Last week, Westminster Briefing hosted a Gambling and Licensing conference, entitled “Regulating Effectively, Protecting the Community”.
General Counsel of the Gambling Commission, Neil MacArthur, told the event that a further 200 licenses had been granted to online operators, but whilst a condition of their license is to ensure customer funds are protected, some operators had not abided to this requirement fully.
Mr MacArthur also spoke about the “testing” of online games. He referred to errors occurring in the game, such as the content and return to player, as “glitches” and that different approaches are adopted by the Commission in dealing with such. However, he said the Commission always opts for the “least intrusive” means of intervening with operators, as it is an “outcomes based” rather than a “rules based” regulator, unlike its predecessor the Gambling Board.
Mr MacArthur referred to an incident where a customer had laundered £900,000 through Coral’s shops. He described the operator as “extremely co-operative” and “wanting to do the right thing”. This is a feature of “outcomes based” regulation. It presumes the operator wants to uphold the licensing objectives, and if they don’t then they just need a bit of help.
I questioned Mr MacArthur on what informed this “light touch” approach to regulation. Although the Act requires an “aim to permit” gambling, this is subject to reasonable consistency with the licensing objectives of keeping gambling fair an open, crime free, and preventing harm to the young and vulnerable.
But what defines “reasonably consistent” is open to interpretation, and considering Dame Tessa Jowell’s comments in the Labour Mayoral hustings that the Gambling Commission, which she established as Minister, is not using its power to the fullest extent, has the regulator misinterpreted its role?
Mr MacArthur said Ms Jowell’s comments “were not right”, and that the regulator always starts with the licensing objectives.
But the Commission’s interpretation of what constitutes “reasonably consistent” leaves local authorities without the support of the regulator when objecting to new license applications. Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales spoke in the afternoon session on strategies for helping problem gamblers. He opened by saying he was only going to talk about Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, which have led to a proliferation of betting shops across the borough, with 15 on one High Street in East Ham.
“Once a day police have to attend a betting shop to deal with anti-social behaviour, and betting shops are one of the big issues that come up on the doorstep. Every single betting shop that has been objected to in Newham since 2008, including six on planning, have been overturned. The change in planning regulations is OK, but there are already too many,” he said.
Sir Robin blamed “insidious lobbying” by the bookmakers for the government’s rejection of the largest ever submission under the Sustainable Communities Act, in which 96 councils supported a reduction in the maximum stake on FOBTs from £100 to £2 a spin.
Cllr Jane Chitty from Medway Council spoke on their partnership with the Association of British Bookmakers to pilot a multi-operator self-exclusion scheme. This scheme allows customers to fill out one form, which bans them from 10 betting shops in Chatham, instead of going to each operator individually. Cllr Chitty said: “A journalist tested the scheme, he went into two shops where he wasn’t stopped, and into a third where he was.”
I corrected Cllr Chitty at this point, as the BBC test covered all ten shops in the scheme, and the journalist was able to gamble in eight of them. When I asked Cllr Chitty if Medway would be conducting their own test purchasing, to investigate the efficacy of the system, she responded: “No, the way we deal with it is the number of people signed up to the scheme.”
I also questioned whether Cllr Chitty was put in a difficult position of defending industry initiatives that are, at their core, more about public relations than problem gambling. Cllr Chitty said: “It is a bit naughty to suggest we defend the industry. We are critical friends.”
There is little point though in local authorities entering into partnerships with the Association of British Bookmakers if it means they are less inclined to carry out test purchasing in order to investigate the efficacy of whatever has been implemented.
Sir Robin echoed this sentiment in his closing remarks: “I am not a critical friend of the industry. I am a critic of the industry,” before he later added: “If the bookies don’t want problem gambling, then why don’t they agree to a £2 limit on FOBTs?”