised about this, and states that it “does not consider it appropriate at this time to set requirements which would remove the discretion or ability on the part of operators to tailor processes to their businesses and customers”. There is no easy way of prescribing precisely what may be a “strong indicator of harm”, however, if the Commission wishes to permit discretion, it could assist licensees by explaining to them how it will determine, during compliance assessments or enforcement action, what amounts to a “strong indicator of harm” so that they are appropriately informed when applying that discretion.
The Guidance appears to conflate “indicators of harm” with actual harm – requiring licensees to take action to correct customer behaviours regardless of whether they are in fact harmful. There is a clear distinction between “identifying harm or potential harm” and identifying customers “that may be at risk of harm”. In consequence, licensees are required to demonstrate impacts on behaviour, even where the customer is gambling without issues. This risks unjustifiably trampling on consumer autonomy, a dangerous precedent in regulation. It also makes it almost impossible for licensees to justify not conducting a safer gambling interaction based on either “indicators of harm”, “vulnerability” or both: a combination of the “indicators” applying to anyone who gambles.
The second big problem is one of process. Whereas the Gambling Act 2005 recognises vulnerability as an exceptional state applicable to people unable to make properly informed or adult decisions, the Guidance conceives vulnerability to harm as being universal, with consumers divided between the victims and the vulnerable. The Commission’s revisionism has enormous implications for the functioning of the market and the interests of consumers as well as parliamentary sovereignty. It is not the Commission’s role to twist the law in order to accommodate moral inclination and the Consultation itself raises questions of process with certain aspects of the Guidance seemingly inviolate.
Neither the Consultation, nor the Guidance takes account of the practicability of the measures required, the cost implications, or the potential for negative unintended consequences.
The Guidance offers few clues as to what specific actions licensees should take in response to “indicators” and proposes a distinction between what operators ‘should’ do and what they ‘must’ do: a distinction that is likely to elude most compliance officers, as well as the Commission’s own enforcement officials.
Very little evidence is presented by the Commission to explain the basis for selection of the “indicators”, and much of what is provided is highly selective and in some cases misleading: the classification of in-play betting as an “indicator” is an obvious example of this. The effect is that the regime appears arbitrary and deprives licensees who attempt to understand it of important context: understanding the specific basis for classifying something as an “indicator” would mean licensees are better placed to respond appropriately and to the benefit of consumers.
The Commission appears to have undertaken no research into consumer support for the measures that are being mandated or how they might react to them. One of the more alarming aspects is the characterisation of vulnerability in the Guidance based on broad generalisations about age (‘young’ as well as ‘older’ adults), disability (‘poor physical or mental health’) or educational attainment (‘poor literacy or numeracy skills’ and ‘knowledge’). This, along with the suggestion in the Guidance that licensees should harvest medical information about their customers, could be interpreted as unfairly discriminatory and introduces issues of privacy and data protection, with licensees encouraged to harvest and store highly sensitive information about a customer’s health or personal life. There is no demonstration within the Consultation that the Commission has considered the ethical or legal dimensions of this requirement, the extent to which licensees possess the requisite expertise to interpret such information, or whether this is even possible.
The Social Responsibility Code (which obliges licensees to take into account the Guidance) will be implemented in full from 12 February 2023, less than three weeks after the Consultation closes. This is an indecently short period for the Commission to weigh opinion and evidence and leaves licensees with little time to align safer gambling systems to the new rules. To date, it appears that very little, if any, effort has been made to understand the views of gambling consumers, or to consider the negative unintended consequences that seem almost certain to arise for them.
As the Commission has itself recently noted, many operators are “moving in the right direction and are looking to move their customers away from behaviours that present a higher risk to [the] licensing objectives.” Whilst the Commission is admirably seeking to ensure that customers are not harmed from gambling, it is vitally important that its expectations are clear and evidence based if that positive progress is to continue. In its current form, the Guidance does not deliver in those areas: this is not only unfair on licensees, it is dangerous from a consumer protection perspective. In recent times the Commission’s actions have indicated a willingness to improve its engagement with licensees. This is a very positive change. Rather than rush to implement the Guidance, the Commission would be best served to consider all consultation responses, and revisit the Guidance, even if this means a delay.
There is common sense at the heart of the Guidance; but common sense tends to be context dependent and often resists codification. The Commission’s approach reflects a philosophy of market regulation by rules alone; something that is guaranteed to result in bad regulation and negative outcomes for consumers. Now is the time for reflection.
With thanks to Dan Waugh from Regulus Partners for his invaluable co-authorship.