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Finding loopholes in bookmaker’s code of conduct

Campaign for Fairer Gambling | Campaign for Fairer Gambling

4 min read Partner content

The bookmaker’s code of conduct limiting session spending does not limit number of gambling sessions.

The Daily Telegraphthis week announced that new “compulsory limits” to ease concerns about FOBTs will be “voluntarily” introduced by the bookmakers next year. According to its website, the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) claims that “customers will be compelled to make a choice” and this would be achieved through “mandatory messaging”. There were dire warnings of more messages and pop ups if players didn’t make the right choice.

As with the Senet Group, which was preceded by the P3 Gambling Group, the ABB’s 2013 Code of Conduct, which encompasses the ethos of harm minimisation, is a replacement of the 2004 Code of Practice which saw FOBTs forced through as part of the 2005 Gambling Act. Many Labour MPs now agree that FOBTs should have been dealt with in 2005. These include Harriet Harman MP, who said: “ it was a mistake and has ruined people’s lives” and David Blunkett MPwho said he had: “never been a supporter of plans to encourage bookies to install high-stakes gambling machines, which run the risk of leading thousands into a life of ‘misery”.

This latest “tweak” to the code of conduct is spurred by a Gambling Commission proposal to introduce mandatory pre-commitment for FOBT play. That actually means players must commit to setting time and spend limits before each session of play. The bookmakers may wish to use words like “compulsory” and “compelled” but the only part of their proposal that is mandatory is the message on the FOBT screen asking players if they would like to pre-commit. It’s mandatory choice only. Even if limit setting was mandatory, as the Gambling Commission proposes, there are obvious concerns about the effectiveness of this when players can simply continue playing once they have reached their limits. But the bookmakers won’t even go as far as that.

The recently recruited Chair of the ABB believes that: “voluntary limits are the best way to ensure players stay in control” whilst its CEO says confidently: “the limit-setting as we propose is the right way forward”. Unfortunately, neither appears aware of the actual evidence behind the measures so far.

As our campaign highlighted soon after the code was published: “a similar stake and time restriction measure was introduced following the 2004 Code of Practice, which was not mandatory but initiated by the player out of choice, who had to select the option if desired. Monitoring of this showed zero take up by players during the trial period and was consequently removed”.

The Financial Times looked into the data behind the current “voluntary” pre commitment measures and reported that out of about four million weekly machine sessions monitored across 15 weeks, the proportion of punters selecting a monetary limit was less than 0.3 per cent at the start of the period. By the end it had declined to 0.04 per cent. Just to put that in context, in the first week, 10,700 out of nearly four million sessions imposed limits, with just 1,500 in the final week. These aren’t players but sessions – with the same players likely to be involved in multiple sessions of play.

Worse still, those that did set spend limits set them at an average level of between £350 and £450 per session. These results were a consequence of the biggest and most expensive marketing and training campaigns around socially responsible gambling the industry has ever carried out.

Before the introduction of the code, Ladbrokes had already commissioned internal research which was leaked to the Guardian. As the Guardian reported, the leaked data“suggests that 92% of sessions on FOBTs would not receive any warnings under the new code because the playing time would not exceed 30 minutes of uninterrupted betting. Even worse is that it appears that the £250 limit on player losses, meant to trigger a warning pop-up and a visit from a member of staff, would require hours of solitary continuous play. The Ladbrokes analysis shows that the average loss per "60-minute or over" session of roulette is a little more than £93, well below the proposed £250 cap.” By contrast, similar machines in Norway cap players at a loss of £40 per session.

So the thresholds set up under the code were already known to benefit the least number of players and therefore threaten little impact on FOBT revenue. This shows the Code up for what it really is: a PR exercise designed to avert what must surely now be inevitable – the end game for FOBTs.

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