Racing: New judge for betting disputes

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IF THE art of management is to anticipate problems before they arise, then yesterday's launch of a new arbitration service for betting disputes should feature in MBA courses as a prime example of how not to go about things. When IBAS, the Independent Betting Arbitration Service, was unveiled in London, interest should have focused on such positive factors as the large number of bookmakers who have agreed to be bound by its findings, or the computer database which will analyse common causes of disputes in an attempt to stop them arising in the first place. Instead, attention centred almost exclusively on the decision to keep the identity of IBAS's arbitrators secret.

The same sort of secrecy was a major flaw of the old Green Seal Service, whose panel of judges was sometimes rumoured to consist of the first three people through the Sporting Life's office door on Monday morning. That may not have been the case, but the very fact that the Service's members hid behind anonymity meant that no-one could really be sure. That the new body to resolve betting disputes was preparing to fall into the same trap was a surprise not just to the journalists present, but also to some of those who had played a part in setting it up.

By late afternoon yesterday, IBAS had thought again, and the five principal members of its panel were revealed to include Christopher Poole, the much- respected former racing correspondent of the Evening Standard, and Doug Newton, who was for many years the Life's senior starting-price reporter. To some extent, though, the damage had been done.

This was a shame, because while it is certainly not perfect, IBAS is a significant improvement on the system it replaces. For a start, it will be highly visible. Many punters were simply unaware of the existence of the Green Seal Service, but all bookmakers who agree to join the scheme will display its logo and phone number prominently. About 7,000 of Britain's 9,000 betting shops have already agreed to be bound by IBAS's decisions, including all of the major chains.

IBAS will also be free to use, thanks to the financial support of Satellite Information Services, and relatively independent, although Mirror Group, which will manage the scheme, is the publisher of the Racing Post, which earns significant sums from bookmakers' advertising. It will issue an annual report, as well as other reports during the year, recording the results of its deliberations, and offer a guarantee about the maximum length of time taken to reach a judgement.

Since betting disputes remain outside the scope of the law, however, it cannot force a bookmaker to pay a disputed bet. Any bookmaker who refuses to abide by an IBAS decision will be ejected from the scheme, which on the face of it it is not the most dramatic of sanctions. Next year, though, magistrates will begin to operate strict new guidelines when considering applications for betting permits, and a refusal to comply with an IBAS ruling could count heavily against a bookmaker trying to renew their licence.

It seems only fair to give IBAS a chance, and study their rulings in detail. There should certainly be no shortage of cases for them to consider, given that the Green Seal Service used to deal with about 2,000 cases in an average year. With its much higher profile, IBAS may well be swamped by punters seeking justice.

What the new procedure cannot address, of course, is the problem of bookmakers who either go bust owing money, or simply refuse to join the scheme and will not pay out on a bet no matter how many times they are ordered to do so. Chris Bell, the managing director of Ladbrokes, admitted at yesterday's launch that as in any business, "a bankrupt is a bankrupt", and creditors are unlikely to be paid.

But Bell also suggested that all bookmakers should be required to lodge a bond, sufficient to cover their maximum payout on any one bet, before they are allowed to trade. It is a sound idea, and perhaps further evidence that after years of living in darkness, punters may finally be starting to gain the sort of rights and protection which other consumers take for granted.