Few positive signs for gambling from General Election

Andrew McCarron

Tomorrow sees one of the closest UK General Elections for 40 years and it feels like a pivotal one for the gambling industry. None of the outcomes are good for our sector, just varying degrees of how bad the impact is going to be on us.

Given the long run up to the election, the campaigning parties have not touched too much on gambling, probably because they have all promised restrictions and therefore there are no ways to attack the other parties.

Labour, SNP, Lib Dems and even UKIP have manifesto pledges on FOBTs ranging from control over existing numbers to an immediate reduction in stake to £2. The Conservatives also mention FOBTs, but only to highlight the new restrictions in over £50 play that have come into force under their watch.

Gambling Consultant Steve Donoughue said that this is bad news for bookmakers. “Labour have put in their manifesto that they will devolve powers to the local authorities about the number of FOBTs they can have. The SNP have put in their manifesto that they want gambling powers to be devolved to Scotland so they can control the FOBTs. The Smith Commission which was set up after the Referendum also said this. So everyone seems to be talking in unison about having local powers about FOBTs and this means a lot less of them, if at all.

“By having them as election pledges it means that the Lords don’t object to any legislation to enact this. But of more importance I think, is the fact that only the Tories and the Greens have not said anything about restricting FOBTs in their manifestoes. This means for those who will likely make up the numbers supporting a Labour minority government (e.g. SNP & Lib Dem) it’s all common currency and a policy that can be agreed upon in return for favours elsewhere.

“This next government will be one of constant horse-trading. Also it will be one of few big policies and few policies that won’t cost anything to implement. So restrictions on FOBTs and/or increases in taxation could easily fit the bill.”

This would suggest that the industry would be better off under another Conservative-led government, but the last one increased machines taxation, brought in the point of consumption tax and just recently promised an ill thought out horseracing right. A referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU could also be damaging to companies operating on the continent.

The issue of gambling only briefly flared up last week when campaigner Adam Bradford attempted to seize the initiative with an open letter to party leaders saying that the gambling industry needs to be more responsible.

Bradford, whose father was jailed for two years for fraud after stealing £53,000 to fund a secret gambling habit, followed up his letter with appearances on the Today Programme and Five Live, and a piece in The Guardian.

In his open letter, Bradford asked for three things from the online gaming industry:

  • Only show adverts after the watershed, with less focus on gambling as a way to ‘make easy money,’ and explicit explanation around the terms and conditions of their ‘free bet’ promotions

  • Monitor users’ activity much more closely and team up with banks and each other to identify large proportions of salaries being spent on gambling activity and to then proactively work with these vulnerable groups

  • Talk more publicly about gambling addiction and identify their social responsibility within the mass market much more. Advertising campaigns or more publicised support for those with gambling addictions would help

What is particularly apparent is that many of these points are already under way. Wanda Goldwag, Chair of gambling industry self-regulator Senet Group, was quick to point this out: “Adam has clearly given this matter considerable thought and the measures which he is promoting are already (in part) in place.

The Senet membership (William Hill, Ladbrokes, Coral and Paddy Power) have all volunteered not to include sign-up promotions in their TV advertising before the 9pm watershed, and we would strongly urge other gambling operators to do likewise.

“Senet has also invested over £2m this year to date in an advertising campaign reminding gamblers that when gambling stops being fun then, they should call it a day. We also know that a number of online operators are developing software to help at-risk gamblers stay in control, and this is an area where Senet intends to develop a greater understanding, with a view to promoting a best practice approach.”

Bradford had also suggested that the gambling industry work closer with the banks to make sure people gamble within their means, but given banks have been notoriously reluctant to even provide the age of cardholders to operators for enforcing age restrictions, pursuing a bank balance is ever so unlikely. In fact many of Bradford’s other points about the potential for racking up debt was probably more in the remit of banks and credit card providers with their lending policies.

pollingAs such gambling didn’t really catch fire as a campaigning issue, so the various stances on gambling have more or less remained the same, something that Donoughue believes highlights how ineffective the bookmaking industry’s lobbying has been of late. He said that warnings that FOBT restrictions would cost jobs have not hit home. “They need a radical rethink before they are taxed out of existence and drag the online industry and the rest of gambling with them.

“What the Bookies have to do is stop being so defensive and thinking theirs is just a normal industry. They have to stop with a factual argument as this argument is now an emotive one – so whatever data you research it isn’t going to matter.

“In the eyes of Ed Miliband they are predatory capitalists just like pay day loans companies and you just have to see Wonga’s recent results to see how that has worked out for them. They can very easily take the front foot by making all machines player card only and thus have player behaviour checked by the software and put the data up for everyone to see.

“In one move, they take the lead.”

It’s a good job that bookmakers are making so much from betting markets on an exciting election race as it looks like their opportunities to make money are going to be severely restricted again once it’s over.


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