Betting scandal puts Gambling Commission in spotlight

Until a few weeks ago, the Gambling Commission nursed a relatively low profile as the regulator overseeing a £15.1bn industry that draws hundreds of thousands of Britons on a weekly basis.

But its decision to open an investigation into election betting, which as of now concerns five Conservatives, one Labour candidate and seven police officers, while politicians are on the campaign trail has raised questions in Westminster about its function and remit.

One Tory veteran suggested the Gambling Commission investigation amounted to “political interference”, but conceded that those accused were the main target for MPs’ anger. “The stupidity of it, they should have known better.”

A Conservative aide said that bets by his colleagues was “very bad”. But, they added, it was also “not a good look” to have a “quango intervening in the middle of a general election”.

“It’s adding to a lack of trust,” they noted.

Bookmakers are under an obligation to alert the Gambling Commission to any suspicious betting patterns. Its investigation started after bookmakers alerted the regulator to a flurry of interest in the July election in the days before the announcement on May 22.

The probe, which has dominated the final weeks of the campaign for Number 10, is a rare test of the watchdog’s ability to handle investigations by itself, rather than alongside sporting governing bodies keen to enforce rules against match-fixing.

While the commission in a statement on Thursday said it would work with the Metropolitan Police to weigh up additional offences, such as misconduct in public office, “the majority of cases” would be investigated by the Gambling Commission under laws that prohibit cheating in betting.

“It’s certainly unusual for the commission to investigate [political betting],” said Dan Waugh, a partner at consultancy Regulus Partners. While it has a decent reputation where sports integrity is concerned, “I wouldn’t say that tackling cheating has been a major area for the commission, [as it] is more focused on social responsibility issues.”

Kate Bedford, professor of law and political economy at the University of Birmingham, said: “Because it’s reluctant to prosecute on its own, the Gambling Commission relies heavily on working with sports regulatory bodies and there are really strong rules that these bodies have in place.

“The part of the issue with political betting is that the equivalent bodies for MPs and officials for public life don’t have those same clear rules . . . on whether insiders can bet,” she added.

The Gambling Commission clarified its stance on Thursday: “If someone uses confidential information in order to gain an unfair advantage when betting, this may constitute an offence of cheating under Section 42 of the Gambling Act, which is a criminal offence.”

Charlie Leach, a director at Alvarez & Marsal, said that while there was guidance published by the commission to that effect there has been “no public action in the past regarding political betting”.

In sport, suspicious bets are typically dealt with by the relevant governing body, such as the Football Association or the British Horseracing Authority, which can impose sporting sanctions.

Those bodies can also refer a case to the Gambling Commission if it believes there is a criminal case to examine. The regulator’s Sports Betting Intelligence Unit is then responsible for investigating suspicious bets and deciding whether to pursue a criminal case. However, the threshold for criminal proceedings is far higher than for imposing sporting sanctions. 

Problems in sport are normally picked up in one of two ways: unusual betting activity, or a whistleblower complaint. When a bookmaker spots activity it deems to be suspicious, it will notify rivals through one of the platforms used by the industry to share their concerns. Other bookmakers will then check their systems for similar patterns. 

Specialist companies that monitor and investigate suspicious bets, such as Sportradar and Genius Sports, examine the specifics of the incident and then flag them to the sport’s governing body as well as the Gambling Commission.

More than 1,300 suspicious matches in 11 sports were identified across the globe last year, according to Sportradar — governing bodies issued 138 sanctions and there were nine criminal cases.

Recent high-profile examples include the case of Brentford and England footballer Ivan Toney, who was banned for eight months last year after being found to have breached the FA’s gambling rules more than 200 times, and a match-fixing scandal involving 10 Chinese snooker players.  

Jacqui Smith, a former Labour home secretary, said the scandal had become increasingly “muddied” beyond the initial accusations of inside trading but said it was right that the allegations had been brought to light before polling day.

“It would have been outrageous for them [the Gambling Commission] to say ‘we don’t investigate during an election’, that would mean people making voting decisions on candidates without full information about them,” she added.

Lawyers and experts close to the betting industry argue that the body has been reacting adequately to the issue brought by operators.

“The commission acted within its powers, promptly, after receiving reports of suspicious bets,” said Bedford. “The commission has lots of experience investigating sports betting integrity concerns, [so] it can draw on that experience here.”

The regulator is “dealing with a handful of bets where the potential winnings are relatively modest”, said Lloyd Firth, a lawyer at WilmerHale.

“Given that the Gambling Commission regulates licensed operators dealing with high-value accounts placing bets daily, I think it’s perfectly well-equipped to investigate these instances,” he added.

The Gambling Commission said it “regulates gambling in the interests of consumers and the wider public” and was currently “investigating the possibility of offences concerning the date of the election”.

“This is an ongoing investigation, and the commission cannot provide any further details at this time,” it added.


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