Special report: Bookmakers keen to show a caring face

Bookmakers at Aintree

Bookmakers: Sector is under pressure to show social responsibility

  PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)  

 By Bill Barber 3:14PM 5 OCT 2016 

Bill Barber examines how under-fire bookmakers are tackling problem gambling.

GAMBLING COMMISSION chief executive Sarah Harrison’s warning was stark. Last December, she told operators at a Responsible Gambling Trust conference: “Let’s be clear, the industry really has to be at the top of its game, placing social responsibility at the heart of what it does.”

Bookmakers are now under intense scrutiny from politicians, media and campaigners alike over the measures they are taking to tackle problem gambling, especially around controversial gaming machines.

Critics say bookmakers are not doing enough and the measures they have taken such as self-exclusion and on-screen messages on gaming machines are ineffective.

The sector faces the spectre of even stricter regulation, but there are signs the industry is beginning to meet the demands being made of it.

ABB takes a lead role

Over the last six months the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) has begun to steer the betting shop sector’s efforts in the social responsibility sphere.

The impetus has come from the National Responsible Gambling Strategy, produced in April by the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board (RGSB). That body had been established to advise the Gambling Commission and, in turn, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The strategy identified 12 areas for action such as an improvement in understanding and measuring harm and improvement in the methods of identifying harmful play.

Gambling Commission programme director for consumer policy Paul Hope said last week: “We want to see the industry play a central role in delivering the National Responsible Gambling Strategy.”

ABB chief executive Malcolm George said the RGSB paper had been critical in shaping its thinking.

“We looked at their 12 priority actions and said how do we match off against these and what innovations have we got in the pipeline,” George said. “How can we map what we are doing against what the RGSB is looking for.

“It was a really useful process. It involved the machine manufacturers as well, although it’s not solely focused on B2s [gaming machines], it’s broader.

“Over the summer we spent the end of June, July and most of August working on this and we mapped a series of activities against their plan.”

One of the main measures high-street bookmakers have introduced this year has been a multi-operator self-exclusion system, enabling gamblers who want to ban themselves from betting shops to do so in one fell swoop rather than having to go through the process with individual firms.

The Gambling Commission made it a requirement for all land-based operators across the arcade, betting, bingo and casino sectors to participate in such a scheme.

The new system was trialled in Chatham and Glasgow before being rolled out nationally, although critics question its effectiveness.

George said: “We know it isn’t the finished article. The basic system is there and I think over the next 12 to 18 months we will see potential for it to be quite significantly upgraded with technology.

“It was never our belief and we never presented it as the end state when we introduced it. It is about evolving it and we’re doing that.”

William Hill Betting Shop

Betting shops have introduced tougher self-exclusion measures

  PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)  

‘People sign up and stay away’

Staff operating the scheme have been seconded from William Hill and were originally based at Hills’ offices in Wood Green, north London, although run by a steering group comprising all the operators.

However, since mid-September they have been based at the London offices of the Senet Group, the betting industry’s self-appointed watchdog.

Those calling the confidential helpline to speak to staff cannot self-exclude across every betting shop.

Instead staff have mapping technology which enables them to self-exclude from the betting shops where a caller lives, works and socialises.

That is usually around 20 shops, although it can be more. One lorry driver asked to self-exclude from every shop along the M1 corridor. Their details and a photo are then circulated around the shops in question.

Critics of the scheme say betting shop staff will not be able to prevent every self-excluded customer from betting if their resolve weakens.

Senet Group chief executive George Kidd said: “There are some people who would be critics of whatever is done because that is where they are starting from.

“If someone is determined to breach their self-exclusion and gamble they’ll find a way, in the same way if someone is going to try to prove the scheme doesn’t always work they’ll manage. But mostly it works, people sign up and stay away.

“When they weaken, by and large they are spotted before they place a bet rather than after. It’s not perfect but it’s an important way of helping people who have got themselves in a bad place.”

