Posted by Woods Whur | Gambling

October has seen the Gambling Commission engage in an initiative to champion consumers in gambling transactions.

On 3 October it announced that it was “starting a two-way conversation”, publishing what it calls “a Plan for communicating with customers” and inviting comments on the Plan from both individuals and organisations representing consumers. The Plan has been welcomed by both Gamcare and the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, who believe the engagement will enable a better understanding of consumer behaviour and of how gambling affects them.

Launching the Plan in a video blog, the Commission chief executive Sarah Harrison said:

We want gambling companies to do much more to put consumers at the heart of the business – we’re doing this via the regulations we set and the way in which we go about enforcing them.”

To what extent this hints at additional regulation and more stringent enforcement is currently unclear and much may depend on the feedback the Commission receives. There is no deadline for responding to the Plan – indeed, it appears that the Commission sees this as an open-ended process, with the publication of the Plan being merely the first step. In its foreword, the Plan states:

We see this document as the start of a conversation. It’s not something that we will publish and leave to gather dust. The things people tell us after reading it will help us build on it over time. It may also change as we learn what works and, equally importantly, what doesn’t.”

The Plan is aimed at communicating with all interested members of the public, not merely active customers of a gambling company or consumers for whom gambling might be, or become, a problem. I see no reason why gambling operators should not themselves contribute to the debate, although the Plan does not specifically invite this.

The Commission wants the Plan to improve its own focus on putting consumers at the heart of its work in two ways – getting information from consumers, so that their voices are heard and better inform policy, and giving information to them to help them to solve any problems that they might encounter, or to avoid harm in the first place. The Commission says that, whilst it already spends much of its time looking after consumers’ interests, and stressing their importance to operators, it also needs to build on this, to look at itself and to up its game if it is to keep pace with the rapid innovation and product development taking place in the gambling sector.

The Plan is based on three principal themes – transparency and clarity, responsiveness and forming partnerships.

The Commission as regulator, somewhat unsurprisingly, sees transparency in what it does and how it makes decisions as key. It plans to carry out a “customer interest assessment” to look at how it currently publishes information and how to make it clearer and more accessible, in a number of ways: committing to plain English, summarising lengthier documents and sharing information in a more visual way so that it is more easily shared via social media. All of these moves are to be welcomed.

The responsiveness theme focuses on better enabling the Commission to keep up with a rapidly evolving sector. It plans to provide better signposting for consumers on how to deal themselves with problems associated with gambling transactions and how to complain and access Alternative Dispute Resolution. It is also looking at expanding and improving its research into consumer behaviour and at improving the performance of its Contact Centre and the way in which its staff work with the Commission’s specialist teams to ensure that increasingly complex enquiries are dealt with quickly and effectively. Again, this is to be welcomed.

The Plan announces the Commission’s intention to build new partnerships with consumer organisations. It is seeking views as to whom it should be partnering with. It is also set to review the remit of its Community Liaison Group which is currently attended by a variety of consumer organisations, academics and others, and to look at other ways of gaining insight into consumer behaviour, such as by setting up an online forum.

The Plan reveals that the Commission is working on its new website and also reviewing its social media strategy to improve the way in which it provides information to, and gathers feedback from, consumers. It will be interesting to see what the outcome of these projects is and how the Plan evolves over time.

In the meantime the Commission has already put the “partnerships” theme of the Plan into action this month, by backing an investigation launched by the Competition and Markets Authority on 21 October into the fairness of gambling operators’ terms and conditions.

The CMA has issued Information Notices under Part 3 of Schedule 5 to the Consumer Rights Act 2015 to a range of gambling operators. These Notices are just one tool that the CMA has to enable it to exercise its enforcement powers under the Enterprise Act 2002, legislation empowering it to bring cases to court for an adjudication as to whether a particular practice or contractual term is fair.

At this stage the CMA has not made any decision as to whether gambling operators are, indeed, breaching consumer protection law in their terms or practices but these Information Notices are designed to get to the bottom of whether concerns about misleading promotions and the like are founded. If it considers that they are, then this will lead to it taking enforcement action under the CRA 2015 and the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.

This investigation is the result of the Commission approaching the CMA with concerns about potential breaches of consumer law by gambling firms, including misleading terms and conditions, promotions that are difficult to understand or that may be unachievable, players being blocked from collecting their winnings, bets being cancelled or odds altered, and terms unreasonably restricting players’ rights to challenge operators’ decisions.

As a result of the Commission’s approach, a joint programme of work has been agreed with the CMA, designed to ensure that terms and practices in the sector are fair. Nisha Arora, Senior Director for Consumer Enforcement at the CMA, said:

Gambling inevitably evolves taking a risk, but it shouldn’t be a con. We’re worried players are losing out because gambling sites are making it too difficult for them to understand the terms on which they’re playing, and may not be giving them a fair deal.”

For her part, Sarah Harrison stressed that:

We expect the gambling industry to ensure terms and conditions are not unfair. However, operators are still not doing enough. I continue to have concerns that many of these appear to bamboozle rather than help the customer make informed choices.

No doubt some in the industry will be concerned about this initiative, the increased degree of scrutiny, threat of enforcement action and the importance of responding appropriately to Information Notices. If you have received a Notice and need our assistance, please contact one of the team.

We will continue to monitor the CMA investigation, and the evolution of the Commission’s consumer Plan, and will report further on both of these in future editions of this newsletter.