Right to Reply: bacta’s John White on Government review

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In a response to last week’s article from Malcom George, bacta’s John White responds with reference to the Government’s impending review.

 

The entire industry is awaiting with great interest the outcome of the Government’s review into gaming machine stakes and prizes.

Rightly, much of the focus has been on B2 machines, which have become increasingly controversial as their imprint on the UK’s high streets has grown. There are now 34,884 of these hardcore gambling machines in operation, over 99% of them in betting shops. They are responsible for over two thirds of the entire gaming machine sector’s gross gambling yield.

Bacta is clear that there needs to be a substantial reduction in the £100 maximum stake on B2s, addressing an absurd anomaly that currently means consumers can stake up to fifty times more per play on a B2 than any other widely available gambling machine.

Unsurprisingly, the bookmakers are clinging to the status-quo. ABB Chief Executive Malcolm George wrote in these pages last week, outlining their case for inaction. On two things we are agreed: this needs to be a debate rooted in the evidence, and our industry must put social responsibility of all customers at the heart of what we do.

So I’m going to take Malcolm at his word and focus on some facts.

Fact one is about gambling losses. Across LBOs in 2015-2016, there were more than 230,000 sessions in which a consumer lost over £1,000 on a B2 or B2 combination machine. That compares to just 661 equivalent sessions in AGCs on B3 and Category C machines. That is Gambling Commission data.

Fact two is about social cost. In 2014, the most recent year for which we have the statistics, there were 11,711 incidents at gambling venues which resulted in a police call-out. Over 11,200 of those — almost 96% — were at betting shops, against fewer than 500 across AGCs, FECs, casinos and bingo halls combined. In total, that represented a 51% rise in police incidents at betting shops in just one year. review review

Fact three is about economic cost. According to the independent researchers Landman Economics, if the current rate of growth in consumer expenditure on B2s were to continue for another decade, the following things would happen. The economy as a whole would lose 25,000 jobs, against 5,000 created in the gambling sector. The total annual wage bill in areas of high B2 concentration would be around £700 million lower. And tax receipts would be hit to the tune of £120m in aggregate.

So the facts are clear. Betting shop B2s are responsible for the overwhelming majority of big losses among everyday high-street punters. The aggressive gambling culture they encourage has led to a major escalation in gambling-related violence, almost exclusively taking place within betting shops. And, according to exactly the sort of impartial study the ABB has championed, they are a net economic loser for the national economy, when overall impact on jobs, wages and the tax take is considered.

It is the duty of us all in the gambling and entertainment sector to ensure that social responsibility to our customers and communities is paramount. Malcolm rightly points to the progress that has taken place, sector-wide, on initiatives from staff training to consumer education and self-exclusion. This is important work, much of which the AGC sector has led on, but it risks being totally undermined when easy access to hardcore gambling remains.

This is not a catch-all cure to the problem gambling challenge we must all face. Of course problem gambling will not go away with a stake reduction on B2s. This is a complex issue for which there is no single solution. But we are clear that there is also no overall solution that does not include limiting access to hardcore gambling in the form of £100 stakes on high-street B2s. There is a place for high-stakes gambling, but it is not the high street and it is not the betting shop, which will often be single staffed. B2s are risking and causing harm to their users, betting shop staff and the wider public. The level of police incidents makes that much clear. It is a risk that can and must be directly addressed by Government through substantial stake reduction.

The industry does itself little credit by clinging to a status-quo that has created so many problems, and which the public has little appetite for. In a YouGov poll, 58% of those who gamble regularly said they would support a ban on B2s; only 4% said they would oppose it. We are not advocating for abolition, but simply for the end to the mistake of high stakes gambling on the high street. A significant B2 stake reduction will be an important step to creating something we should all support: a level playing field and a plural gaming sector that genuinely puts the wellbeing of its customers first. That is something we should all be able to agree on.


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