SBC News Harris Hagan: Legal Eye… The Gambling Commission’s powers to come

Harris Hagan: Legal Eye… The Gambling Commission’s powers to come

SBC News Harris Hagan: Legal Eye… The Gambling Commission’s powers to come
David Whyte – Harris Hagan

The government has pledged to reorganise the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) to become a more capable and intelligence-led regulator overseeing UK Gambling’s statutory remit and future challenges.

David Whyte Senior Associate at Harris Hagan, provides his legal eye on which new or enhanced regulatory powers will be granted to the Commission and its impact on licensees adjustment to UK gambling’s new terms of play…

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As all stakeholders seek to get to grips with the White Paper and their focus is drawn to its high-profile proposals such as financial risk checks and stake limits, they might be forgiven for overlooking the potential aftereffects apparent from some of the more inconspicuous proposals, particularly when those proposals are considered in the context of the Gambling Commission’s Advice to Government – Review of the Gambling Act 2005 (the “Advice to Government”).

When referring to the Gambling Commission’s powers and resources in the White Paper, the Government states in its summary –  “The Commission has a broad range of powers that enable it to regulate the industry effectively but there are some small changes that could be made around its ability to investigate operators, including improving the Commission’s responsiveness to changes of corporate control.”

There is limited information contained in the White Paper about what those “small changes” might be. Points of note are:

  1. “The government and the Commission are clear that an enhanced approach to compliance enforcement [sic] is required to effectively monitor the industry and ensure that operators are abiding by the rules.”
  2. The Gambling Commission has advised that “some of its powers concerning investigations could be enhanced to better protect consumers and hold operators to account”. In particular, “it is concerned that licence holders are able to take action that can hinder or frustrate an investigation, including surrendering their licence during the course of the investigation.”

The Government concludes: “When Parliamentary time allows, we will legislate to give the Commission additional powers to assess and regulate new business owners, reflecting the increased complexity of the entities that it regulates. We will also look at the case for providing further powers to ensure that licensees are not able to interfere with the Commission’s ability to conclude its investigations or move their finances to reduce the size of their fine.”

To understand fully the extent of the “small changes” or “further powers” that the Government may decide are appropriate, it is necessary to consider the Advice to Government, within which the Gambling Commission proposes amendments to the Gambling Act 2005 (the “2005 Act”) “to allow for streamlined regulatory action in a number of areas”. This article focusses on three of those areas: (a) the process for change of corporate control (“CoCC”) applications; (b) options for investigations and licence surrender; and (c) flexibility for penalties that can be imposed on licensees.

Change of corporate control

Under section 102 of the 2005 Act, a change of corporate control (“CoCC”) takes place when a new person or other legal entity becomes a new “controller” of a licensee (more information on a CoCC can be found in our previous blog). When a CoCC occurs, licensees must notify the Gambling Commission, via eServices by means of a key event, as soon as reasonably practicable and in any event within five working days of them becoming aware. Licensees must then submit a CoCC application within five weeks of the event occurring or the Gambling Commission is obliged to revoke the licence, although it may, at its discretion, extend the five-week period. Presently, in determining a CoCC application, the Gambling Commission has a binary choice, it may, in law, only grant the application or refuse it. If the latter, the licence is revoked.

The complexity of corporate structures and financing have increased the burden on both the Gambling Commission and licensees to investigate and/or evidence proof of ownership and source of funds related to CoCC applications and this, along with suitability considerations, means increasingly prolonged investigations.

The Gambling Commission recommends: (a) the removal of the binary nature of the CoCC decision, to allow for the possibility of it granting the application subject to its imposition of conditions on the licence; (b) an amendment to allow for the appeal by a licensee against the Gambling Commission’s decision not to grant an extension of the five-week period for the submission of a CoCC application, which at present can only be appealed by means of judicial review; and (c) that it be given the ability to apply a financial penalty for the submission of CoCC applications outside the five-week reporting window.

In the main, these proposals are proportionate and reasonable. The removal of the binary nature of the CoCC decision will benefit both licensees and the Gambling Commission, as will the introduction of the proposed appeal process. The Gambling Commission has become increasingly strict in relation to the late submission of CoCC applications, so licensees will be unsurprised that it is now proposing the imposition of a financial penalty in those circumstances.

