Winning Post: Knight rides the Rambling Rhodes

Regulus Partners reports that Gambling Commission Chief Executive Andrew Rhodes was ambushed by Julian Knight MP on questions related to mandatory affordability checks,  a subject that gambling stakeholders require transparency on the review’s pending technical reforms. 

The Gambling Commission found itself under fire once again this week as its chief executive, Andrew Rhodes appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. While the focus of the session was the future of the National Lottery (and in particular the decision to award the Fourth Licence to Allwyn), it produced a number of interesting exchanges on the extent to which the regulator itself lives up to the values of transparency and fairness that it is required to enforce in the market.

Committee chair, Julian Knight MP (Conservative, Solihull) asked a question that has been on many minds in the last 18 months – just what precisely has happened to the Commission’s plans to introduce state-imposed spending caps and affordability checks for gambling? The consultation on whether consumers should be required to provide bank statements and tax returns in order to wager above £100 in any given month commenced on 3rd November 2020. At first, stakeholders were given just two months (including the Christmas and New Year period) to respond to a question that cuts to the heart of what it means to live in a liberal democracy – how far the state should be allowed to surveil and control the lifestyle choices of its adult citizens.

The regulator’s indecent haste, its highly selective (and at times misleading) presentation of evidence and the precipitate actions of its enforcement team were all suggestive of an attempt to railroad through significant market reform without parliamentary oversight.

Under pressure, the Commission extended the consultation deadline to 9th February 2021, by which time more than 13,000 individuals and organisations had responded; but this period of intense activity was followed by little more than tumbleweed and silence. In the succeeding 16 months, the Commission has failed to bring the issue to a meaningful conclusion and recently suggested that it would need to consult again (perhaps in an attempt to procure the desired response).

In Parliament on Thursday, Rhodes revealed that the subject of affordability checks would in fact be addressed through the Gambling Act Review and not by regulatory fiat; and that whatever insights and intelligence his team had accumulated from the consultation had been passed covertly to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Andrew Rhodes was not at the Commission at the time of the attempt to impose spending caps and affordability checks; and his reluctance to criticise those responsible (including his direct predecessor and current members of his executive team) is understandable. At the same time, there is something deeply unsatisfactory about a new broom being used to sweep problems under the rug when it should be used to clear the stables.

The committee chair also challenged the regulator on the subject of the National Strategy to Reduce Gambling Harms, asking what metrics had been used to determine its effectiveness. Mr Rhodes appears calmer and more urbane under questioning than his predecessor, Neil McArthur – but no better at providing straight answers to straight questions. Rhodes rambled – at one point suggesting that the decline in the reported rate of ‘problem gambling’ was indicative of the strategy’s success; only to cast doubt on the very research that the Commission relies upon for estimating prevalence.

Another simple question – this time how the Commission assessed the return on £40m of ‘voluntary settlement’ funds dished out in support of the strategy – yielded a similarly waffle-laden response, to the obvious exasperation of Mr Knight and his committee.

In 2020, the Commission was heavily criticised by the National Audit Office and Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee for its failure to institute clear targets and robust evaluation measures; but there was always a sense that the regulator did not really care for this dose of tough love. Its subsequent failure to establish a system of performance measurement (including the hasty adoption and then abandonment of a range of ill-considered targets from the Advisory Board for Safer Gambling) and the shocking absence of governance where use of quasi-public funds are concerned suggests a cocking of the regulator’s snook towards those who wish it to be more accountable.

Queen Elizabeth’s dictum, ‘never explain, never apologise’ may reflect a quiet dignity in the titular head of state; but seems inappropriate for a market regulator. It is difficult to resist the feeling that the Commissioners and senior management hold licensees to far higher standards of probity than they are prepared to uphold in themselves. Meanwhile, repeated pleas of poverty start to ring hollow when the regulator is so profligate with existing resources.

Upon their appointments in 2021, significant goodwill was extended towards Andrew Rhodes and his chair Marcus Boyle from those who had grown weary of the hapless pairing of Neil McArthur and Bill Moyes. The honeymoon period is now over. While the regulatory rhetoric is more moderate and balanced than under the previous regime, stakeholders of all persuasions complain that the Commission has become even more distant, opaque and unwilling to engage in constructive problem-solving.

With a gambling ombudsman apparently shifting into view as part of the Government’s White Paper, it is manifestly necessary for coherent market functioning that the Commission now gets its act together. The window of opportunity for Rhodes and Boyle to review and reform their own organisation under their own steam may be closing fast.

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Featured article edited by SBC from ‘Winning Post’ Sunday 03 July 2022 (click on the below logo to access the full unedited analysis of Winning Post). 

 

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