Between 23 and 28 March 2023 the Gambling Commission published various sets of Public Findings explaining that operators 32Red and Platinum Gaming (both owned by the Kindred Group) and the William Hill Group had agreed to pay over £26 million in fines for social responsibility and money laundering failures.
The £19.2 million which William Hill agreed to pay for the breaches uncovered by the Commission is said to be the largest fine ever paid by a UK operator. The Chief Executive of the Gambling Commission is quoted as saying of the investigation into William Hill: “When we launched this investigation, the failings we uncovered were so widespread and alarming serious consideration was given to licence suspension.” This is an astonishing conclusion regarding the activities of the owners of many hundreds of high street betting shops across the length and breadth of the country and one of the most famous brands in the history of UK bookmaking.
The Commission’s report contains an example of one of William Hill’s brands allowing a customer to lose £14,902 in the space of 70 minutes. Another example records a customer losing £54,252 in four weeks without the operator seeking evidence of income. Perhaps most astonishingly, yet another example suggests that William Hill allowed 331 customers who had been excluded by one of its brands to continue to gamble with another of its brands.
Then there are the examples of anti-money laundering failures. These include the failure to obtain source of funds evidence from a customer who staked £276,942 over a two month period. There are many other examples which will no doubt cause the National Crime Agency serious concern.
The most egregious elements of the William Hill Group’s conduct are in fact set out in the latter stages of the Commission’s Findings. These include the Commission’s conclusion that the operators’ various breaches were similar to high-profile breaches in previous investigations which had caused the Commission to publish ‘lessons to be learned’. Perhaps most concerning however was the Commission’s conclusion that the nature of the operators’ breaches meant that the it was not possible to identify the extent of their wrongdoing. Put another way, the breaches identified could merely be the tip of the iceberg.
In the wider context, these fines are not good news for those concerned about the publication of the government’s long promised Gambling White Paper and the potential introduction of affordability checks. The behaviour of Kindred and William Hill identified by the Gambling Commission during the course of its investigations is grist to the mill of those who argue in favour of making it ever more difficult for punters to place bets with bookmakers.
But perhaps the conclusion which could most usefully be drawn by those considering the reform of the gambling industry is this: while the Gambling Commission is responsible for uncovering the breaches set out above (among many others), the uncomfortable truth is that the Commission has for some time now regulated an industry where various major players appear to be routinely committing extremely serious breaches of their regulatory obligations. It does not seem entirely unreasonable to suggest that this might at least in part result from a failure in regulation.
Fining operators after the event can only ever amount to an inadequate remedy for their misconduct. It is important to bear in mind that none of the customers referred to in the examples of the operator’s breaches cited by the Commission in its reports will ever see a penny of the vast fines which the operators are now required to pay. This, perhaps above everything, illustrates that reactive regulation (i.e. punishing operators for breaches) is no substitute for proactive regulation (i.e. preventing breaches of the nature identified in the first place). In fairness to the regulator it claims that it is starting to see an improvement in the conduct of operators. Whether any such improvement will become evident in time to help fend off what many see as the threat of aggressive over-regulation, only time will tell.