Whilst a financial penalty is certainly better than the alternative of revocation, licensees may wish to seek clarification in relation to how the quantum of the proposed financial penalty will be calculated. A fixed fee would most certainly be preferable to the application of the Statement of principles for determining financial penalties (the “FP Statement”), which incudes no formula for calculating quantum, allows for uncapped financial penalties, and contains various criteria that may be not be appropriate to the late submission of a CoCC application.

Refusal of licence surrender

The Gambling Commission recommends that the Government considers amending the 2005 Act to permit it to refuse a licence surrender under certain circumstances when an investigation is taking place, so that it retains “regulatory authority” over licensees, post surrender, primarily with a view to it imposing a financial penalty. The implication from the Gambling Commission’s proposal, which is supported by little more than reference to “[e]vidence from [its] casework” is that, in its view, licensees may be utilising surrender as a means of avoiding a financial penalty, and that they may “move finances during, or in anticipation of, an investigation” to avoid the same.

Potential options proposed by the Gambling Commission are: (a) requiring its consent before the surrender of a licence in circumstances where enforcement action has been commenced; (b) extending the application of the relevant sections of the 2005 Act that provide the power for the Gambling Commission to impose a financial penalty, such that for a specified period they apply to a licence that has lapsed or been surrendered; and (c) amending the 2005 Act to prevent licensees from triggering a mandatory licence revocation by failing to pay their annual licence fee.

We have several concerns about this proposal and the Gambling Commission’s justification for it:

  1. Licences are valuable assets that are difficult to obtain. Reputable licensees subject to enforcement action will: (a) wish to continue to operate in the British market, clear their name and protect their asset; and/or (b) be very concerned at having to disclose their surrender to regulators in other jurisdictions without having defended the alleged licence condition breach to a conclusion; and/or (c) be aware their previous standing will be taken into account in the context of any new licence application, as will that of the PML holders and controllers involved.Surrender is much more likely to be due to a desire to exit the market in Great Britain, likely influenced by ever-increasing regulatory requirements, the inordinate length of time taken by the Gambling Commission to carry out a licence review, or by other commercial or economic factors. Some licensees who do surrender might not even have considered doing so, but for the reminder included by the Gambling Commission in much of its enforcement related correspondence that a licence can be surrendered at any time. The implication of widespread manipulative intent in the Advice to Government is therefore wrong and perhaps provides valuable insight into how the Gambling Commission perceives the integrity of its licensees.
  2. Very exceptionally, an unscrupulous licensee may surrender their licence deliberately to avoid a financial penalty. In those very rare instances, those who do so might better be dealt with by means of criminal prosecution and the consequence and protection that brings, rather than be subject to sanction by what will, at that stage, be an exacerbated Gambling Commission.
  3. One of the reasons given by the Gambling Commission for its recommendation is that “a surrendered license [sic] leaves [it] unable to protect consumers or take regulatory action to hold the licensee accountable for their actions.” We struggle to understand how imposing a financial penalty on a licensee that has surrendered their licence will further protect consumers. The surrender itself, prompted by the Gambling Commission’s action, must surely both protect consumers and hold licensees accountable.
  4. Punitive sanctions form an important part of the Gambling Commission’s regulatory toolkit but when a licence surrender has already removed all risk, are not critical to its upholding of the licensing objectives set out at section 1 of the 2005 Act. We question whether it is appropriate for the Gambling Commission, or any other regulatory body, to retain regulatory authority over a former licensee in those circumstances, when the sole objective is to facilitate the imposition of a punitive financial sanction. If, as the Gambling Commission suggests, licensees have moved finances deliberately to avoid a financial penalty, the refusal of surrender is not going to guarantee a different outcome.
  5. A financial penalty can only be imposed if there has been a breach of a licence condition, which, by virtue of section 33 of the 2005 Act, is a criminal offence. The Gambling Commission is therefore able to prosecute should it wish to seek to impose a punitive sanction.However, the Gambling Commission may be less inclined to take this approach because: (a) it would be obliged to prove the offence beyond reasonable doubt, rather than to the lower burden of proof of balance of probabilities applicable to its imposition of a financial penalty; (b) it would likely be held to higher investigative standards and more restrictive time limits by the criminal courts; and (c) unlike a financial penalty which is unlimited and paid into the Consolidated Fund, the quantum of court fines is restricted by statute and fines are paid to the courts.

