On May 11 the government published guidance stating that amusement arcades (sic) could re-open as nonessential retail businesses on Monday June 15. At 5.30pm on Thursday June 11, the industry learnt that this decision had been reversed. In an exclusive interview with Coinslot, Bacta chief executive John White provides his take on a U-turn that is costing the industry millions while Licensed Betting Offices, the competitors on the high street, are open for business.
Coinslot: Can you re-run the chronology of last week, when you first thought something might be amiss, how you found out, when you found out and where you were when you took the call?
John White: I got a call on Thursday 11th at 5.30 saying we weren’t going to open. Before this, all of the conversations were about making the necessary distinction between FEC and AGC as we were not asking for FECs to open.
In fact, we acted responsibly to help DCMS make the distinction as we are as keen as anyone to play our part in the national effort to beat Covid-19.
How do you see the next steps and is 4 July a date set in stone for AGCs to reopen?
JW: We will continue to pressure Government for clarity on just when the whole sector can open.
We have the Minister’s personal assurance that this will be as soon as possible and that the arguments we have made make that more rather than less likely.
As it stands there is no firm date for any sector including pubs and will press for the earliest possible date
“Fury, anger, indignation that we were being treated so unjustly and unfairly. We immediately swung into action…”
This must be the definition of a WTF moment – how did you respond emotionally and professionally. What did you do in terms of implementing Bacta’s crisis management procedures?
JW: Fury, anger, indignation that we were being treated so unjustly and unfairly. We immediately swung into action. We had a great response from members and their MPs. We reached out to everyone we had in our contacts book, which was considerable after all the excellent lobbying work we had done over the previous years building it.
I had personal contact with a number of senior people including those at Number 10 that I could get to and even those who had a chance of getting to the PM.
Everyone was supportive and instantly recognised that this was wrong. This built up to the one-to-one between myself, National President James Miller and the Minister which took place on Friday afternoon.
Who do you understand made the decision within government?
JW: We are told Number 10 for the original decision on Tuesday 9th. For the rethink that we engineered we have been informed it was ‘at the highest level’ and it took place on Friday.
What exactly is the problem – is it the sloppy terminology in relation to the term ‘arcade’ or is it as people are speculating concern by government that a visit to an AGC is more than simply transactional. If it is the latter can’t the same analysis be applied to other sectors that have been allowed to open this week?
JW: There is no logic to this. Every reason being used to justify it doesn’t stack up.
My guess is that there has been a massive cock up for reasons we are trying to identify. Government operates more like ‘Yes Minister’ than you would think.
How did the Betting and Gaming Council get its arguments across when bacta seemingly did not?
JW: Bacta and the Betting and Gaming Council both went to government to say we were non-essential retail, we both got the message across and indeed had discussed how we needed to stay in lock step with our arguments. The answer as to why bookies can open and AGCs can’t, lies in a failure by Government to understand the nature of the premises.
As Coinslot readers know, both styles of business share customer demographics and compete for machine playing customers because LBOs have amongst their offer, four of the same categories of Gaming Machines as found in AGCs. In addition, LBOs, offer Self Service Betting Machines.
Despite these facts government was of the view that LBOs were more like retail in that people tended to pop in, place a bet and leave, whereas in AGCs people would spend a bit more time. This, they said, had health implications.
We know that this is rubbish and that machine players spend probably more time in a bookies and which probably have more customers. Transmission risk is greater in an LBO than an AGC. Government now knows it is rubbish to.
You will have processed the campaign over and over again in your head – is there anything that you would have done differently and if so what in particular?
JW: No. Bacta has delivered a top-drawer service to its members throughout this Covid-19 pandemic and has had lots of lobbying successes.
I don’t want this knock back to overshadow the work of the Bacta team that has been working without a break for the past three months.
No-one saw this coming and I don’t think we could have done more in the 18 or so hours we had to put it right.
We are continuing the fight for all our members, AGC, FEC, single site operator, manufacturer and distributor.
Do you think you would have been able to identify the potential problem earlier and/or put concerns to bed if bacta had been part of the Working Group organised by DCMS as reported in Coinslot last week?
JW: No. That’s totally irrelevant to this decision.
Clearly, LBOs now have a significant commercial advantage over AGCs – have you picked up on the speculation circulating that commercial interests may have been at play in terms of planting the seed that led to a government U-turn?
JW: It’s an obvious thought, but I don’t reach that conclusion. It doesn’t stack up for me.
It’s not how government works. Government would love to get us up and running and for us to get staff off furlough and for businesses to pay taxes.
Where does the responsibility for this rest – DCMS or the Cabinet Office?
JW: That’s to be determined. It is fair to say that DCMS was batting on our behalf during the course of the week.
We spoke not only to DCMS Minister, Nigel Huddleston but to the Secretary of State and Senior Civil Servants both in the Department and at Number 10, BEIS and Treasury.
There is, in my view, a genuine understanding of just how much damage this decision has had and will continue to cause the industry. Not that will help anyone right now.
What message have you got for Bacta members who are frustrated, extremely angry and find themselves significantly out of pocket?
JW: I fully appreciate all of those sentiments. I feel them myself. I have demonstrated that I and the Bacta team stand as always with our members and for our members. This is no different.
Is there any way at all that anything remotely positive can be rescued from this?
JW: The silver linings I can identify don’t cut much mustard at the moment, but the power of Bacta to lobby has been impressive.
I have worked in other industries, believe me what Bacta and its members did over Thursday night and into Friday was astonishing.
Government took notice and were surprised at how well we had mobilised in such a short space of time.
We have done that before. Bacta is always punching above its weight.
The efforts of the past few days have cemented some important relationships that have been building with our campaigning over the past few years.
Once again, I would like to thank everyone for the letters they have written. Government listened even if they did not ultimately do what we wanted.