Winning Post – 2019 closing with more UK funny business

Regulus Partners reviews a chaotic start to November trading for UK betting incumbents, featuring a high-level political resignation, the launch of a new industry representative body and an attack on remote gambling services by cross-party MPs…

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UK: in Parliament – Watson’s last bow strikes a worrying note for the industry

The announcement this week that the Labour politician, Tom Watson has resigned as both Deputy Leader of his party and Shadow Culture secretary and that he will not be seeking re-election as an MP is a blow to the forces of moderation in British politics and to the public policy debate over gambling (albeit not typically seen that way by gambling commentators).

Watson’s recognition that something needed fixing in the way that Britain’s market was regulated and the way that consumers were treated naturally invited suspicion from operators – but over time many came to recognise his as a moderate and coherent voice in a noisy and often vitriolic debate. Watson’s departure appears to be part of a wider exodus of centrist, liberal parliamentarians who seem fed up with the erosion of basic human decency in British politics. The clear risk to the gambling industry (and to business in general) is that they are replaced by those of a less tolerant and more radical bent – from either right or left.

One has to be careful about reading too much into the online twittering of politicians, but Jeremy Corbyn’s response to Watson’s resignation seemed a little ominous. The Labour Leader wrote “I know you’ll continue to take on the vested interests of the Murdoch empire, big sugar companies and the gambling industry. This is not the end of our work together.”

Elsewhere, Lord Grade’s Select Committee on the economic effects of gambling received testimony from casino operators (John O’Reilly of The Rank Group and Simon Thomas of the Hippodrome Casino) as well as the online and landbased bingo sectors (Miles Baron of The Bingo Association, Phil Cronin of Tombola and Simon Wykes of Jackpot Joy). Both sessions were marked by a civility that is all too rarely found in the gambling policy debate. In general, the committee members appear happy to let understanding precede judgement; and this resulted in much probing but no grand-standing.

This was the last committee meeting of the year; Parliament dissolved shortly after Lord Grade called a halt to proceedings. The inquiry will recommence in the New Year (probably in late January) when it seems likely that it will be the turn of the largest remote operators to face questions – a session that is likely to draw significant interest from press and parliamentarians alike.

With parliamentary business now suspended, attention will turn to the General Election and the question of how gambling policies will feature (if at all) in party manifestos and electioneering.

UK: safer gambling – new trade group launches as the industry seeks to save itself from itself

Timing may not be everything, but it sure helps. In a week when Britain’s gambling operators felt the sting of self-inflicted wounds, the Betting and Gaming Council was launched as part of a major effort to bring unity where once was division.

The fact that Monday’s interim report on remote gambling (from the Gambling-related Harm All Party Parliamentary Group – see below) was sponsored by a number of British licensees (even if Gauselmann had the record corrected that it is no longer a funder of the group) reveals that despite the precarious position of the industry at large, it retains a remarkable capacity for self-destruction. That one remote sector executive responded to the report by blaming all casinos for the involvement of a single member suggests that diplomacy (as well as understanding one’s own industry) remains an undervalued art.

The industry’s involvement in the APPG’s report and the ensuing spat is not helpful – quite aside from the small irony that a report that called for independence of funding for research, education and treatment was itself funded by operators. It underscores the need for a different approach from some of those who represent the industry – one that stewards the best interests of members through negotiation and conciliation. The BGC’s leadership pairing of Brigid Simmons and (acting) Wes Himes clearly embody these values; and they will need to be strong too to curtail the instinct of certain members to divert off-piste whenever the mood takes them.

In the same vein, this week’s reports in the press of VIP shenanigans at Betfair (if true or even mainly true) could not have illustrated more clearly the need for the 22 safer gambling and social responsibility commitments made by the chief executives of Britain’s largest licensees. The Senet Group’s chief executive, Sarah Hanratty has worked determinedly over the course of the last year to distil and gain support for these commitments. The announcement was greeted with understandable cynicism – after all this is not the first time that a programme has been launched to raise industry standards – P3, Senet, the IGRG and others (all of which have enjoyed varying degrees of partial success). There is a sense that this time may be different. The companies involved have deliberately made a rod for their own backs and accept that failure to achieve their aims will result in censure and potentially the forfeiture of any chance to try again. That is the sort of genuine commitment to change with a ‘backs to the wall’ attitude that recognises how perilous a position Britain’s gambling industry is in – but also that it can still be saved with real strategic leadership. It couldn’t happen sooner.

