Weak proposals in the government’s gambling review strengthen case for £2 stake on FOBTs

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The Campaign for Fairer Gambling comments on the DCMS review into fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) stake levels and gambling advertising.

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The DCMS consultation drove intense media coverage on the FOBT stake options, with less attention paid to other aspects. The chapter on Local Authorities asserts that councils already have enough powers to regulate the supply of gambling, which councils will strongly disagree with.

The Sustainable Communities Act (SCA) proposal for a reduction to £2 a spin on FOBTs was based on councils feeling powerless against betting shop clustering and associated negative consequences. There is still a final meeting due between the LGA and the government on this matter, where the government is required to try to reach agreement. It is unrealistic to deny more powers to councils unless agreeing to the SCA proposal.

The chapter on Social Responsibility (SR) refers to machines, online gambling, advertising and research, education and treatment (RET). With FOBT revenues continuing to grow despite dedicated SR measures, reducing the B3 maximum back down to £1 and increasing the time between spins would be far more effective in harm reduction than more SR measures.

Online gambling is clearly the area where far more needs to be done. The role of the Gambling Commission is key here. Will it be willing to impose stricter Licensing Conditions and Codes of Practice? Will it be willing to impose meaningful impositions for regulatory breaches? How about advocating controls of stakes and prizes for online gambling?

It appears that there will not be meaningful restrictions of advertising. This was always going to be difficult area for DCMS as each of Digital, Media and Sports have commercially symbiotic relationships with online gambling.

In the Ministerial Foreword to the consultation, Tracey Crouch explains that the “Government wants a healthy gambling industry that responsibly generates investment and employment”. Over70% of online wagering from the UK is goes to Gibraltar operators which object to paying UK point-of-consumption gambling tax. Offshore gambling is unhealthy and detrimental to UK investment and employment.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is due to report on investigations into withdrawal procedures as well as free bet and sign-up offers. The CMA, along with the ASA and the CAP all have roles to play in controlling advertising content. However, affiliate and social media marketing may not be adequately controllable without primary legislation, which is very unlikely with Brexit dominating the Parliamentary agenda.

The position that RET can be delivered under Gambling Commission, Responsible Gambling Strategy Board and GambleAware policies, at funding of £13 million per year or less, is flawed. Prior actions by these establishment bodies have served to delay government action on FOBTs. RET will not be in safe hands until there is substantially increased mandatory funding and truly independent research.

The Senet Group, funded by the bookies and designed to be a “political firebreak” is given credibility, despite creating “When the Fun Stops – Stop” – a promotional message that gambling is fun! The Industry Group for Responsible Gambling (IGRG), again industry funded, is proposing a £5 million to £7 million per year “responsible” gambling advertising campaign along Senet lines.

Gambling operators have spent £1.4bn since 2012 on encouraging gambling, in addition to affiliate share revenues. As usual GambleAware (previously RGT) can be relied upon to help preserve the status quo. In 2014 it commissioned Per Binde for research into gambling advertising.

Per Binde looked at mainly overseas and mainly historical research to conclude that advertising might not have much impact on problem gambling. This work is therefore not focussed on the current sophisticated marketing in the UK. Also, as Tracey Crouch repeatedly told Parliament, the consultation is about harm to the young and vulnerable and to society as a whole, not just problem gamblers.

It is difficult for DCMS to argue both that gambling advertising is not that effective in causing harm but responsible gambling advertising will be effective in reducing harm. Any failure to act on advertising will only strengthen the case for reducing the maximum stake on FOBTs to £2 a spin.

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