William ;Hill general counsel and company secretary Thomas Murphy operates in a legal and regulatory minefield.
As he explains: “Gambling is one of those areas that attracts a lot of scrutiny, both from a political point of view and from people deciding it’s a problem that should be eradicated.”
For Murphy, the latter point of view is simply wrong. He points out that Gambling Commission statistics show the prevalence of problem gambling has remained static since 1999, despite his estimate that almost three-quarters of the adult population have a flutter every year on the likes of the Grand National, bingo and the National Lottery.
“It’s absolutely mainstream leisure,” Murphy adds.
Nevertheless, keeping vulnerable people out of gambling is not just in the interests of politicians, says Murphy. “I sleep easily at night because I see the daily reports on how many times underage people are challenged and how many times people are excluded from the shops.”
Murphy joined bookmaker William Hill in February 2007 after a varied career that included training as a barrister and a solicitor and working as a financial adviser.
Several months later, in September 2007, the Gambling Act 2005 came into force and changed the entire regulatory landscape of the industry. As well as making gambling debts legally enforceable in English law, overhauling years of common law tradition, it introduced TV and radio advertising for gambling companies. The act also saw the establishment of regulator the Gambling Commission, which has the authority to award unlimited fines.
Nor is the law transforming the UK gambling world singlehandedly, the rise of the internet having done a huge amount to promote the industry.
“Poker is mostly an internet product now,” says Murphy.
This is something that has proved problematic for businesses such as William Hill, however, because they are no longer able to tap into the potentially lucrative US market. The US, while boasting the world’s biggest poker market, remains off-limits to William Hill and all other UK players after US federal regulators effectively outlawed the offering of internet gambling to US citizens. In Europe, the law is less draconian, although it is still often unworkable.
“At one stage people thought about the UK becoming a centre for internet gambling, but that all fell by the wayside when the level of taxation was considerably higher than that available in other places,” says Murphy. “This was a thing that hit the UK land-based industry, which made it unattractive to set up in the UK.”
Gibraltar and Malta are now the two largest European gambling jurisdictions due to low tax rates there, and William Hill has licences to operate from both.
But according to Murphy, the state of European gambling regulation is far from harmonised.
“Cases are being fought by ourselves and other operators in different member states to establish the right to operate – we think many current laws are incompatible with the way the regulations are is supposed to be operating,” he says.
As a result of the issues that come up, Murphy is heavily involved in lobbying work, such as advising on the workability and effect of new regulations and regimes. However, much of that work is also handled by industry bodies the Association of British Bookmakers and the Remote Gambling Association, while some of the important legal work is shared between Murphy and other members, such as main rivals Ladbrokes and Coral, which pretty much have the UK market carved up between them.
Competition issues are therefore also paramount – though often the big bookmakers find themselves in the role of complainants. For example, there is the recently unsuccessful claim that a consortium of racecourses adversely affected competition by forming a breakaway television feed channel of races.
Similarly, Murphy and his allies have long complained to the Gambling Commission about betting exchange Betfair, which they claim is being used by people to act as de facto bookmakers.
Recently, William Hill also hit the headlines when problem gambler Graham Calvert alleged that the bookmaker had exploited his gambling addiction by not enforcing his self-imposed exclusion on his gambling account. Murphy ultimately won the case, but Calvert is understood to be appealing the decision.
“It seems to be quite a litigious industry,” muses Murphy.
Name: Thomas Murphy
Company: William Hill
Position: General counsel and company secretary
Reporting to: Chief executive Ralph Topping
Recognised revenue: £940m
Legal spend: £3m
Legal capability: Nine
Main law firms: Addleshaw Goddard, Ashurst, Gosschalks Solicitors, Pinsent Masons
Thomas Murphy’s CV
1991: LLB, King’s College, London
1992: Inns of Court School of Law
1993: Pupil barrister, 3-4 South Square, Erskine Chambers
1994-97: Solicitor, Clifford Chance
1997-98: Executive, HSBC Investment Bank
1998-2004: Legal adviser, Centrica, then, following the AA’s takeover by Centrica, general counsel at AA
2005-06: General counsel and company secretary, RHM
2007-present: General counsel and company secretary, William Hill