SBC News Brigid Simmonds: The balance between free choice and operator responsibility

Brigid Simmonds: The balance between free choice and operator responsibility

Having traversed a long career across the spheres of sports, politics and betting, Brigid Simmonds OBE knows all too well the intricacies of interacting with policymakers on key industry issues.

Ahead of her induction into the SBC Hall of Fame at the SBC Summit Barcelona, the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) Chair reflected on her experience of legislative engagement as the UK betting sector enters a new regulatory era.

You’ve now had over three decades dealing with politics, sports and gambling – how did you find yourself in that role? What had more appeal, the politics, the sport or the business side of things?

My first job was in the Army and I worked in public relations at the Ministry of Defence for two years, before moving on to work for a firm of architects who designed sports and leisure buildings. My role expanded to marketing and when they went through the recession in the early 90s, I was asked to expand Business in Sport (a group brought together who had concerns about business rates in squash clubs) to form Business In Sport and Leisure.

I expanded our membership from a handful of companies to 120 and began to work with politicians on a range of policy areas from gaming, (in those days, betting shops, bingo clubs and casino), to licensing with pubs and brewers and both commercial sports companies such as David Lloyd Leisure, to governing bodies of sport, such as swimming and tennis.  

I thoroughly enjoy working with politicians across the political spectrum and the ability to influence their thinking and create real change.

I was then asked to write a book on partnerships between the public and private sectors and that led me to be a part of the Sport England national lottery panel, and then the board of Sport England where I was involved in funding the rebuilding of Wembley National Stadium, chaired the building of English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, which still trains Olympic Athletes and Caversham Lakes which is the training centre and rowing course for British rowing. So, politics, sport and business!

How has the relationship between gambling, sport and politics changed in that time?

Yes, if you remember both the Licensing Act 2003 and the Gambling Act of 2005, politicians were quite positive about both. They were permissive and positive about the role of both pubs and betting, casinos and bingo within the leisure, hospitality and tourism sector and their contribution to wellbeing.

You could argue that the brewers and pubs lost their way when Gordon Brown was Chancellor and then Prime Minister, as he was very keen on Scotch Whisky and the betting industry with FOBTs, but I think both sectors have made much greater progress in the last few years.  

With the Licensing Act 2003 and Gambling Act 2005 coming fast on each other’s heels, what are your memories of that time? Where do you think you effectively made your point? 

When I joined the British Beer and Pub Association as CEO in 2009, they had seen a 42% increase in beer duty in a decade and were clearly unappreciated around Whitehall and in Government. In 2013, the industry campaign, led by the BBPA, achieved the first cut in beer duty for more than 50 years and it was a huge turning point.  

We argued that pubs are at the heart of their community and it helped that the average parliamentary constituency had 30 odd pubs and many had breweries, so arguing the case for pubs at the heart of the community ensured their support.

With the Gambling Act, the Budd Report was enormously helpful. One problem however for the Gambling Act, was that it fell foul of a General Election, Parliament was prorogued and a range of bills were finalised very much at the last minute. This created, in particular, real problems for casinos as some were still operating under the Gaming Act 1968, with different allocations on machines, despite very similar facilities. 

18 years on, the BGC has fought hard with our members to see the positive proposals that have now been put forward for casinos in the White Paper. 

What is the key to successfully communicating with politicians?

The key is two fold – if you can’t explain it to me, there is no way I can explain it to a politician. That is not because they are in any way unintelligent, but because they have so many issues to deal with that their attention span can be quite short.  

You must work together with a clear task and it has to be backed up by evidence. BBPA used Oxford Economics each year to plead the case for reduced beer tax in the face of Treasury economists, who would inevitably claim that their calculations showed that Treasury coffers would be reduced if they made a cut. Ultimately though, it is the politician who makes the decision.

People often suggest there are parallels of gambling and alcohol as ‘vice’ industries. But where do you see their similarities?

Both gambling and alcohol are fine in moderation – in fact, their effect on social cohesion, interaction and well-being are rarely acknowledged. Whilst I believe that people have the absolute right to decide how to spend their leisure time, both alcohol and gambling industries have a responsibility to protect those customers who are vulnerable and this has to be at the heart of all operators and producers and at point of sale.

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