Sarah Harrison the punters’ champion at the Gambling Commission

‘We want people to enjoy gambling but we want them to do it safely, we want them to be treated fairly,’ says the chief executive

‘We want people to enjoy gambling but we want them to do it safely, we want them to be treated fairly,’ says the chief executive.

‘Far more willing to show her teeth than her predecessors were” is the first thing a betting industry source says when asked to assess Sarah Harrison’s first two years in charge at the Gambling Commission. The chief executive has ruffled feathers with her determination to enforce standards and bookmakers are now keenly aware that exposure of a significant lapse may lead to them being belted with a six-figure fine.

Harrison undoubtedly has a reputation for having slipped some lead into the Commission’s glove. Just this month she heralded a new enforcement strategy with the words: “We will take robust and effective action when gambling companies don’t meet their obligations.” Misleading or ambiguous advertisements have attracted fines of £300,000 and £150,000 this year. Betfred, Coral and Paddy Power found themselves having to pay six-figure sums last year after being found at fault in other ways.

Harrison does not welcome a suggestion that she has been handier with the big stick than those who went before. “I don’t think that’s the right basis to look at this at all,” she says, insistently moving the conversation away from her and towards the job. “It’s quite simple really. The thing that we’re focused on now is, we want people to enjoy gambling but we want them to do it safely, we want them to be treated fairly. And the message to operators is: work with us to achieve that, raise standards with us, but those that fail to do that, then we’ll tackle them.”

Harrison feels no one should be surprised to see her standing up for the punter, pointing to her previous work in regulation. As a senior partner at the energy regulator, Ofgem, she recalls much of her work involved tackling issues around fuel poverty. More than 20 years ago she was the first director of Icstis, overseeing premium-rate phone services and concerning herself with bill-payers whose phones were being used, possibly without their permission, to run up debts. “A lot of my career has been in and around consumer protection, consumer empowerment,” she says. “So, for me, coming into the Gambling Commission was a great opportunity.”

Consumer empowerment is certainly a novel concept in gambling. It is only 10 years since gambling debts became enforceable by law. For centuries punters have been used to the struggle of getting a decent bet on and then the still greater struggle of getting paid if said bet turns out to be a winner. They have been lured with dubious offers, subjected to unfair suspicions, had their accounts closed capriciously and generally been kicked around. Now, thanks to Harrison, punters have the ear of power for the first time.

Last month she met the organising figures behind Justice for Punters, who are delighted by the investigation the Commission is pursuing in tandem with the Competition and Markets Authority into firms suspected of unfairness in their terms and conditions. The Horserace Bettors Forum is also encouraged by Harrison’s work and has had officials in attendance at two of its meetings. HBF figures will shortly make a return visit to the Commission’s Birmingham headquarters.

“Quite right, too,” Harrison says when it is noted she has been meeting punters’ groups. “There’s nothing more powerful than being able to hear from individuals or organisations that represent those individuals, who can give you the insight and some evidence as well that helps us understand what their experience is in practice. We will want to talk to any organisation or any individual that’s got issues that are concerning them as consumers.

“And then we will look at what needs to be done. If it means that there need to be further changes to our laws and regulations and the evidence is pointing in that direction, then we will do that.”

She notes the Commission is not a consumer redress organisation and that it has recently told firms to review and improve their procedures for handling complaints and resolving disputes.

Punters’ groups would rather the Commission was much more vocal when it comes to firms accused of excessive or unjustified delay in paying out. The Guardian reported in May on the case of a punter owed £245,000 by Seanie Macand the licence-holder confirmed that other high-staking gamblers had been “inconvenienced”, but the Commission declined to discuss the case.

“We are aware and we are investigating,” Harrison says. The investigation is in its “early stages” and she cannot even confirm if the Commission is in talks with Sportsbetting and Gaming Services, the relevant licence-holder.

Asked what she would say to any Seanie Mac customers who might be anxious about the implications, she says: “My message to them is that we’re concerned, we’re investigating this and, if there’s action to be taken against the licensee, if there’s evidence of issues there, then we will look to take that action.”

It is another of the many aspects of Harrison’s job, overseeing what she describes as “the largest regulated online gambling market in the world”.

She is satisfied, for now, that she has the powers and staffing levels needed to get the job done and believes that betting firms, for the most part, want to work with her.

“My experience is that all operators engage well and effectively with the Gambling Commission. As they should, they’re licensed by us, they have a responsibility to make sure they live and breathe the terms of that licence and pay regard to what the regulator says. But that’s not to say there isn’t always a place for improvement.

“There’s a place for the big stick and there’s a place also for working with businesses who are serious about raising standards.”

Source: The Guardian

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