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FOBTs in Scotland - part two - Bookies wriggling exposed!

Campaign for Fairer Gambling | Campaign for Fairer Gambling

5 min read Partner content

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling reports on a Scottish Parliament Committee meeting which discussed fixed odds betting terminals as part of an inquiry.  

Last week at Holyrood the cover was blown on the “ aggressive” lobbying tactics being used by the bookmakers’ “independent watchdog”, the Senet Group – as well as William Hill’s heavy handed targeting of Members of the Scottish Parliament.

At the committee inquiry, held to look at the potential impact of the proposed devolved powers over FOBTs (which form part of the Scotland Bill), the FOBT defence was led by Andrew Lyman of William Hill and John Heaton, representing the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB).

Mr Heaton’s strange apology “on behalf of” the Senet Group – a so-called independent watchdog – for its tobacco style lobbying tacticsdominated the Scottish headlines. Not only that, it also revealed the crumbling line of defence propagated by the industry and its key representative at the hearing, Andrew Lyman.
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“There is no clear evidence that gaming machines in betting shops are any more addictive than any other gambling product,” came the predictable line from Mr. Lyman. So the evidence contained in the 2010 British Gambling Prevalence surveyshowing 13.3% of the regular (at least once a month) players were pathological problem gamblers doesn’t count?

Nor does the recent research into FOBTs which showed one in three playersof the machines “experience problems” as a result of playing them? How about secondary research on the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence survey showing that when controlling for environment, gambling on FOBTs was the only type of gambling that “ remained significantly and positively associated with disordered gambling”? That is to name just a few, but for the bookmakers there is still “no clear evidence”.

Campaign consultant Matt Zarb-Cousin responded to this forcefully saying: “[Mr Lyman] contradicts international evidence, which shows that gambling-related harm is caused by a multitude of factors, including the product, its environment and, to an extent, the individual’s predisposition to such harm”.

Despite one echo in the room from Mr Lyman’s counterpart from the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) – or ScotBet as he hastened to point out – there was unanimous disagreement with the argument put forward by Mr Lyman, with a chorus of agreement that FOBTs are the “ crack cocaine of gambling”.

Even the committee convenor was forced to slap Mr Lyman down: “You will stop when I speak because I am in the chair” he said, interrupting a vague explanation of how bookmakers “don’t allow debit cards to be used on machines”, when in reality they do via a remote transaction at the counter. Mr Lyman’s unclear answer obviously irritated the rashthat the Senet Group lobbying had left.

The bookmakers’ also argued at the inquiry that “monitoring and supervision are as strong in the betting industry as they are in the casino sector or any other sector”. But this came unstuck when those representing the casino sector pointed out how many people they employ at their premises, how they are at the top of the regulatory pyramid for gambling and how they don’t “have staff who need to be behind cages because it is such a dangerous environment”.

Mr Lyman claimed that staff interactions with angry customers can be deferred to “the following morning”, at which point the convenor noted: “That customer is in the shop last thing at night when there is a lone worker, and then they are in again first thing in the morning— that kind of sums up the difficulty in all of this.”

Measures imposed on FOBTs by the Westminster Government earlier this year came under scrutiny. Matt Zarb-Cousin and Simon Thomas, CEO of the Hippodrome Casino, pointed out to the committee that the requirement to sign up to loyalty cards to access stakes above £50 per spin had been used by the bookmakers as a marketing tool.

The measures established by the Government to “help players stay in control” were derided by the Casino CEO who said: “I am M Mouse and D Duck at two bookmakers… I am bombarded daily with adverts, offers and pressure to spend money. That is not exactly the way to use technology.”

The bookmakers are desperate to convey the impression that they are the experts on gambling related harm, but Mr Lyman did not help his industry with unclear arguments. At the beginning of the inquiry, he claimed: “Any product has the capacity to cause harm to a small number of individuals”, but by the end he conceded that: “There are problem gamblers and those that just spend too much time or money gambling”. In other words, one does not have to be a problem gambler to experience harm when using FOBTs.

A product on which it is possible to stake up to £300 a minute means harm is experienced by more than those categorised as problem gamblers or those deemed “at risk” by Prevalence Surveys. As Mr Thomas noted: “Problem gamblers are at the end of the scale”.

This tacit admission by Mr Lyman that the product has a significant role in inducing and exacerbating gambling related harm is welcome by the Campaign. We hope that William Hill will soon agree to reducing the maximum stake to £2 a spin to reduce the harm this product causes to their customers.

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