Regulating against problem gambling

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The Campaign for Fairer Gambling (CFFG) asserts that the ideology of the Gambling Commission is not in line with public opinion.

At the recent conference of the Responsible Gambling Trust, Gambling Commission Director Matthew Hill offered his reasons as to why the regulator will not support reducing the maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) from its current level of £100 a spin.

“Problem gambling takes place at all staking levels,” declared Mr Hill, before describing the notion of a reduction in the maximum stake as “crude” as it would “interfere with leisure gamblers who are not experiencing problems”.In respect of FOBTs these gamblers are already “interfered with” if they are in venues that are not allowed to have FOBTs, such as adult gaming centers.

The research found a significant disparity in problematic gambling rates across staking levels. At lower staking levels – those betting an average of 53p or less – around one in five experienced problems. However, four out of five higher staking players who bet an average of £13.40 or more experienced problems. The CFFG believes that the Gambling Commission’s failure to acknowledge the relationship between stake and levels of problematic gambling is ideologically rooted.

The Campaign later challenged Mr Hill on this, asking where in the licensing objectives of the Gambling Act was the protection of the vulnerable against harm contingent to ensuring the enjoyment of high rollers. Mr Hill responded, stating the Gambling Act requires an “aim to permit” gambling and the Budd Review – the ideological framework for the legislation – categorised gambling as a “legitimate leisure activity”.

The Gambling Review Report was written by Sir Alan Budd and published in July 2001, before a change in betting tax made it possible for bookmakers to put low margin casino games, such as roulette, on FOBTs. The tax change came into force in 2002. The Budd Review itself made the distinction between betting and gaming, and stipulated that the two must be kept separate.

However, FOBTs were subsequently permitted after the Government and Gaming Board preferred industry self-regulation over a legal challenge. The name “betting terminal’ was used to help get around the law, but FOBTs were then classified as gaming machines in the 2005 Act.

FOBTs in betting shops are in fact totally at odds with the Budd Review as the recommendation was for betting and gaming to be separate licensing activities. The situation now is that gaming is the primary activity in betting shops, by any of the four measures of gross or net by turnover or revenue.

To argue that FOBTs are ideologically consistent with the Budd Review is spurious. But this should be moot, as the Gambling Commission is not responsible for upholding the Budd Review. It is responsible for upholding the licensing objectives: to ensure gambling is fair and open, is not associated with crime and does not harm young or vulnerable people.

The regulator appears to believe that its primary function is to ensure high rollers are protected in their leisure activity. Notwithstanding this being a questionable interpretation of “aim to permit” in the legislation – as this is contingent to the licensing objectives being upheld – it is also intellectually flawed.

The Gambling Commission’s view is that if FOBT stakes were restricted, then problem gamblers would gamble on other activities. But taking the Gambling Commission’s logic, if problem gamblers would, subsequent to the stake on FOBTs being reduced, gamble on other products, then surely leisure gamblers would do the same.

The interest of non-problem gamblers would therefore not be impacted by stake reduction. The only justification for saying non-problem gamblers would be impacted by a reduction in stakes is if non-problem gambling was product specific. There is no evidence to support the inherently opposed positions that problem gambling is not product specific, but that non-problem gambling is product specific.

The Gambling Commission interprets “aim to permit” and the Budd Review as a “growth duty” and views its responsibility as ensuring the growth of the gambling sector. CFFG asserts that this interpretation is not coherent, nor is it reconcilable with their statutory duty to uphold the licensing objectives.

The public supports reducing the stake on FOBTs, and the vast majority believe £100 a spin is far too high for easy cash access casino games. It appears that the Gambling Commission’s approach to this issue has been in disregard of public opinion and without accountability.

Sadly, DCMS will want to rely on the Gambling Commission view, meaning that the obvious reduction in current and future harm to young and vulnerable persons by a FOBT stake reduction to £2 is unlikely to be achieved as quickly as it should be.

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