A softer approach, but still plenty of sharp edges

Coinslot Sarah Harrison
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Sarah Harrison doled out some much sought after praise for coin-op’s responsible gambling efforts, but she still had plenty of forthright messages to deliver to the assembled convention, along with news of what may swing the GC’s B2 recommendation.

If it wasn’t already clear from her debut speech a year ago at the 2015 Bacta Convention, or her actions since then, the opening gambit of Sarah Harrison’s speech at this year’s event indicated that Sarah Harrison is a fairly uncompromising regulator.

The Gambling Commission chief executive began her speech by recapping some of its recently released industry data which shows a decline in AGC licences and premises numbers, while FEC licences, machine numbers and GGY all fell.

It was a firm opening and many in the hall feared was a precursor for more of the “headmasterly tone” for which John White criticised the GC both this year and last. However, while Harrison retained the authoritative manner expected of a regulator, there were some warmer comments for coin-op than in her previous appearances before the industry.

This was particularly true on the subject of test purchasing. “The Commission has had quite a lot to say on this issue in the past, but this year, my message is more positive: put simply, it’s ‘keep up the good work’,” she said. “I am pleased to note that good performance has been maintained in Bacta’s own testing programme. There is continued progress in results from the AGCs in motorway services.

“The most significant change has been in local authority tests. In 2014 we highlighted a 60 percent failure rate – this year there have been three tests that saw a 100 percent pass rate (East Lindsey, NE Lincs and Hastings). A couple of places didn’t score so highly, notably Blackpool and Southend, but overall a much better picture.”

Harrison also hinted at a change in the way it communicates with coin-op operators. Bacta’s John White had commented in his address that he was very happy with the way that the GC interacts face-to-face and that appears to be the preferred approach for the regulator going forward.

“We have received feedback to say that the tone of one-to-one engagement with colleagues is preferred to written communication,” said Harrison, “and whilst there is always a place for both, we recognise that we need to do more of this type of engagement and to show you that we are not a regulator operating in an ivory tower – we do have a human face! We therefore plan to both build on the above and improve how we engage more generally.”

Of course, the primary topic of conversation at the Convention was the so-called Triennial Review, which remains open for submission of evidence until 4 December. The Commission is expected to exert a significant influence on the decision of the DCMS and, slightly alarmingly, Harrison revealed that it is waiting on a crucial bank of data before it makes its recommendations on B2s.

Although she said that the GC was drawing advice from a “wide range” of sources, it is also holding back on making a submission to government before for data drawn from play on FOBTs both before and after the introduction of new rules surrounding bets of over £50 is acquired. The worrying implication being that, if this data shows that there has been a meaningful impact on problem gambling as a result of this restriction the GC will not recommend a stakes reduction.

It remains to be seen if this worst-case scenario is in fact true, with Harrison staying predictably tight-lipped on the Commission’s submission, but with all evidence to be released to the public at some point after the December deadline closes, it is likely to be this decision which will define the coin-op industry’s relationship with its regulator much more so than a change in its communication strategy.

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