Bookmakers who were caught accepting wagers from 16-year-olds during last summer’s Royal Ascot race meeting have been hit with large fines. It comes as the United Kingdom Gambling Commission continues to attempt to crack down on the problem of young people getting involved in betting.
The fines stand at 2.5% of a bookmaker’s Gross Gambling Yield, which amounts to in excess of £7,000 for some on-course bookies. That is an amount that is being described as ‘disproportionate’ by many, with bookmakers who are based solely on racecourses wondering if high street shops would be dealt the same punishment.
What Happened At Ascot?
During the summer of 2019 the United Kingdom Gambling Commission carried out a test of bookmakers at the Royal Ascot race meeting. They sent a 16-year-old up to seventeen bookies, asking if they were able to place a bet. Ten of the bookmakers refused them without proof of age, but seven others were willing to place the wager.
It was actually an improvement on 2014, when the same test of twenty bookies resulted in none of them refusing to place the bet. The minimum age for placing a bet with on-course bookmakers is 18 years of age, which is why it’s become a major story. They all received a written warning for accepting the bet, which is why many believe a fine this time around is unfair.
All seven of the bookmakers that fell foul of the UKGC’s test have time to argue the case that the punishment their facing should be less severe. Should they fail, however, then they will have to pay a fine of 2.5% of their Gross Gambling Yield. That is the amount of money that a bookmaker is able to retain after they have paid out winnings but before any deductions for expenses.
The major complaint of bookmakers is that the amount being charged is disproportionate to the crime. A representative of the Federation of Racecourse Bookmakers, Robin Grossmith, made the point that off-course bookmakers would never be fined that much for accepting a £5 bet from someone under the age of eighteen.
He pointed out that if William Hill had to pay that much then the fine would stretch into the tens of millions of pounds. Whilst £7,600, which is the amount one of the bookmakers will owe, might not seem like much, it is proportional to the idea of fining a high street bookie tens of millions and will likely result in the relevant bookmakers coming under serious financial strain.
Is It Fair?
That idea of it being unfair is a tricky one to figure out. On the one hand the bookmakers in question have been caught accepting bets from people below the legal age at a time when there is a major crackdown on such things happening. On the other hand, though, it is a huge fine considering it is the first notable offence for the guilty parties.
Mick Williams from the Association of Racecourse Bookmakers made the point in an article with The Guardian that there doesn’t seem to be any real sense of procedure in place. In other walks of life you would expect to receive a warning for a misdemeanor, with the punishment gradually increasing with each further incident.
Yet that’s not what’s happened here, with the Gambling Commission instead going straight for the jugular at the first time of asking. Williams said:
“You’d think there’d be a procedure in place: a warning for the first offence, a fine for the second and then at some stage a possible suspension of your licence. But there’s none of that. They’ve spent seven months thinking about it and have come up with this”.
The Commission Feels Warnings Have Been Offered
The Gambling Commission wasn’t willing to make an official comment on the matter because it is considered to be an ongoing case. With that in mind, the only thing that we have to work with is a comment that was made by Richard Watson, the UKGC’s Executive Director, last summer at the time that the sting operation was being carried out.
Speaking at the time he said:
“Every single gambling business must protect children from gambling but the on-course bookmakers’ results have remained unacceptable”.
The statement implied that on-course bookies are somehow more guilty of not clamping down on young people placing bets than other sections of the gambling industry.
Whether that’s fair or not may well be open to interpretation, but in actual fact it’s not strictly correct. A similar test that was carried out by the Gambling Commission found twenty out of twenty bookies accepting bets from underage people, whereas this one resulted in seven out of seventeen doing so; that’s demonstrably an improvement.
Are On-Course Bookmakers Held To A Higher Standard?
There is a major difference between on-course bookmakers and those that operate on the high street, which is that the latter are areas that are banned to people aged under 18. Anyone that cannot legally bet is not allowed inside a bookies’ shop when they are on the high street, but there is no exclusion zone for younger people on the racecourse.
It is a common occurrence for parents to walk up to the on-course bookmakers with their children, often asking them which horse they’d like to bet on within earshot of the bookies. Should the people running a business then refuse to accept a bet because they’ve heard someone of legal age asking someone under the legal age for betting to pick their favourite horse?
It’s obviously a really tricky situation, not least of all because British racecourses are regularly attempting to persuade younger people to get involved with racing. It’s common for family days to be held during the best-known race meetings, for example, with children encouraged to come along and find out more about the world of horse racing.
Whilst it is obviously not the case that that automatically means that they should get involved with placing bets, it’s also undeniable that there is a close link between the horse racing industry and the world of betting. Many races are sponsored by betting companies, whilst jockeys and horses will wear a bookmaker’s branding to earn extra money.
What Is The Solution?
If a parent is seen asking their child what horse they’d like to place a bet on, should a bookmaker refuse to take the wage? What if they parent is betting for themselves but they ask their child to hand the money over to the bookie? Are they supposed to refuse to take it and ask the parent to hand the money to them directly?
It is all fair from black and white as an issue. Obviously protecting young people from gambling is very important, but most people can use their common sense when it comes to identifying whether a child is getting involved with the process or in a position where they might start to develop something of a problem.
Geoff Banks is an on-course bookmaker, though he was not one of those guilty of accepting a 16-year-old’s bet. He said:
“Racetrack betting does not, in my opinion, contribute meaningfully to problem gambling issues…Apparently, many parents see strict regulation of gambling to be unnecessary in the particular environment of a racecourse”.
Obviously Banks isn’t exactly an independent observer in this situation, very much having skin in the game. Yet it’s also interesting to hear him refer to constantly seeing ‘parents trying to place wagers for their children in front of us. ‘Which one do you want dear?’’. He also said that when teenagers are challenged for ID they are refused a bet if they can’t produce it.
Perhaps Meeting Types Should Be Taken Into Account
There’s also an argument that the meeting type should be taken into account when the Gambling Commission runs these stings on bookmakers. Grossmith from the Federation of Racecourse Bookmakers described the penalties as ‘absolutely horrendous’, even at the same time that he accepted that the incidents do class as ‘misdemeanours’.
He said, “It’s Royal Ascot, you’re flat-out busy. For that fiver taken, one of these men is looking at a fine of £7,600”. The sheer volume of traffic that on-course bookmakers will have to deal with at a meeting like Royal Ascot will mean that there will barely be a moment to consider who it is that they’re taking bets from.
That’s not to say that they should be excused any failure to uphold policy, of course. Yet at the same time it does feel like the sort of thing that the authorities should be thinking about before throwing the book at guilty parties. Only the stupid would actively take bets off someone that looks like they might be underage, after all. £5 alone isn’t worth the risk for the fines.