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FOIs denied in the FOBT research scandal cover-up

Campaign for Fairer Gambling | Campaign for Fairer Gambling

4 min read Partner content

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling looks into Government and stakeholder research into fixed odds betting terminals stake policy.

Sir Jeremy Heywood of the Cabinet Office was recently quoted in Civil Service World magazineas saying: "I think in this day and age the public doesn't stand for secrecy. I think frankly in most cases the civil service or the public service generally has got absolutely nothing to hide."

Well, Sir Jeremy Heywood, personally endorsed on Twittera commercial entity called Featurespace but has been unwilling to explain why. In this instance, the alias "Sir Cover-up" seems well founded.

In March 2015, a letter from the Gambling Commission to Sajid Javid MP, then at DCMS, advocated against FOBT stake reduction, as did an accompanying paper from the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board (RGSB). Both the Commission and the RGSB stated they had relied on RGT researcher input, which included that of Featurespace.   

The Campaign submitted Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIs) to the Commission and the RGSB, to obtain information on what the researchers disclosed regarding FOBT staking levels. FOI response was denied, with the exemption excuses being as follows:

" ... a safe space should be maintained to allow officials to discuss the finer details of such research projects." and "... disclosing this information would be likely to prejudice the provision of advice of the exchange of views."  

How much "space" is needed by these people? The only subject matter that the researchers should be called to comment on is the research they carried out, which is already in the public domain!

If researchers provided any non-evidence based comments, which have been used by the Commission and the RGSB to form advice to DCMS, then the government has been misled. As the RGT researchers were appointed when the RGT was under the control of the bookies through Neil Goulden – whilst also Chair of the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) - then it is as if the bookies have controlled advice to government.

A Financial Times piece in December 2014, covered a release from Featurespace claiming that a stake reduction to £2 on FOBTs would not be effective. Despite stake reduction being the Campaign for Fairer Gambling’s core objective, the FT did not contact the Campaign to provide balance.

In the article, Featurespace was positioning itself to market "harm detection algorithms" to the bookies, which are more likely to be utilised if stakes remain at £100 a spin because of the increased capacity for harm.  Featurespace now has a business relationship with William Hill and, through a historical relationship with BetFair, will also have a business relationship with Paddy Power, when the BetFair and Paddy Power merger completes. Both William Hill and Paddy Power operate FOBTs.

The FT comment, while being negative towards the Campaign, was helpful to the bookmakers. So, a potential partner issued a press release that could have had a positive impact on bookie share prices. Sound suspicious? Now factor in that there was no evidence basis for the Featurespace statement and things get more curious. Featurespace was commissioned as one of the RGT researchers into FOBTs –on a private, non-tendered basis.

Whilst the Campaign is not asserting outright corruption or a conspiracy, the effective outcome is still essentially the same and David Excell of Featurespace is at its core.

Speaking publically against a FOBT stake reduction at the RGT launch of the research in December 2014, David Excell, was not corrected by the RGT. Nor did the RGT correct the FT article. However, once the Campaign exposed that a Peer spoke incorrectly in the House about the RGT research, the RGT was forced to admit it did not have a position on FOBT stakes.

An evaluation of the RGT research by Hancock and Hanrahanshows that there is in fact adequate evidence to support a stake reduction, despite the RGSB and the RGT wanting the researchers to avoid asking this question.

David Cameron said in the House in late 2013 that the government was going to have a "proper look" at FOBTs. A “proper look” at the £100 stake and its impact on gambling related harm, as Neil Goulden himself promised government in 2012, would have informed policy on stakes and prizes. Instead, the RGT – alongside Featurespace - has looked at whether they can determine “harmful patterns of play” from the data, totally avoiding the question of whether stakes in excess of £2 a spin are causing the harm.

This steered the government away from controls on stakes and prizes and so influenced rather than informed policy. It is as if the RGT has lobbied on behalf of the gambling industry and protected the commercial interests of the betting sector rather than delivering its charitable objectives. Should the RGT’s charitable status finally be called into question as according to Sir Cover Up, “the civil service or the public service generally has got absolutely nothing to hide”?

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Read the most recent article written by Campaign for Fairer Gambling - DCMS Triennial Review of Stakes and Prizes now 'long overdue'