Richard Hayler: The case for a betting ombudsman and why IBAS should get the gig

Affordability, marketing and a treatment levy have all been major talking points throughout the Gambling Act review – but the creation of an ombudsman has received less attention.

Setting out its case last for why it should take on the role of official complaints and claims handler for the UK’s betting industry last week was the Independent Betting Adjudication Service (IBAS).

Providing an in-depth view into IBAS ombudsman ambitions, Richard Hayler, the group’s Managing Director, explained why such a body is necessary, why the Gambling Act review will eventually create one and why his firm is the best candidate for the job. 

SBC – The White Paper judgements are still unclear, what makes you think an Ombudsman is a likely outcome of the review?

Richard Hayler – Everyone is calling for an ombudsman; politicians, consumers and even the industry itself. It’s hard to imagine the White Paper reaching a different conclusion. So much of the review is divisive – if it was my review, I would make the most of any recommendation that was likely to be widely welcomed. 

Of course, the gambling review was initiated by a different administration. We’ll have to see the approach of the next Prime Minister and their cabinet towards gambling regulation, but it remains an exciting time for the sector.

SBC – How can an ombudsman improve, or in some cases mend, the operator-customer relationship?

RH – An ombudsman isn’t a silver bullet. There will always be an adversarial element to gambling, so the expectations for an ombudsman need to be realistic. With a bit more resource, what is achievable, is a service that can offer advice and support to consumers and provide dispute avoidance support to operators.

I also think there is plenty of scope for an ombudsman to work more closely with the Gambling Commission to address consumer concerns directly with the industry and explore whether solutions can be found without consultation exercises or regulatory penalty packages.

SBC – Has there been any changes in demand from consumers for improvements to betting’s complaints and claims process?

RH – Consumers’ expectations haven’t changed significantly, but the word ‘consumer’ covers a wide range of people in gambling. Someone having their first ever bet on the Womens’ Euros Final is a consumer and so is someone who tries to live off their betting winnings. 

Most consumers want:  

1) The person handling their complaint to know the subject matter and communicate clearly.   

2)  The process takes place in as short a time frame as possible. 

Those key concerns haven’t altered much over the 11 years I’ve been at IBAS, even though the most common themes at the heart of disputes evolve continuously.

SBC – Why are transparency and open data sharing the most important elements for a new Ombudsman?

RH – There’s no doubt that public expectations for transparency have changed during the lifetime of IBAS. We have always published examples of decisions reached by our Adjudication Panel. 

We also have an advice section on our website which sets out the questions our team will consider when considering different types of complaints. Finally, we publish our annual data reports showing how many cases we have considered and the totals of different outcomes.

We recognise this is no longer enough and that an ombudsman would need to publish all their final decisions to ensure that fairness and openness remains at the heart of their work. 

There is a tendency to think that a lack of transparency is an indicator of something being intentionally hidden. The ombudsman will need to blow the doors off any suggestions of that nature.

IBAS’s resources haven’t allowed us to conduct and publish as much data as we would have liked to. We hope that an ombudsman with better resources can devote more time to trend analysis, publishing early warnings of potential developing issues and alerting consumers and operators to recent (or live) issues that are causing disputes.

SBC – If IBAS was to take on the Ombudsman role, how would you cooperate with operators and the regulator to run an efficient service?

RH – IBAS has made considerable effort to ensure our service is efficient. In the past three years, we’ve successfully reduced the average case completion time to 31 days (from 51) from receiving submissions from both parties and we try to make sure that all email contacts are answered on the day they arrive. 

We are always improving and I think the efficiency of IBAS compares favourably to most ombudsmen. We need an ombudsman that is equally efficient. More expensive to operate because of the wider range of services it would offer, but still as lean as it sensibly can be.

As for cooperation with the Gambling Commission, that is vital to making an ombudsman a success. Everything I’ve seen in other sectors indicates that the best ombudsmen have the closest working relationships with their counterparts in the industry’s regulator. 

We will need to find a way to develop a working relationship that uses the ombudsman’s knowledge of what matters to consumers and translates that into regulatory work that challenges potentially unfair practice and intervenes promptly where issues of concern are identified. We would also hope to help the Commission frame guidance to operators on acceptable and non-acceptable practice in contentious areas.

SBC – How much authority do you expect a new Ombudsman to have in the re-regulated UK betting space?

SBC News Richard Hayler: The case for a betting ombudsman and why IBAS should get the gigRH – We have no expectations! We hope that an ombudsman can make more impact, first by playing a greater role in helping to inform regulation and second by playing a mandatory part of an operator’s licence conditions. 

In the current competitive ADR environment, an operator that’s unhappy with IBAS decisions is free to de-register from our service and sign up to a different ADR provider. That inevitably and obviously undermines the authority of any individual ADR service.

SBC – IBAS expects to handle around 7,500 complaints and resolve 5,000 in its first year as Ombudsman – what is the rationale behind these figures?

RH – We anticipate the remit of the ombudsman, including the consideration of claims that operators have acted unsafely or irresponsibly towards their customers. If that is the case, it is impossible to estimate how much the workload of the ombudsman will grow compared to the current workload of existing ADR providers. 

Our estimate is based on the number of consumer emails we currently receive asking whether we can or will help with this type of dispute. The actual number of claims for redress/compensation will depend heavily on the detail of what types of claim an ombudsman will look at. 

We anticipate that an ombudsman will be making decisions about potentially irresponsible behaviour based on an operator’s performance against an agreed and clearly defined set of minimum standards. 

The more detailed those criteria, the lower the likely workload, we imagine, because potential claimants will be able to make an assessment about whether their claim is likely to be upheld. 

If the ombudsman was given vaguer guidelines, then – conceivably – any individual who had ever lost money gambling could make a claim for redress and the number of cases being considered could skyrocket.

This is the type of detail that we are keen to begin examining now. The sooner we get started asking these questions, the faster the journey towards opening up the ombudsman that everyone seems to want to see.

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