Confidence in the regulatory focus at the Gambling Commission is diminishing amongst the land-based sector as amusements operators find themselves weighed down by online-crafted enquiries. Some are now questioning whether the regulator should be split into two: one for land-based operations, the other for online.
“I have 22 questions to answer in the Gambling Commission’s follow-up to my licence application, most of which are completely irrelevant to my business,” one arcade operator angrily told Coinslot this week.
And it didn’t soothe the spirits when those questions arrived several weeks after the application was submitted.
“They’re asking me about IT failure and disaster policies, how my customer funds are protected in my business continuity plan, and to provide policies explaining how gaming machine suppliers I plan to work with will comply with the Commission’s remote gambling and software technical standards (RTS)? These questions are so far removed from a land-based arcade. We don’t hold customer funds, IT failures relate to online operations and I’ve no idea if gaming machine suppliers have to comply with RTS – we don’t do online, if my internet goes down or fails, I’ll do the same as the cafe next door. And if my supplier goes bust, then I source a machine or spare part from a new company. These enquiries are geared for remote operators, they bear no relevance to operating a small arcade. It’s bureaucratic rubbish and it’s dragging us down.”
It’s also impacting financially. He added: “The delays are so damaging for us; we have to seek specialist advice to answer these questions and that is another cost.”
It’s a pattern that licensing specialist Debbie Bollard recognises too well. “I’ve actually raised the point about the relevance of many of the requests for further information with the Gambling Commission directly. Unfortunately, there is little consistency in the approach being taken by individual case workers and not all applications for small arcade operators are being treated the same. Some applications are being treated as if they were for remote Operating Licences with detailed requests for additional information that bear little relevance; it’s a very technocratic organisation. The Gambling Commission sets out on its website what information it generally wants including with an Operating Licence application. But in some cases after the application has been submitted the Commission demands information that was either not mentioned on its website or is irrelevant to the application. For most smaller-sized businesses, this is frustrating and cumbersome.”
In last week’s Coinslot, issues concerning Gambling Commission failings to meet its due process deadlines for applications were raised, as was the experience levels of some GC case workers who have recently joined the regulator.
A question mark was clearly hovering; did Debbie Bollard have a different perspective? “I think even the Gambling Commission’s senior officials recognise this problem. As a regulator so fixed on statistics, it’s hard to ignore these administrative ones dropping off the chart.”
Bollard has also witnessed first hand the questions over staff experience. “I like to think that I have had a good working relationship with many of the account managers at the Commission over the years. I am aware that in the last couple of years a large number have left the Commission, some even turning poacher and going to work for operators in compliance. Some posts have not been refilled and where they have been there are shortfalls; I presume in training, with everyone working from home. This is putting immense pressure on the reduced number of account managers and case workers still at the Commission. The new staff will no doubt learn their job and speed up in time, but they don’t appear to be getting the training or supervision needed and whilst that’s not fair for them, it’s definitely not fair nor acceptable for the applicants.”
But there’s another problem; the Commission’s one size fits all policy has begun to split and tear at the seams. Land-based and online criteria are not compatible.
“It is possible that one outcome of the Gambling Review will eventually address this,” Bollard noted. “But the Commission has the means to tackle it now. Running an online gaming site and running an arcade on Stoke high street are not the same. And the application procedures should and can reflect this now,” she said.
“I’ve recently dealt with a GC application with almost a dozen questions that were nearly all relevant to online operations and hardly pertinent to my client’s application.”
So what is this line of argument leading towards – one regulator for land-based operations and one exclusively for online operators?
Bollard’s attention was piqued. “It’s an interesting suggestion and there is certainly the opportunity to have two separate divisions within the Commission, one for online operators and another for land based operators. The Review is very much focused on online gambling, which still needs tighter regulation; for land-based operations, though, they’re not only controlled, policed and monitored by the Commission but also by the various local authorities across the country. Unfortunately, the Commission is being stretched with its focus on regulating online operations, to the point that it appears to be taking resources away from the land-based sector. Hence the delays, the inexperience and the one size fits all philosophy,” she concluded.
A smaller, more focused regulator for the land-based sector; surely not? That would be far too sensible an option.