John Whittingdale's appointment as Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport came under some scrutiny recently, as the Mirror highlighted
his previous comments relating to FOBTs. During the last Parliament, Mr Whittingdale called for Adult Gaming Centres to have parity with betting shops on the stake their machines can offer. This would give rise to the rather unpalatable situation of £100 a spin FOBTs in unmanned arcades in service stations.
But a closer look at Mr Whittingdale’s record in the last Parliament reveals a more worrying insight into his personal views on the issue. As Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Mr. Whittingdale published a report in 2012 entitled “The Gambling Act: A Bet Worth Taking”. This report recommended removing the cap of four FOBTs per betting shop, as an “anti clustering” measure. The argument was that if more betting shops were opening on the high street to facilitate more FOBTs, then allowing bookmakers to have more per premises might reduce their overall number.
Whilst this is logical, it is astonishing that the Select Committee did not come to the conclusion that the reason FOBTs are so lucrative is because they are addictive. If they had come to such a conclusion, they might have recommended measures that would mitigate the harm FOBTs cause, such as reducing the maximum stake. However, it is unsurprising to us that a Select Committee steered by Mr Whittingdale, and aided by Phillip Davies MP, refused to investigate whether FOBTs are problematic.
During the Select Committee evidence sessions, Mr Davies treated addiction Professor Jim Orford in an appalling manner, before teeing up soft ball questions to Richard Glynn, then the Chief Executive of Ladbrokes. It later transpired that
Mr Davies had failed to declare hospitality from Ladbrokes before quizzing the Ladbrokes Chief Executive. This led to a Parliamentary Standards inquiry, which ruled that Mr Davies should apologise to the House of Commons. He offered his resignation from the Select Committee, but despite Mr Davies’ actions casting doubt on the credibility of the Select Committee’s report, Mr Whittingdale did not accept his resignation.
The Select Committee also failed to visit more than one betting shop. They did, however, manage to find the time for a trip to Macau. If Mr Whittingdale had taken the Select Committee on an unchaperoned visit to another betting shop in Newham at 9pm, for example, and watched customers on FOBTs, they may have been able, as the Campaign has, to smell the marijuana, alcohol and desperation associated with this pernicious form of gambling.
Mr Whittingdale and Mr Davies instead preferred the testimony of the likes of Richard Glynn, who was one of 100 “business leaders” to sign a letter to The Telegraph before the election warning against a Labour government.
Unfortunately for the Tories, Mr Glynn was not a business leader at the time of signing the letter as he had already been asked to step down from his position as Chief Executive of Ladbrokes. During his tenure,
Ladbrokes operated remote gambling in “grey markets”. The Gambling Commission condemned their anti money laundering policies, and their expansion into Ireland came at a huge cost to the business. Ladbrokes overpaid for premises just before the Irish Government banned FOBTs due to the issues this particular gambling product was causing in the UK.
Mr Whittingdale now has a get out of jail free card, if he chooses to play it. During the Select Committee hearing into the Gambling Act, the Chief Executive of the Gambling Commission Jenny Williams failed to disclose secondary research on the publicly funded British Gambling Prevalence Survey of 2007.
The research determined FOBTs are the most addictive form of gambling. Mr. Whittingdale could therefore claim that, because of the Gambling Commission’s failings, he was not properly informed when he produced the report recommending more FOBTs in betting shops. However,
the decision of Mr Whittingdale to appoint Mr Davies’ former office manager as a special adviserperhaps highlights the continuing philosophical proximity between Mr Whittingdale and Mr Davies.
In a recent Twitter Q&A as part of her Mayoral bid, Dame Tessa Jowell, the former Minister who was responsible for the 2005 Gambling Act and the formation of the regulatory framework, was asked about FOBTs and the proliferation of betting shops. She called for a new planning use class, but also said “the Gambling Commission is not using its extensive powers”.
The new Gambling Commission appointee to replace Ms Williams in October is Sarah Harrison, who has excellent experience of dealing with large corporations thanks to her previous role at Ofgem. The Campaign remains hopeful that with Tracey Crouch being given responsibility for gambling at DCMS, and with new leadership at the regulator, the Government will act in the interest of the public by reducing the maximum stake on FOBTs to £2 a spin.