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Bookies know the Gambling Commission is a soft touch regulator

Campaign for Fairer Gambling

5 min read Partner content

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling responds to a recent press interview with the Chief Executive of the Gambling Commission.

Tucked away in the back pages of the Mail on Sunday last week was a seemingly rare interview with the Chief Executive of the Gambling Commission. What readers of that article may not be aware of was the “off the record” tour of journalists that the CEO went on in order to narrow down which friendly journalist would get an “on the record” interview.

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling understands that Mrs Harrison gave numerous journalists who have written about FOBTs an interview, on the proviso that it was off the record. That way, she couldn’t be tripped up with any awkward questions and her advisers then knew which journalist was best to give an on the record interview to.

The line “under Harrison's reign” just had to creep in, accompanied by evidence of her tough actions against Paddy Power, Betfred and Coral who have all breached money laundering and social responsibility protocols laid down by the regulator. With six-digit fines neatly worked into the article, Mrs Harrison posed for pictures to add to the imagery of a tough regulator hard at work.

Those six-digit fines however, only represented the profits made by the reprimanded bookies after contravening the licensing conditions under which the Commission allows them to operate. They simply handed all the money they had made to charity plus a contribution to the Commission's costs of investigation. No meaningful financial penalty was imposed, but those six-digit numbers must have looked very impressive to the Mail on Sunday journalist.

Mrs Harrison insisted “as well as imposing fines it can revoke licences”. Yes, they can, but despite some of the most appalling failures and by some bookmakers, repeated failures, she hasn’t.

Try as she may with any journalist, even with the friendly journalist who interviewed her, the inevitable “FOBT” topic always pops up. She says of the £100 stake machines “only 1 in 380 spins is at that level (£100)”. The statistic she refers to, published in research carried out by Feature Space using data gathered in 2014, actually masks the findings of further analytical research using the same data carried out by NatCen. They noted - 16% of regular loyalty card holders had placed a maximum stake bet of £100; among regular loyalty card users, those from minority ethnic groups were more likely to ever have placed a maximum stake bet and to have done so more often, and those who were unemployed were more likely to use the maximum stake even more often.

But what’s Mrs Harrisons’ answer? “To focus on stake size alone is unlikely to be a silver bullet”. She ignores the fact that in pubs the maximum stake is £1, in amusement arcades it is £2 and in casinos it is £5. Stake size is not a silver bullet, but it is a crucial component in ensuring machine gaming of all types is conducted in a socially responsible way and one that provides some protection to the vulnerable.

With bad advice from her Commission advisers, she says “the big growth is in Vegas style slot games that allow a maximum bet of £2”. One of her advisors, at least, is ex-Ladbrokes and must have been taken in by Ladbrokes half-year financial update which was published last week. In it Ladbrokes, despite all the FOBT responsible gambling measures introduced in the last two years, report a further 5.3% growth in their FOBT profits and they attribute this to their “sustained focus on lower staking play”, low stake “Vegas style slot games”. This is all wrong and Mrs Harrison’s advisors know it is wrong.

In 2014 Monty Python’s John Cleese was embroiled in revelations made by the Independent that Ladbrokes were introducing “Vegas style slot games” under the Spamalot brand. These weren’t £2 games that are allowed under the 2005 Gambling Act, these were games that looked like a low stake slot game, felt like a low stake slot game and played like a low stake slot game with one big difference – the games introduced players to higher stakes of £10, £20, £30, £40 – up to £100.

The Campaign has consistently raised the issue of the “hybrid” high staking slot games with the Commission – and with Mrs Harrison directly. The Commission does not know what the legal definition of the games are; they have allowed bookmakers to portray them as low stake slot games and failed to challenge the legislative basis under which a completely new category of high staking game has been allowed. But let’s not forget the bookmakers have form on this, just as they do on failures in money laundering and social responsibility.

Ladbrokes claim these “low stake games” are now driving FOBT profit growth and have rolled out another 15 such games in the last six months. Mrs Harrison’s team of advisers, whilst good at formulating financial penalties that culminate in no financial loss, are pretty poor at actually regulating bookmakers (and their manipulation of the 2005 Gambling Act) which they are apparently here to uphold. Maybe if they had arranged a first on-the-record interview with a more inquisitive journalist the new “tough regulator” would not have seemed so tough!

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