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FOBTs in Scotland: Part one - Bookies being rash

Campaign for Fairer Gambling | Campaign for Fairer Gambling

4 min read Partner content

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

Last week the Scottish Regeneration Committee met at Holyrood where the FOBT (fixed odds betting terminal) issue was finally outed and condemned, but it is far from fixed.  

Chairing an inquiry into Fixed Odds Betting Terminalsand the proposed impact of new powers for the Scottish Executive to control their numbers, Convenor Kevin Stewart MSP attacked bookmaker representatives called to give evidence for being “ all over him like a rash” since the inquiry was announced.

Decrying William Hill’s tacticsafter they sent their lobbyists all the way to Aberdeen to track him down, Mr. Stewart also denounced the Senet Group and their lobbyists for refusing to take no for an answer and becoming “aggressive” with him. What is going on when a legitimate inquiry into a serious area of public and political concern becomes distracted by heavy handed lobbying tacticscarried out by bookmakers and their appointed “independent” watchdog?

Despite the apology offered on behalf of the Senet Group by John Heaton, who was representing the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) and Andrew Lyman (representing William Hill) trying to change the subject, it is now wholly clear what the bookmakers are up to and what the Senet Group is really about; “ a smoke screen for FOBT activity” was the answer from Simon Thomas, chief executive of London's Hippodrome Casino on behalf of the casino sector. The fun really has stopped for the Senet Group!

With the smoke screen now blown away from the bookmakers’ “responsible gambling” and “self- regulation” agenda they are going to need more than public relations experts from the alcohol industryto save their sinking “independent watchdog”. 

Whilst the extensive, aggressive nature of the bookmakers lobbying has dominated the headlines, several issues raised in the 90 minute hearing will be poured over by the Regeneration Committee in the coming weeks. The Committee will have noted the strength of argument against FOBTs, not just from the Campaign for Fairer Gambling represented by Matt Zarb-Cousin, but from the rest of the gambling industry.

Casino representatives spoke of the “intense” regulatory framework they operate under compared to betting shops as being a more appropriate environment for FOBTs, but with the caveat “if they belong” anywhere. Simon Thomas of the Hippodrome Casino said they are “too hard for casinos”.

Across the table, the amusement arcade sector lambasted the bookmakers for using the government’s recently introduced measures for card based play as an opportunity “to use it as a marketing tool…with texts such as ‘Big Men Bet Big’.”The Chair, possibly recalling his experience of the Senet Group, quipped: “Do you think that would get Senet approval?” Even the bingo industry kept their head down on this inquiry, leaving the bookmakers to be lambasted by everyone else involved.

With their aggressive tobacco style lobbying tactics revealed, the evidence offered by the bookmakers’ representatives in defence crumbled after numerous challenges by the Committee’s MSPs, Glasgow City Council, the rest of the gambling industry and of course the Campaign.

Whatever the next steps are for the inquiry, the Scotland Bill and the proposed devolved powers over FOBTs are now on their way to the House of Lords. The Bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons the day prior to the inquiry and Scotland looks set to be allowed to introduce a block on any more FOBTs being allowed in new betting shops.

That doesn’t help Scotland to resolve the issue of FOBTs, but it does stop the problem getting any bigger in terms of machine numbers. However, at the same time it creates a protected monopoly of around 1,000 betting shops, still operating around 4,000 of the machines, whose value will now start climbing. Insurgent Paddy Power, set to be stopped in their tracks within the Scottish borders, will be heading to the European Courts on competition grounds, whilst Coral, soon to be merged with Ladbrokes, has confirmed it will still try to open shops with FOBTs in Scotland.

The bookmaker lobbying highlighted by MSPs from Aberdeen to Edinburgh now appears to have infiltrated the ranks of backbench Conservative MPs and is not welcome there either. Reacting angrily to last week’s news that David Cameron had blocked a request for a focused review of FOBTs made by DCMS, the Vice Chair of the Conservative 1922 Committee slammed the rejection and declared of the machines and bookmakers: “I don’t like the idea of them, I don’t like the way they operate and I don’t like the way that the betting industry tries to defend them.”

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