Widespread Failings and Pandemic Porkies: What is Happening at William Hill?

William Hill High Street Betting ShopOnce a bastion of the UK betting scene, William Hill has undergone a curious metamorphosis in recent years.

Much of their intellectual property, and key personnel, was acquired by American firm Caesars Entertainment in a blockbuster £2.9 billion takeover in 2021.

And then they sold the ‘international’ arm of their business, which included their UK high street betting shop empire, to 888 Holdings for nearly £2 billion in July 2022 – effectively bringing an end to the original William Hill brand.

It seems a certain malaise has crept into their ongoing operations, as William Hill has just been subject to the highest ever fine metered out by the UK Gambling Commission – a staggering £19.2 million.

So what on earth is going on at what is left of William Hill?

Widespread and Alarming

The scale of William Hill’s failings, given their status as one of the oldest and most reputable betting firms on UK soil, is scarcely believable.

They allowed a number of customers to lose thousands of pounds without checking their source of funds or implementing any intervention measures – one punter lost a mammoth £23,000 in just 20 minutes after opening their account.

Another lost more than £54,000 in barely a month without William Hill initiating any social responsibility or anti-money laundering checks, while some 331 customers were able to open accounts and bet with William Hill despite having self-excluded themselves from sister company Mr Green.

The William Hill Group, which oversaw the William Hill and Mr Green brands, has been fined a total of £19.2 million, with the penalty split between their numerous operations.

So severe were the failings that Andrew Rhodes, the chief executive of the Gambling Commission, admitted the regulator almost temporarily suspended William Hill’s UK licence – the first time that a major bookmaker would have faced such a penalty.

It should be noted that many of the failures occurred on a timeline prior to 888’s takeover. They have been praised by Rhodes for ‘recognising’ the failings and working ‘swiftly to implement improvements’.

Since the start of 2022, William Hill are the 26th operator that the Commission has fined, with a total of £76 million raised.

Data Dilemma

In the aftermath of the pandemic, the Commission began an investigation into how much gambling habits had changed during the periods of lockdown and isolation.

They used stats permed from the leading UK bookmakers to inform their analysis, but it turns out that William Hill had given them the wrong data from the outset.

The firm got away with that bar from a slapped wrist, but a £6.2 million fine in 2018 for another set of social responsibility and anti-money laundering failings brings their total penalty haul past the £25 million mark in less than five years.

So why haven’t they done more to protect against such punishments in the first place?

The Costs of Business

The phrase ‘cost of business’ gets bandied around in numerous industries; any expense accrued during the course of operating the company can be filed in the category.

These costs can range from the fair-enough to the downright nefarious, with energy companies and even banks accused of seeing fines as a ‘cost of business’ where the rewards for breaking the rules or acting unfairly results in greater profits and increased shareholder dividends.

Bookmakers no stranger to this phenomenon either, and when you compare the relatively meagre fines (William Hill aside) they pay for social responsibility failings compared to their annual turnover, you can see why the regulator has such a tough time in trying to improve operating standards in the sector.

In 2022, MPs called for criminal charges to be made against the owners of Entain, who were fined £17 million for anti-money laundering failings – in the context of annual profits of £500 million, it’s clear that the financial penalties simply are not enough of a deterrent.

When is a fine not a fine? When it has little to no impact on the penalised party. It is merely a business cost to be filed away in the same place as paying the rent, staff salaries and website hosting fees.

And until this culture changes and serious punishments are introduced, you suspect the likes of William Hill – 888 involvement notwithstanding – will continue to breach their licence conditions.