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How can punters get a fair deal?; The issue of protection for punters remains a thorny one, despite the establishment of the Independent Betting Arbitration Service. David Ashforth outlines the avenues for punters seeking redress and examines how IBAS might better arm itself to arbitrate between bettor and bookie.

THE Levy Board's decision to consider further action to improve safeguards for punters marks another cautious step towards fulfilling the board's 1998 commitment to "support improved arrangements for the protection of punters".

In the long term, the Levy Board's increased role in promoting consumer rights may prove a decisive turning point in the position of the industry's customers.

The case of Geo Akins, the bookmaker who reneged on a commitment to accept IBAS rulings, has increased pressure to ensure that protective measures are effective.

In the past, The National Association for the Protection of Punters, led by Michael Singer, campaigned energetically for better protection, before folding through lack of support. That left punters, according to Singer, "the most abused consumers in the country".

The Racegoers' Club, which has usually meant Tony Fairbairn, has also been a semi-permanent punters' voice. The Club has a seat on the BHB's Industry Committee, occupied by Reg Griffin, Timeform's chairman. However, the most influential figure in the field is Keith Elliott.

Best known as the author of the Golf Form Book, Elliott was appointed as an independent Levy Board member in September 1997.

In 1998, the Levy Board's annual policy statement incorporated a commitment to punter protection, and specifically, to pursue discussions with the Home Office aimed at tightening up procedures for issuing bookmakers' permits, and encouraging improved arbitration.

Those efforts reached fruition with the establishment of the Independent Betting Arbitration Service in November 1998, and the issuing of new guidelines for licensing magistrates in June 1999.

Punters have also benefited from the establishment of the National Joint Pitch Council and from the blocking of Ladbroke's attempted takeover of Coral.

SOURCES OF PROTECTION

Bookmakers

one of the best sources of protection for punters is a financially sound bookmaker committed to customer care. If a firm has clear, fair rules, most disputes can be settled without involving a third party.

IBAS

The Independent Betting Arbitration Service was launched in November 1998 to provide free, third party adjudication of disputes. A successor to The Sporting Life's Green Seal service, IBAS is managed by Trinity Mirror, from whose offices it operates with financial support from SIS.

A total of 470 companies, controlling 7,300 betting shops (from about 8,600) have registered with IBAS, committing themselves to abide by its decisions. IBAS has received 782 requests for arbitration, 431 of which have reached the arbitration panel. In 350 cases, the panel has ruled in favour of the bookmaker; in 81, in favour of the customer.

Football accounts for almost as many approaches as horseracing. Contact telephone numbers: 0171 510 6427 and 0171 293 3883.

TATTERSALLS COMMITTEE

An ancient, low-profile body, Tattersalls Committee deals only with horseracing bets. Applicants are charged a fee from pounds 5 to pounds 1,000, according to the sum being claimed.

Tattersalls deals with about 75 cases a year, many involving the non-payment of gambling debts. It can report defaulters to the Jockey Club, which may warn them off.

Since the arrival of the NJPC, the number of cases referred to Tattersalls has fallen. Traditionally a secretive body, it intends, next January, to publish a report providing details of its work. Contact number: 0118 946 1757.

SECURITIES AND FUTURES AUTHORITY

Spread-betting firms are subject to regulation by the SFA, which seeks to ensure that companies have sound finances and management, and deal fairly with their customers. The involvement of the SFA makes it unlikely that a spread-betting firm will default on debts which are recoverable at law. Contact number: 0171 676 1000.

NATIONAL JOINT PITCH COUNCIL

The NJPC took over the administration of betting rings in October 1998, when new pitch rules were introduced. Racecourse bookmakers are obligated to tape all bets and issue detailed, computer-generated betting slips.

The NJPC employs a team of betting-ring managers and advisers, whose duties include dealing with betting disputes. Contact number: 0171 873 9077.

ICSTIS

The Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services was set up in 1986 to supervise the content and promotion of premium-rate telephone services, through a Code of Practice.

Complaints against telephone tipping services have periodically been upheld, and sanctions imposed. Contact number: 0800 500 212.

ADVERTISING STANDARDS AUTHORITY

The ASA has acted on complaints lodged in respect of promotional literature for tipping services. Contact number: 0207 580 5555.

MAGISTRATES

In June, the Home Office issued guidelines to assist licensing justices dealing with applications for bookmakers' permits, after cases where bookmakers had gone out of business, leaving winning bets unpaid.

The guidelines aim to "offer practical advice on measures that can be taken to ensure permits are only granted where appropriate," and to "minimise inconsistency" between different licensing authorities.

