Speaking at a Parliamentary All Party Betting & Gaming Group seminar on 29 March 2017, Sarah Harrison, CEO of the Gambling Commission, encouraged gambling operators to build businesses highly focused on consumers, aiming not just for consumer enjoyment but also consumer trust. On the same day, the Commission published a review, "Complaints processes in the gambling industry (March 2017)", the foreword to which makes clear that effective handling of consumer complaints is a key element in building this consumer trust.
European regulations on alternative dispute resolution (ADR) came into effect in October 2015. These tasked the Gambling Commission with responsibility for certifying ADR providers in the British gambling sector. The Commission is now reviewing the impact the regulations have had and taking the opportunity to look more generally at complaints procedures across the gambling sector.
The Commission's proposals and areas of focus for further consultation cover not just what the Commission will expect from gambling operators and ADR providers, but also ways in which the Commission itself can more effectively put in place rules and standards to support those operators and providers.
In particular, the Gambling Commission is challenging operators to "take complaints more seriously by operating complaints procedures that are genuinely accessible and that give consumers trust that their concerns have been listened to and acted upon in a timely way". The Gambling Commission also states that it wants to make it easier for consumers to make complaints.
A wider range of disputes to be subject to ADR?
As the Commission notes in its review, ADR providers can look only at disputes relating to the outcome of gambling transactions. The Commission's view is that this includes disputes related to the application of bonus offers, account management, or the ability to access funds and winnings, since those are all part of the overall gambling transaction.
However, the ability of ADR providers to adjudicate on these disputes can be complicated where the operator has suspended or closed the customer's account because of AML/problem gambling concerns.
The Commission is concerned that the ADR process may be frustrating for consumers, because their complaints may not be resolved for long periods, and the consumer may be left in the dark regarding the progress of their dispute. The Commission has therefore indicated that it will look at this area further, to see whether it is possible for better information to be provided to consumers, and whether ADR providers can adjudicate on some aspects of a dispute notwithstanding the fact that there may be some form of investigation taking place.
This is a very difficult area, because of the fact that it is a criminal offence under the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) to tip off a customer if a suspicious activity report has been filed about them. In these circumstances, the POCA regime means that a suspicious-but-innocent customer will inevitably be left frustrated.
Gambling operators: emphasis on data and information requirements
The Commission is concerned that the data it receives from operators about their complaints is not always accurate. It therefore intends to improve its instructions to businesses about how and when to send the Commission their data. Effective use of data to improve consumer protection was an area of focus at the Parliamentary seminar on 29 March 2017, not only from the UK perspective but also for the representatives who attended from the Netherlands and Maltese regulators. Operators are encouraged to collect data effectively not just because it could be useful to the regulators, but also because it can help operators identify areas where they can improve their customers' experience.
The Commission is also going to consider whether businesses should be providing more information to consumers in their complaints policies and making them more visible (i.e. having them as a standalone document rather than something which is included within the operator's general T&Cs). To make the process of bringing complaints easier, the Commission will introduce the use of "Resolver", an independent online tool that supports customers in raising complaints (including by providing templates which consumers can use to make their complaints) and is already used in a number of other sectors. The Commission will need to provide information to the Resolver tool so that it can help route complaints correctly to either an ADR provider, or the Commission, as appropriate.
ADR providers: consistent standards needed
The ADR regulations do not prescribe gambling-specific standards and as a result decision making standards can vary across gambling industry ADR providers. The Commission will consider setting out a framework of requirements for providers in the gambling sector. In addition, the Commission is going to consider reducing the number of approved ADR providers (the Commission appears to have taken particular account of the fact that in many other sectors there are only two or three approved ADR providers). The framework would include standards around customer service, decision making and supporting the gambling industry.
The role of the Gambling Commission
To supplement the measures proposed in relation to operators and ADR providers, the Commission will make it clearer (on its website) what it does with the information it receives from consumers and what actions it might take in response. It will also make clearer which complaints an ADR provider can look at, and look at other ways to help consumers understand where to get help.
The Gambling Commission aims to introduce its proposals from mid-2017, starting with providing information to Resolver so that consumers can use this tool to make complaints. Other proposals will be rolled out during the rest of 2017 and in the "next few years"; in areas where consultation is required, implementation may take longer. The first step will be collecting feedback from consumers on the proposals.
The Commission's review paper and Sarah Harrison's statements at the March 2017 Parliamentary seminar make clear that the Commission does not want gambling operators to focus merely on meeting their regulatory and legal requirements in respect of ADR (or indeed any area of consumer protection). It wants to see industry participants focusing on what is best for customers and aspiring to excellence in handling complaints.