William Hill has been accused of “appalling” behaviour after encouraging torch-waving staff to visit rival bookmakers and lure gamblers into its own shops with the promise of free bets.

The bizarre tactic is part of William Hill’s efforts to exploit a dispute between two of its competitors – Ladbrokes-Coral and Betfred – and horse-racing TV channel the Racing Partnership.

The row, over the fee that the Racing Partnership charges bookies to show races, has left Ladbrokes-Coral and Betfred unable to broadcast the channel to punters.

An internal William Hill memo seen by the Guardian encourages staff to exploit the impasse by taking part in what it calls the “torch challenge”. This involves turning up at a rival bookmaker wielding a torch and shining it through the shop window to attract the attention of gamblers.

William Hill staff then inform the customers that its stores still have rights to show the Racing Partnership channel and offer them a free bet as an enticement to defect.

“Let’s get disruptive and make sure their punters see the light!” the internal memo reads. “Grab a torch and shine it around your local competitor,” it continues, adding: “Take your free bets down too.”

William Hill insisted the scheme was harmless, saying: “It is a bit of fun to highlight that we have a product that our competitors don’t.”

But Carolyn Harris, Labour MP for Swansea East, said it displayed bookmakers’ lack of respect for gamblers, some of whom are addicts.

“This is indicative of the way they treat people. It’s like two dogs fighting over a piece of meat and they’re prepared to go to any lengths. It’s pretty appalling.”

Harris leads a cross-party parliamentary group advocating a reduction in the maximum stake from £100 to £2 on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) – sometimes referred to as the “crack cocaine” of gambling due to their addictive nature.

She said bookmakers were nervous about the impact an ongoing parliamentary review might have on the profit they make from FOBTs.

“Maybe they’re worried the days of FOBTs are numbered so they’re trying to get more racing customers,” she added.

Ladbrokes said: “We’re a big high street operator and we’re not surprised a competitor will sink to any tactics to try and pinch our customers. We’re confident our customers will appreciate what they’ve already got.”

Betfred declined to comment.

The behaviour of gambling firms has come under increasing scrutiny following a year in which industry regulator – the Gambling commission – sanctioned several firms over their failure to prevent problem gambling and money-laundering.

Last year, the commission arranged voluntary settlements with bookmakers such as Paddy Power, which agreed to pay £280,000 after it was found to have encouraged a problem gambler until he lost five jobs, his home and access to his children.

Betfred reached an £800,000 settlement in June after admitting it had failed to implement proper anti-money-laundering controls in accepting stolen cash from a “VIP” customer.

In a similar case, the regulator announced an £880,000 settlement with Coral in April, after the bookmaker took hundreds of thousands of pounds from a “VIP” problem gambler who was using the proceeds of theft to feed his habit.

This article was sourced from http://newsquizextra.com