William Hill’s desperation to milk the FOBT cash-cow in leaked memo shows why Government can’t delay introduction of £2 stake

Posted On: 
27th June 2018

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling comments on a story in the press about William Hill encouraging customers to continue to use Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) at the current rate before a new lower stake level is introduced.

Credit: 
PA

Despite the Government describing Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) as a “social blight”, the bookies appear in no mood to repair their reputation, with William Hill opting to send a memo out to their staff to remind their customers that they can still bet more than £2 a spin. In a message to its employees, leaked to The Times, William Hill, which has more than 2,300 shops across the UK, reminded them that customers could still keep betting at higher levels.

It said: “Following last week’s update from the Government regarding their intention to reduce staking limits . . . we have had a softening in our overall gaming machine performance and I am concerned this is because many may believe the limits are already in place. We don’t yet know when [the lower limit] will be . . . Therefore, please be aware there is no change to the current maximum stake of £100 and if appropriate ensure that your customers are aware of this fact so they can continue to enjoy playing gaming machines as they do currently.”

But how many “enjoy” it at stakes above £2? Given 43% of FOBT users are either problem or at-risk gamblers, and 230,000 FOBT sessions in a single year resulted in losses of more than £1000, it’s no surprise the government decided to lower the limit to £2 to “reduce the risk of gambling-related harm”, which they deemed was necessary to “lower the potential for large losses” that damage “players and communities”.

Which is precisely why a cross-party group of more than 30 MPs led by APPG on FOBTs Chair Carolyn Harris, and including former Conservative leader Iain Duncan-Smith, branded Chancellor Philip Hammond “morally reprehensible” for doing a backroom deal with the bookmakers to delay the cut to £2 a spin to 2020. The letter, reported by the Guardian, argued: “On the losses from taxation revenue: firstly it is morally reprehensible that the government is propping up its finances through taking revenue from FOBTs,” also pointing out that the Treasury already expects to make up any tax shortfall by increasing duty on online gambling from April 2019.

The Sunday Times reported that Labour’s Jon Trickett recently wrote to the Prime Minister, having suspected a breach of the Ministerial Code over Cabinet Minister Esther McVey not declaring gifts and hospitality she had received via Philip Davies MP. Mr Davies’ friend Sir Christopher Chope MP, made infamous recently by objecting to a law to ban “upskirting”, had appeared on Sunday Politics a few years ago playing down FOBTs risks in a debate with Fairer Gambling’s Derek Webb. Were Mr Davies and Sir Christopher Chope amongst the MPs who went to the Treasury to ask for a delay in FOBT stake reduction?

The Gambling Act only applies to Britain, therefore FOBTs operate in a “grey area” of the law in Northern Ireland (NI), according to a House of Commons briefing paper updated last week. NI gambling law predates remote gambling, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PNSI) do not regard enforcement of gambling law as a priority. Consequently, operators licensed by the Gambling Commission, operate remote gambling and FOBTs in NI with the knowledge that this is not formally legal, whilst simultaneously claiming to be responsible.

One such operator is William Hill, which was this year handed a multi-million pound fine after repeatedly allowing criminals to bet hundreds of thousands of pounds without checking where the money had come from.

The £6.2 million penalty package for “systemic social responsibility and money laundering failures” included one case where the regulator discovered that a customer had been allowed to deposit £654,000 over nine months without any checks on the funds. It turned out that the customer lived in rented accommodation and was employed within the accounts department of a business earning only £30,000 a year.

There is no justification for listening to William Hill, any other bookmakers or anyone advocating on their behalf. Treasury must agree with DCMS to allow for stake reduction to £2 by April 2019.