Licensees would be wise to monitor the Commission’s next steps in this area so that they may challenge the logic of this recommendation when it is revisited by either the Commission or the Government in consultation.

Statutory time limits

In the Advice to Government, the Gambling Commission refers to the 12-month time limit for laying criminal charges and the 24-month time limit for imposing a financial penalty prescribed by the 2005 Act. It suggests that these time limits have restricted its ability to prosecute or impose a financial penalty in cases where “establishing a breach” is “very complicated” and proposes amendments to the 2005 Act to: (a) introduce greater flexibility in the time limits for bringing prosecutions; and (b) explore extending the cut-off period for the imposition of a financial penalty.

Although the Gambling Commission states that it has “sound evidence from [its] regulatory experiential knowledge and casework” that underpins its recommendations, the examples used by the Gambling Commission as justification are very broad and insufficiently detailed. As most licensees who have been involved in Gambling Commission enforcement action have experienced, the primary reason for the delay is not that “the increasing complexities of gambling businesses make establishing a breach in some cases very complicated” but rather the Gambling Commission’s inefficiency.

Licensees subject to the Gambling Commission’s enforcement process are often required to adhere to relatively short deadlines, whereas the Gambling Commission operates to much longer deadlines. Some licensees have had to wait six months or more to receive a response or update from the Gambling Commission, often only to receive a preliminary findings or findings letter that largely repeats the content of its previous correspondence. It is this inefficiency that leads to the expiration of statutory time limits. A significant factor that has led to the increasing complexity of the Gambling Commission’s investigations will likely be its inconsistent application of its regulatory requirements or a lack of clarity about the same, particularly given its increasing introduction of formal requirements through guidance, and the lack of clarity as to its expectations in relation to affordability.

Furthermore, it is not, as the Gambling Commission states in the Advice to Government, its charge to “establish a breach”: this is again an indication of its mindset. As a regulator it is obliged to investigate suspected breaches on a fair, reasonable and proportionate basis, and to reach a conclusion on the facts. A cynic might suggest that it is this determination to “establish a breach” that is prolonging its investigations. This is particularly so when Licensees’ have raised their standards significantly in recent years and therefore, despite published enforcement action, breaches may be harder to come by.

Long, process driven, delays do not only impact statutory time limits. They have a commercial impact on licensees, detract valuable resource from day-to-day compliance activities, and when related to individuals, impact their wellbeing. It is in all parties’ best interests that matters are dealt with expeditiously. Before amending primary legislation, the Government might wish to consider a careful and fact-based examination of the Gambling Commission’s productivity, including in relation to past enforcement cases. Efficient, proportionate, reasonable, and timely investigations are the very reason for the statutory time limits being imposed in the first place.

Extending the scope of financial penalties

The Gambling Commission sets out in the Advice to Government that extending the scope of financial penalties (which currently only apply to breaches of licence conditions) to encompass suitability concerns, would give it more opportunity to take action. It goes on to state that every case of a financial penalty “has also included suitability concerns which we have been unable to take into account when imposing the penalty” in inference being that if suitability concerns were to have been in scope, the financial penalties it has issued would have been greater.

We agree with the Gambling Commission’s statement: most of its cases of a financial penalty do include reference to it having suitability concerns. However, those suitability concerns are almost always directly linked to a breach of a licence condition. We therefore question whether extending the scope in the manner proposed is necessary, as a financial penalty can be imposed in those cases anyway.

If the Gambling Commission wishes to increase the quantum of the financial penalties it imposes, it has the ability to amend its FP Statement. At present, the FP Statement does not include a formula for calculating the quantum of financial penalties, much to the frustration of licensees and advisors alike.

The FP Statement does, however, set out the criteria that is considered by the Gambling Commission when imposing a financial penalty. Much of those criteria could just as easily be relevant to any consideration of a licensee’s suitability: it could therefore be argued that the Gambling Commission is already taking suitability into account.

Should the Gambling Commission have serious concerns about a licensee’s suitability, it has the ability to suspend or revoke their licence. Licensees may again wish to challenge the necessity of this proposal, if it is introduced in future consultations.

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