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Bookies profiting illegally from underage gamblers says Fairer Gambling Campaign

Derek Webb | Campaign for Fairer Gambling

4 min read Partner content

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling ask questions about the high street betting shops which allow young people to gamble without properly checking ID.

"Bookmakers fail to check ages of young gamblers" was the headline last week in The Times following test purchasing that had been conducted by 38 Degrees, the grassroots campaign group that has recently joined the growing coalition of organisations lobbying against FOBTs.

They used the perfect methodology of using 18 year olds who looked younger to be the testers gambling on FOBTs. The bookies are supposed to have a "Think 21" policy, meaning they check the ID of anyone who looks under the age of 21. 

The shops chosen were in clusters of at least five shops within 300 meters of each other in the 15 most deprived areas of the country. These are exactly the shops that need to be most diligent on all aspects of "responsible" operation.

Of the 108 shops tested, 65 failed, resulting in a pitiful failure rate of 60%. The worst offender was William Hill with 25 failures out of 32 (an abominable failure rate of 78%). As 38 degrees stated: "The survey has exposed the scandal of gambling companies pushing highly addictive machines while failing to protect young people."

The bookies’ trade body, the ABB, stated that: "Shops are officially and independently tested under rigorous and fair guidelines by third parties and results are reported to the Gambling Commission.” This might sound good on paper but the bookies’ commercial relationships with those third parties undermines that testing.

So why are local authorities and the Gambling Commission itself not doing the testing? The Gambling Commission used to conduct testing but the failure rate was embarrassingly high, so the bookies and the Gambling Commission agreed to change it. Since "third parties" took over, the embarrassment has disappeared from public view.

"Prevention of harm to the young and vulnerable" is an essential licensing objective of the 2005 Gambling Act. Bookies permitting under-age gambling has never resulted in the penalty of a loss of a premises licence, an employee personal licence or an operator’s licence. Yet profits from underage gamblers are illegal profits, and are money-laundered proceeds of crime within corporate profits.

A weak Gambling Commission culture under Jenny Williams and Matthew Hill allowed this travesty to fester. Poor oversight by DCMS through several guilty ministers started with the bookies’ buddy and former Labour MP, Gerry Sutcliffe who along with MP Philip Davies, faced criticism for failing to take the issue of FOBTs seriously. It is only now under Sarah Harrison at the Gambling Commission and Karen Bradley and Tracey Crouch at DCMS that meaningful enforcement has become part of the agenda.

Andrew Lyman, the Director of Group Regulatory Affairs for William Hill, is arguably responsible for the corporate culture behind the failings of William Hill. But as a previous Director of Monitoring and Enforcement at the Gambling Commission, he has perfect insight into the historical regulatory light touch.

Matt Zarb-Cousin, who recently re-joined our campaign, had personal experience of losing on FOBTs as a 16 year-old. He recalls never having been asked to prove his age, and even being allowed to bet after school while still wearing school uniform. The Gambling Act states that any losses incurred by underage gamblers should be returned to the player but Matt does not have any chance of reclaiming those losses, as there would be no way of proving it in court.

In common with so many other young male FOBT gamblers, Matt was drawn in by football betting but became addicted to just one gambling activity – FOBTs. Imagine the frustration that he and other FOBT addicts feel when they hear the bookies make false claims about the nature of their addiction.

The pretence that all gambling is the same, that addiction is all the fault of the individual and   nothing to do with the product and that a FOBT stake reduction would not reduce gambling harm are all myths peddled by the ABB. The main ABB members set up the Senet Group – a supposed “self-regulator’ – to help propagate these myths.

The Senet Group’s "independent standards" are those set by the bookmakers to make it look like they are doing more than is required by the Gambling Act. Therefore, the Senet Group only has oversight of standards such as "responsible" shop-window dressing. Failures on underage gambling do not result in any sanctions by the Senet Group as this is within the Gambling Commission’s remit. What a sham!

Until the Gambling Commission re-establishes control over underage testing, whether through local authorities or police forces, and imposes strong penalties for breaches by the bookies, gambling related harm to the young will continue, particularly if they are allowed access to FOBTs in betting shops, which can still take bets of up to £100 every 20 seconds.

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Read the most recent article written by Derek Webb - Parent company of FOBT supplier loses over $315 million in anti-monopoly lawsuit