Government negotiations on a Sustainable Communities Act proposal to cut the maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) from £100 to £2 are imminent and the triennial review of stakes and prizes is on the way next year, at which the Government may consider reducing the maximum stake on FOBTs. The gambling Minister, Tracey Crouch, is also on the record supporting a reduction in the maximum stake. So you would be forgiven for thinking the bookmakers may be concerned that a crackdown is around the corner.
However, there were no signs of any jitters at a recent Westminster eForum event. Commenting on Number 10’s decision to block a review of FOBTs, Secretary of the All Party Betting and Gaming Group Steve Donoughue said: “John Whittingdale is happy with the current situation in betting shops. Tracey Crouch has been told to move on. She won’t make a fuss and she has no reason to.”
It would be unsurprising if such a dismissive attitude was pervasive amongst the bookmakers. It took them almost a year to even acknowledge problem gambling existed in their betting shops. “One problem gambler is one problem gambler too many,” repeated former Association of British Bookmakers CEO Dirk Vennix.
Now we know that more than a third of FOBT customers experience problems, denial is no longer a viable strategy.
The Campaign for Fairer Gambling considers such complacency is indicative of total arrogance from a sector that believes it can get away with deceiving the government with
meaningless Codes of Conductand by funding an “independent” self-regulator, the Senet Group, which has on its board executives from William Hill and Coral.
The Chief Executive of the Senet Group, Ron Finlay, was the guest of honour at the eForum. Mr Finlay spoke about the need to change the culture to change behaviour, stating that gamblers must regard “the norm” as not spending too much time or money. The Senet Group hopes to “change the culture” with a series of advertisements targeted at young men - the demographic most vulnerable to gambling related harm. But individualised strategies are unlikely to have any impact at all unless FOBTs are made less harmful by reducing the maximum stake therefore confining hard gambling to less accessible environments.
For example, the
key determinants of a person’s health are not their quality of healthcarebut where they live and their standard of education. So environment matters more than anything. In a gambling context, exposing a vulnerable demographic to a hard gambling product in an easily accessible betting shop and then telling this demographic to “gamble responsibly” cannot be considered a serious strategy for reducing harm.
The Senet Group’s slogan is “When the Fun Stops, Stop!” But in how many other health issues would advice like this be taken seriously?
Matt Zarb-Cousin from the Campaign for Fairer Gambling took part in a panel discussion following Mr Finlay’s speech and challenged the Senet Group on its reluctance to support stake reduction when evidence is available that doing so would reduce gambling related harm. Mr Finlay said, “We don’t have a view either way, so you are wrong to characterise us as doing so.” This was hardly an endorsement, but the Senet Group is unlikely to deviate from its approach when the betting sector is behind everything they do.
The notion of responsible gambling is a convenient foil for the bookmakers, as it places all responsibility on the individual. This absolves the sector of any accountability for the significant harm caused by the highly addictive FOBTs they offer. The Senet Group’s role is to propagate the “responsible gambling” message but the Campaign believes it ignores the sectors responsibility to prevent harm, which is codified in the 2005 Gambling Act.
The Senet Group is modelled on the Portman Group, the alcohol sector’s self-regulator. However, if a recent report by the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) is anything to go by, we should see the Senet Group for what it is – a PR exercise designed to stave off meaningful legislative reform. The IAS report said: “[The responsibility deal] appears to have been the main element of the UK’s alcohol strategy in recent years and has been used by the sector to resist more effective policies.
If this is the case, the responsibility deal has worsened the health of the nation, and so must be considered a failure.”
The Campaign hopes that Government sees through the PR spin, as Kevin Stewart MSP did during the Holyrood inquiry into FOBTs last month, when he
criticised the Senet Group for “aggressive lobbying”. Is the role of a “self-regulator” to lobby on behalf of the sector it is supposed to be holding to account?