Callers to the helpline are also given advice on how they can self-exclude online from individual firms.

However, a project to establish a multi-operator self-exclusion scheme for online operators is being worked on and is set to be ready by the end of 2017.

Remote Gambling Association chief executive Clive Hawkswood said: “Someone who wants to self-exclude nationally for online will go to a single site and will go through a self-exclusion process and that will be it.

“Clearly for people who want to control their gambling it’s going to make things an awful lot more effective.”

Just as in the land-based sector the Gambling Commission, which Hawkswood said had been “very supportive”, is making it a licence requirement that online operators must be a member of a national self-exclusion system.

He added: “We will at some point set up a new entity to own and run it. We’ve invested a lot of money and time into it.

“It’s a big job. There are a lot of data- protection issues but we are confident we can do a really good job on it.”

‘We can be more sophisticated’

Data is something betting operators have an awful lot of and it is shaping how problem gambling is tackled.

George said: “One of the things I don’t think people understand about social responsibility is that 99.9 per cent of the data that is used to analyse issues around problem gambling, around machines primarily, comes from us.

“We make that data available to the Responsible Gambling Trust [RGT] or to bodies that are appointed by the RGT to analyse the data.”

It was research by the RGT that led to the introduction of the Player Awareness System (Pas).

Betting shop operators had already introduced time and spending warnings on machines as well as implementing restrictions on stakes of more than £50.

Through Pas, gaming machine players logged on through accounts have their behaviour assessed against a range of markers of problem gambling. Alerts via text, email, or on-screen can then be sent to players.

George said the industry realised the system would be criticised for only dealing with account-based play.

However, he added: “There is also the potential to look at anonymised play and the potential to use pop-up messages on screens when basic forms of what might be problem gambling behaviour exhibit themselves.

“At the moment it is very basic, the machines have a spend limit where you get an alert and a time limit. Can we be more sophisticated than that? We think we can.

“We can look at other elements of how people are playing, staking etc, and develop a series of alerts which go with that. That’s going to be quite a major piece of work.

“We are also going to be looking at the messages. Is it possible to bring in escalating messages which increase in their severity as people breach alert levels?”

Similar work is happening among the online operators, Hawkswood says.

“Most companies apply an element of player analytics to monitor player behaviour,” he said.

“What we are trying to do is take that and use it, first to identify the signs of problem gambling behaviour and then second to find the best way to intervene and try to either stop it getting worse or stop it before it happens.”

Striving for early intervention

The RGT has commissioned Price-waterhouseCoopers to complete a two-phase programme of research into remote gambling behaviour.

Hawkswood said: “The first piece of work looked at which behaviours are most common, which are the most accurate indicators that something is going wrong.

“The piece they are looking at now is the effectiveness of interactions.”

He added: “A lot of these social responsibility efforts are designed to help people when they have a problem.

“If we can fine-tune the analytics we can intervene before it becomes too much of a problem.

“What it shows is you can catch a lot of people on the cusp, that little reminder is a wake-up call and just helps them reflect and rein back in again.”

At William Hill’s Wood Green offices, compliance teams are also dealing with data coming in from their retail estate every day.

Shops send in reports which record issues such as breaches of self-exclusions, under-age challenges and responsible gambling interactions that compliance staff will follow up if necessary.

William Hill’s director of group regulatory affairs Andrew Lyman said: “So we understand what’s going on in the shops we end up with narrative reports coming through on a daily basis.

“So, for example, if someone has breached a self-exclusion we ask for a report on that and then follow up with the line team about why it has happened and get some learnings from that.”

Lyman rebutted the argument that shop staff are discouraged from reporting incidents.

“The bottom line is that staff have the option to report anything they want to,” he said. “They don’t have to go via their district manager, they can go direct to the centre.”

Lyman said the company did not just rely on reports coming upwards from shop staff as they also run reports on over-the-counter business.

