Ladbrokes accused of conflict of interest over problem gamblers

Regulator to seek assurances after staff ‘incentivised to encourage FOBT use’

The gambling regulator is to seek assurances from Ladbrokes about its commitment to stopping problem gambling, after the Guardian uncovered evidence that staff are being incentivised to encourage customers to play slot machines.

Three staff members at Ladbrokes separately revealed that the company had introduced an incentive scheme last year, as it became clear that the government was likely to reduce the maximum stake on lucrative fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs).

The performance targets are linked to maximising revenue from slot machine games, self-service betting terminals and online account sign-ups instead. Campaigners and MPs said this created a conflict of interest for staff, who were meant to intervene when customers showed signs of addiction.

One shop manager said staff could face demotion or even dismissal if they persistently failed to hit targets. “On one side we have to abide by the Gambling Commission’s responsible gambling objectives. On the other hand we’re being incentivised to get people to put money in the slots,” the manager said. “If you meet the targets you have more security in your job.”

The manager said the scheme was also unfair on employees who worked in shops with low customer numbers, or a more traditional clientele. “I’ve got regulars with an average age of about 80 and they don’t want to play slot machines or open online accounts. They want to stick to the good old horse racing.”

Details of the target system emerged when the Guardian revealed that Ladbrokes had told staff to sign up as many people as possible to online accounts to avoid being among the 5,000 employees expected to lose their jobs under a cuts programme linked to the looming fall in income from the FOBT change in April.

A second Ladbrokes employee said some staff members had resorted to desperate measures to protect their career or win bonuses. “Demotion/dismissal for not hitting […] targets has led some employees to register fake accounts, a process which rewards the staff member with a bonus, which has then been fraudulently obtained,” the employee said.

A third employee backed up the claims about incentive schemes.

The Labour MP Carolyn Harris, who chairs a cross-party group of MPs on gambling-related harm, said the scheme was at odds with regulations upon the industry. “Bookmaker staff are clearly being put in an impossible position,” she said. “They are expected to comply with licensing conditions at the same time as being incentivised to ignore problem gambling.

“Ladbrokes and others acting in this way need to sharpen up their act and do so quickly. They have a duty to comply with licensing regulations and should also accept a moral duty to protect their staff, customers and the vulnerable people in our society.”

The Gambling Commission, which has toughened its stance on problem gambling in the past year, said it would speak to Ladbrokes about the claims uncovered by the Guardian.

A spokesman said: “Our remit doesn’t extend to commenting about any operator’s consultation processes with its employees but we will be seeking assurances from Ladbrokes Coral that they are marketing to customers in as responsible a manner as possible – such as not targeting vulnerable customers, and alerting customers to the gambling management tools available.”

A spokesman for Ladbrokes said: “We have always offered a range of colleague reward and incentive packages linked to a number of important areas of the betting shop business, including the success of multi-channel. We launched our Ladbrokes and Coral multi-channel offerings – the Grid and Connect – over four years ago, and many of our customers now use these multi-channel accounts to access our services across both retail and online.

“In this increasingly digital age the success of these offerings is critical to the commercial viability of high street betting shops, as is the case for most major high street retailers.

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“Continuing to service the consumer demand for multi-channel betting will be critical if we are to minimise shop closures and job losses as a result of the impact of the reduction in maximum stakes on FOBTs from 1 April.”

Bookmakers have said curbs on FOBTs will cost thousands of jobs by forcing the closure of high-street shops. The number of shops had previously ballooned because only four FOBTs per shop were permitted, giving bookmakers an incentive to open more outlets in order to have as many of the lucrative machines as possible.


Rob Davies

The GuardianTramp

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