Magistrates can request details of an applicant's bank account or of a company's accounts, they should establish that an applicant has "knowledge of the business" and that "the managers are not persons to whom permits would be refused". A previous refusal to abide by an IBAS ruling could also enter the equation. Contact number: 0171 273 3108.

ADVICE

Punters do have some power - the power to choose. Use it.

Bet only with bookmakers who are registered with IBAS. The protection it affords is limited but worth having, and can be expected to get better.

Bet only with bookmakers who display a set of rules or, at worst, readily supply a set on request. Familiarise yourself with the rules, especially if you are placing a bet which, if successful, would win a large sum of money. What do the rules say about winning limits? This is not a concern if you are betting through Tote Direct.

If your bet could win a large sum, consider placing it with one of the big bookmakers. If you place it with a smaller bookmaker, satisfy yourself that you will be paid in full.

Always make sure that the details of your bet are written clearly and unambiguously. Many disputes revolve around ambiguous instructions.

Member who ignored ruling - then left the organisation

The Geo Akins case

The case of George Akins has exposed some of the shortcomings of IBAS.

Geo Akins have a chain of about 60 betting shops, with their headquarters in Nottingham. The firm used to belong to the British Betting Offices' Association (BBOA), but is no longer a member.

Akins registered with IBAS, signing up to the statement: "I understand the terms of the Independent Betting Arbitration Service and declare my intention to abide by the final decision of IBAS once their investigation into a dispute has been completed."

Earlier this year, Akins was in dispute with a customer, Betty Ward, over a bet placed on the Irish Lottery. The dispute, which revolved around whether Ward had written the number 37 or 38, was referred to IBAS.

In April, IBAS decided that the bet could be read as either number, and ruled that the bookmaker should pay Ward half the winnings she was claiming - half being about pounds 2,400.

Akins refused to accept the ruling and withdrew from IBAS. His firm donated pounds 2,500 to the Injured Jockeys' Fund.

We cannot be sure of his reasons for reneging on his commitment, because Akins has persistently failed to respond to telephone calls and messages.

Keith Elliott was among those who condemned the bookmaker's action. "It doesn't matter whether Akins believed that IBAS had reached the right or wrong decision," said Elliott.

"You cannot subscribe to an arbitration service on the basis that you will only accept its findings if you approve of them.

"Akins had committed his firm to accepting IBAS rulings."

As a voluntary, non-statutory arbitration service, IBAS cannot force registered bookmakers to abide by its rulings, nor take disciplinary action against them, beyond deregistering the bookmaker and naming the firm in its reports.

Bond scheme 'unfair to sound bookies'

Other potential remedies

Compensation when bookmakers default

The new guidelines for issuing bookmakers' permits may reduce the small number of cases of bookmaking firms collapsing and leaving winning punters unpaid, but no progress has been made towards a compensation scheme. Keith Elliott advocates a national licensing authority which would process permit applications, and require all bookmakers to lodge a bond.

Ladbroke's Chris Bell, who played a positive role in the creation of IBAS, is in a small minority among bookmakers in supporting the idea of a bond scheme.

The view of Tom Kelly, director-general of the Betting Offices Licencees' Association (BOLA), is more representative. He says: "The bookmakers who would have to pay up are the ones who would never default themselves."

Tony Fairbairn agrees: "A bond scheme means calling on sound bookmakers to protect punters from unsound ones, which is unfair. It would also encourage the ungodly to exploit the system. Punters have to bear some responsibility for choosing a reputable bookmaker."

Making gambling debts recoverable by law

Gambling debts are not recoverable at law, and most bookmakers do not want the law changed. Kelly explains: "Far more money is owed to bookmakers by punters than vice-versa and, if legal action were possible, most actions would be against punters. The Home Office has taken the view that punters need to be protected from their own folly and, on balance, bookmakers agree."

Michael Singer does not. "Bookmakers say it would work against punters, but I have seen no evidence to support that," he says. "Spread-betting debts are recoverable at law, which means that some debts with William Hill are recoverable, and some are not, which is ridiculous."

Elliott says: "On balance, I favour making gambling debts recoverable so that gambling is not tainted by being treated differently, but there is a danger that young people might be targeted with offers of credit and end up in court."

Giving IBAS teeth

How can bookmakers be encouraged to join IBAS?

About 15 per cent of betting shops are not registered with IBAS.