“With shops that have significantly increased in turnover, for example, we want to know why. You can’t afford to say ‘great, my shop turnover has doubled’ and not know why it has doubled.”

Hills’ director of corporate affairs David Steele added: “This isn’t something people are playing at. This is something people treat incredibly seriously.

“We want to operate fully compliantly, we don’t want issues and this is the way we can scrutinise our estate as best we can. It’s not a perfect system but none of us would claim that.”

William Hill shopfront

Attempts are being made to raise health issues with shop customers

  PICTURE: David Dew (racingpost.com/photos)  

Community boards trialled

While self-exclusion and using data to tackle problem gambling are major efforts, there are smaller projects the industry is carrying out as well.

“One of the things we are looking at is the demographic of betting shops,” George said. “We have quite an interesting demographic in that it’s male and often over 50.

“They are traditionally a hard group to get health messages to. So we have teamed up with Cancer Research UK and are working on a pilot with Ladbrokes where we are hosting cancer prevention for men over 50 at shops.”

It is being done through community boards which Ladbrokes are testing in some of their shops.

Their director of corporate affairs Grainne Hurst said: “One of the things we are trialling in our shops are community boards which are in 100 shops with different elements.

“One of them is promoting local initiatives, such as fundraising and local groups, so it is a community board for good causes. We don’t allow people to advertise.

“We also have a health section on there so we are raising awareness of Cancer Research and also a section where we promote the Ladbrokes Charitable Trust, which has so far donated around £7 million to good causes locally.”

There is also an industry pilot in London’s Chinatown. George said: “We are reviewing all the material which sits in shops looking at the potential to get Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking staff members to act as ambassadors.

“The key is these things aren’t very much use as one-offs so what we will do is get an evaluation, see if it is successful.

“We have the potential to look at other ethnic groups around Britain and see whether we need to be doing more and providing better non-English language services around problem gambling.”

More progress to make

The charity GamCare, whose funding includes grants received through RGT, said it welcomed the betting industry’s initiatives.

The charity’s head of education and prevention Stella Dalton said: “The GambleAware campaigns in the retail sector led by the ABB over the past 12 months have contributed to raise awareness of the National Gambling Helpline and free confidential support delivered by GamCare and local partner agencies throughout the UK.

“There was an increase in calls especially during the campaigns. The freephone helpline number displayed in betting shop windows, increased messaging, staff awareness – collectively these initiatives to reach out to customers we see as a positive step forward to improve consumer protection and to inform support.”

Paul Hope of the Gambling Commission believes the betting industry is performing well on social responsibility in some respects.

“There are a number of areas in which the industry is making progress – ranging from advertising codes, to gambling management tools, to self-exclusion schemes,” he said.

However, he added: “Operators have more progress to make in the way they handle customer complaints and ensure advertising does not mislead.

“They must also strike the correct balance between terms and conditions being fit for purpose, and being fair to – and understood by – consumers.

“All operators should be doing more to identify potentially harmful play and to interact effectively with their customers.”

He added: “The industry certainly needs to up its game in terms of funding to the Responsible Gambling Trust.”

Hope said the commission was pleased work was under way on the RGSB’s strategy priorities, but he added: “We are seeing a lot of activity, but our interest is what is being learned, what is working, and therefore being put into practice, and at what speed?”

George believes he has reassurance for the commission. “I think there was a feeling a few years ago that the industry would just do things because they seemed like the right thing to do and never really checked that they were of any value or working,” he said.

“So on everything we are doing in this programme for RGSB there is an evaluation phase.”

The work going on across the betting industry suggests that if there had been complacency among operators that is not the case now.

And bookmakers’ efforts do seem to be being acknowledged by the Gambling Commission.

However, the words of commission chief executive Sarah Harrison are a warning that, in a hostile environment, the industry needs to make huge efforts to meet its obligations and ensure it get its message across.

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