Posted by Woods Whur | Gambling

The Gambling Act requires the Gambling Commission (“GC”) to provide advice to the Government on all matters gambling, including its effects on the public. On Monday, it provided its “formal advice” to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the review of gaming machines and social responsibility – which, as we all know, has focussed primarily on B2 machines, or Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (“FOBTs”).

The advice was not circulated by the GC as an update or in a newsletter, which I find surprising- I heard about it on the news on Radio 4 (some of you will know that this is my station of choice) – although it is available on the GC website, here: http://www.gamblingcommission.gov.uk/PDF/Review-of-gaming-machines-and-social-responsibility-measures-–-formal-advice.pdf

It’s fair to say that the GC’s advice has caused some consternation among those campaigning for a reduction in the maximum stake for FOBTs to £2. This is because the GC has opted for a stake limit “at or below £30”.

Some might think that this represents the GC sitting on the fence – after all, “at or below £30” could mean anything between £0 and £30 – but the GC is at pains to point out that the final decision is one for Ministers to make.

The GC’s advice centres around the need to reduce the risk of harm to consumers – who are the focus of its present strategy – particularly the vulnerable. It believes that action needs to be taken, not just by government, but also by operators and the GC itself. The conclusion in the formal advice is that “the case has been made for action to be taken on B2 machines to reduce the risk of harm, and that this should include a stake cut.”

So, why has the GC not fallen in with the £2 maximum stake being campaigned for so strenuously by campaigners? The answer it gives is that it has identified four criteria to take into account in setting any maximum gaming machine stake. These are:

  • Impacts on gambling harm – the GC is concerned that merely reducing the stake might encourage players to adopt riskier strategies, play for longer or switch to other gambling products, particularly online;
  • Categorisation of gambling premises and a concern that any proposed change might mean that a “harder” form of gambling product is available in arcades, bingo halls and pubs, which are less tightly regulated than the betting and casino premises in which FOBTs are currently allowed;
  • The need to preserve consumer choice and to avoid eliminating the very popular game of roulette from betting shops; and
  • The need to take everyone’s views into account, being those of stakeholders such as Parliamentarians, Local Authorities, operators, faith groups and local residents.

It is between these competing considerations that the GC says it is for Ministers to decide. However, its advice does seek to draw a distinction between B2 slot-type machines (for which it believes that there is a case for limiting stakes to £2) and those that offer roulette, for example – the most popular game played on B2 machines – (for which its view is that the maximum stake should be £30 or less).

The GC also believes that limiting stakes is not enough to deal with gambling-related harm, and its prevention: it favours a comprehensive approach, and believes that there is a “strong case” for making tracked play mandatory across all B1, B2 and B3 machines, giving consumers access to information that will help them keep track of their play and make informed decisions about whether to continue gaming.

We’ll be monitoring this proposal carefully, as it will affect a large number of operators. The GC’s formal advice presents various matrices relating to the costs and benefits of introducing tracked play on this scale, but admits that, so far, the GC has “only limited information on the costs”, so we will have to wait to see if and how this proposal develops.

The GC’s advice has been met with a great deal of disquiet from campaigners pushing for the maximum stake on FOBTs to be reduced to £2. Tom Watson, Labour’s Deputy Leader, called the advice “deeply disappointing”, and accused the GC of having “caved in to industry pressure”. Carolyn Harris, the Labour MP who chairs the all-party Parliamentary group investigating FOBTs, said that she was confident that “Government will see past this and do the right thing, as the moral argument has been made so overwhelmingly for £2 [stake]”. John White, Chief Executive of the anti-FOBT amusement machine industry trade organisation BACTA, also weighed in, saying that “whilst a stake reduction is a step in the right direction, merely reducing this to £30 is still dangerously high…With a 20 second play duration on FOBTs, the proposed £30 stake will generate a loss of £90 within one minute. Within 10 minutes it is £900… [this] does not do enough to protect the consumers who are vulnerable.”

The GC says that it has drawn on a “a broad evidence base”, including on data from the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board and 20 billion plays on B2 machines. BACTA have rejected this as being “drawn from a narrow interpretation of a limited range of evidence and [focussed] on the theoretical rather than the reality.

Matt Hancock, the Culture Secretary, is rumoured still to favour limiting the maximum FOBT stake to £2, but he is apparently under pressure from the Treasury, who get £700m in machine gaming duty every year, a large proportion of which is represented by revenue from FOBTs.

A decision by Government is expected in the next couple of weeks and we will, of course, update you in future editions of our Newsletter.