Chris O'Keeffe, IBAS service manager, acknowledges the need to promote registration more vigorously. "We have got to promote the benefits to bookmakers," he says. "It is a way of demonstrating a company's commitment to their customers. I would like posters with our 'Customer Charter' displayed in betting shops."

Tom Kelly, BOLA's director-general, says: "We have recommended that our members promote and publicise IBAS and are happy to help." The BBOA has also been supportive, but not every bookmaker belongs to a trade association and not all of those who do are registered with IBAS.

Keith Elliott says: "It is disgraceful that the public do not know who is and who is not a member of IBAS. Registration should be a pre-condition for membership of a trade association, and members should display an IBAS logo in all their advertisements."

How can bookmakers be forced to honour their commitment to abide by IBAS rulings?

The Home Office's new licensing guidelines may provide an effective method, by inviting magistrates to consider whether a bookmaker who "has not honoured his obligations under the scheme" is a "fit and proper person" to hold a permit.

In such cases, Elliott wants the Levy Board to oppose the bookmaker's application for the renewal of his permit.

O'Keeffe wants magistrates to quiz applicants on their arbitration arrangements and insist on membership of a trade association and an acceptable set of rules.

Kelly says: "We will take it very seriously if a BOLA member who is registered with IBAS reneges on their commitment to accept a ruling," with expulsion a possibility.

Is IBAS in the right home?

Elliott and O'Keeffe would like to see the Levy Board become actively involved with IBAS.

They both argue that the Levy Board should support IBAS financially, to enable it to improve and extend its service. They propose an independent board of trustees, appointed by Trinity Mirror, SIS and Levy Board. The Levy Board would provide office accommodation.

How can the service be improved?

Elliott and O'Keeffe anticipate that an expanded budget would enable IBAS to employ better paid and trained arbitrators, and develop an information and education function.

"At the moment," says O'Keeffe, "the BBOA supplies us with basic rules, which we pass on to bookmakers who want to register with us but have no rulebook. In future, I would hope that IBAS could produce a model set of rules.

"We would like to have a website, educate punters, and liaise with bookmakers in advance of major sports events to try to avoid possible sources of dispute."

What about IBAS and offshore and internet betting?

Elliott favours the creation of an internet betting register. However, he says: "An internet operator based in an obscure part of the world could join IBAS and appear to be punter friendly, when he is not."

O'Keeffe adds: "I'd like to meet the main internet players for consultation. One criteria for registration is that the bookmaker is UK-based, with the possibility of Irish bookmakers being accepted. This doesn't tie in well with internet betting, which we need to address."

Why the levy Board must act to help punters

Progress in protecting punters has been slow, largely because the Jockey Club, the BHB and the Levy Board have shown no real interest. Keith Elliott's arrival at the Levy Board has, however, produced a more positive attitude.

Until recently, the big off-course bookmakers could claim to have done more to protect punters than any racing authority. They have recognised the commercial value of customer service, and their rules are generally fair and reasonable.

Most problems are caused by customer ignorance and by a small minority of bookmakers who should not have permits; bookmakers who lack financial resources and expertise; bookmakers who do not have rules; bookmakers who do not register with the Independent Betting Arbitration Service (IBAS); bookmakers (Geo Akins) who register with IBAS but renege on their commitment to abide by its decisions; bookmakers who accept bets, then close their doors, leaving punters unpaid.

The Levy Board should shoulder more responsibility for punter protection. It has played a positive role in the creation of the NJPC and the production of new guidelines for licensing magistrates, but it must not stop there.

The Levy Board collects pounds 55 million a year from punters. It owes these punters a duty of care. The board should take IBAS under its wing, fund and accommodate it, and oversee its further development, including taking over the functions of Tattersalls Committee.

Trinity Mirror (which also owns The Racing Post) has provided important support for the embryo body, but a newspaper group is not an appropriate home for the betting industry's arbitration service.

It remains to be seen how the new guidelines for licensing justices operate. If they reduce the number of unsound bookmakers, that would reduce the cost of a compensation scheme for punters left unpaid by defaulting bookmakers, as there would be fewer defaulting bookmakers.

I accept the strength of the argument against a bond scheme, and making gambling debts recoverable at law would not have helped in cases like that of Brian Towndrow, whose bookmaker closed down last year, owing him pounds 22,500.

If we care about consumers, it is not enough to dismiss such cases as rarities that can occur in any industry. The next time there is a Towndrow, there should be the possibility of compensation.

The Levy Board, supported by the betting industry, should establish a discretionary compensation fund.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Author:Ashforth, David
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Sep 30, 1999
Words:2550
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