Controversy over FOBTs creates demand for wider gambling reform

Posted On: 
11th December 2018

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling writes about changes to FOBT stake levels which will come into force in 2019 and predicts that further reforms to the remote gambling sector might now follow.

A high street betting shop

Recent moves by the Remote Gambling Association (RGA), the trade body that represents online gambling firms, to voluntarily ban TV advertising before the watershed signals a divergence in approach compared to the Association of British Bookmakers’ (ABB) often tone deaf defence of FOBTs.

For years the ABB claimed there was “no evidence” that linked FOBTs with problem gambling – a complete fallacy based on the selective manipulation of statistics, but nonetheless an argument that failed to take into account growing public concern and negative perceptions formed by Parliamentarians through casework. The result of this intransigence over maintaining stakes of £100 a spin was window-dressing public relations campaigns, such as the Senet Group behind the ludicrously inadequate “When the Fun Stops, Stop” slogan, coupled with attempts to build a narrative about how bookmakers provide the “safest place to gamble” despite more than 95% of police call-outs to gambling premises being to betting shops.

A refusal to concede on the maximum stake, which became the centre of public and political controversy, ultimately led to a point where the evidence continued to mount at such a pace that pressure to act became overwhelming. In that context, a reduction to £2 a spin almost felt like an inevitability.

The ABB made the mistake of believing that despite people’s lived experiences with FOBTs, they could distort reality with rhetoric while letting the harm continue and their members’ profits increase. Nothing they proposed reduced harm, such as the Code of Conduct which gave gamblers the opportunity to set limits, because their policies weren’t designed to have any impact. They were only supposed to deceive policy makers into believing bookmakers were taking meaningful action. For example, the limit-setting in their Code was optional, and could be overridden with the press of a button, drawing criticism from leading academics.

By contrast, the Guardian noted that the RGA appear to have learnt from the mistakes of the ABB, acknowledging the strength of feeling in Parliament, and the public’s distaste for relentless gambling ads during live sporting events – which the pre-watershed exemption applies to – and as a result are planning pre-emptive action. Both William Hill and GVC, which owns Ladbrokes Coral, have previously called for a pre-watershed ban on gambling ads, and as established brands they have far less to lose than newer entrants into the market.

The RGA’s proposal amounts to a meaningful concession by the sector that accepts gambling advertising before the watershed during live sporting events is inappropriate, not least because these ads are viewed by children, which research shows has a troubling impact on a young person’s perception of gambling.

But while this move by the RGA may be designed to stave off more punitive legislative action against gambling advertising in the short term, it will now be more difficult for the sector to argue against Labour’s policy to ban gambling companies sponsoring club shirts and perimeter advertising in stadiums given they have now accepted the premise that advertising should not be accessible to children. As Matt Zarb-Cousin told the BBC, if a whistle-to-whistle advertising ban is justified then so is a clampdown on league, club shirt and stadium sponsorship.

Our success over FOBTs has warned the remote gambling sector that without making meaningful concessions they risk the prospect of significant government intervention. Given the likelihood of a new gambling act if Labour forms the next government, those concessions may start to mount up quickly in the coming months, and will only serve to highlight just how flawed the current legislative framework has been in preventing gambling related harm and crime.