UK: Politics – Out of chaos…

The publication this week of a report on the remote sector by the Gambling-related Harm All-Party Parliamentary Group presented an interesting conundrum. How is it that a report that demonstrates such a loose grip on basic facts, is so short on objectivity and so long on hyperbole should end up producing such intelligent proposals for reform?

Given the at-times unpleasant and intolerant nature of the gambling policy debate, we do not criticise the report lightly – but facts are important. After all, we are talking about some fairly basic stuff here. Indeed, facts don’t come much more basic than the number of people in Britain who gamble. The report claims that 9 million people in the UK gamble each year (excluding the National Lottery); whereas the national Health Surveys indicates a figure (for Great Britain) closer to 21 million. The APPG provides support for the view that 1% of adults are ‘pathological gamblers’ (a term that indicates a score of five or more on the DSM-IV derived screen); data from the Health Survey puts it at one-fifth of this level. It states that there is “low awareness” among gambling consumers for online self-exclusion; Gambling Commission surveys puts awareness at around 50% (which may not be high enough but is not exactly low). These are just a few examples of the lax research that characterises the report.

The document abounds with sensationalist malapropisms, such as “exponential” (used incorrectly to describe the shape of growth in the remote gambling market) or “endemic” in the context of problem gambling rates (hardly a fitting adjective for 0.5% to 0.7% of the adult population, depending upon one’s choice of screen). Meanwhile, the use of the word “cowardly” to describe a gambling executive who failed to appear before the APPG will have played well to the press and social media but cheapens the debate and is unlikely to be conducive to progress.

Yet despite its obvious shortcomings, the report’s authors have managed to make a series of practical and generally balanced contributions to some of the key issues that policy-makers are grappling with. Attention this week focused on the APPG’s indicated preference for a £2 slots stake limit online but the actual recommendation (consistent with the position of the Labour Party) is simply for review. It is entirely legitimate for politicians to ask whether the absence of rules governing structural characteristics online – such as game speed, stakes and prizes – makes sense. Licensees ought to do more to explore these proposals rather than to reject them out of hand. It is entirely valid for operators to highlight concerns in relation to a £2 limit; but a refusal to consider is not a good look and suggests that the fundamental lessons from the FOBT debacle remain unlearned: if the industry wants something more complicated but more effective it must offer it in time and show that it works – not scramble for a quick fix when it’s too late after spending years failing to effectively engage.

The report also calls for reviews of bonuses and incentives and affiliate marketing; that “consideration” be given to a single sign-on process for online gambling to better manage risk across multiple accounts;  for greater coordination between the providers of different harm prevention tools (GamSTOP, gamban etc); for increased involvement from the financial services sector; and for a root and branch review of gambling legislation – something that seems long overdue given the accumulation of problems with the gambling market as a whole.

There are legitimate issues with limit-setting online – in particular the potential for leakage to unregulated providers (see our Winning Post addendum from Tuesday); but that makes a review of the question more rather than less important. It is critical of course that any such review is conducted independently and scientifically – but this is far more likely to happen if the proposal is cautiously embraced than if it is rejected.   The proposal that British licensees should be required to uphold British values in every jurisdiction in which they operate, and restrict gambling to only where it is explicitly domestically licensed is obviously a thorny and dangerously extra-territorial one, but also one likely prompted by complaints from foreign regulators and governments that some British licensees (rather like some British football fans) seem to ‘go abroad’ mostly to cause trouble and take the piss: it could probably be avoided with better operational behaviour.

Among other items, the APPG has also called for reviews of bonuses and incentives and affiliate marketing; that “consideration” be given to a single sign-on process for online gambling to better manage risk across multiple accounts;  for greater coordination between the providers of different harm prevention tools (GamSTOP, Gamban etc); for increased involvement from the financial services sector; and for a root and branch review of gambling legislation – something that seems long overdue given the accumulation of problems with the gambling market as a whole.

So far, most operators have kept their own counsel on the report but antagonistic responses from a few big players are unhelpful – in particular where they have been accompanied by comments on the nature of gambling-related harm just as inaccurate and over-blown as those made by their critics. It probably makes more sense if such matters as online limits are considered within a broader review of gambling regulation – such as the Labour Party desires – but many operators oppose this too.

Whether the industry likes it or not, a wide-ranging programme of examination and (currently piecemeal) re-regulation of Britain’s gambling market is already underway and will almost certainly shape policy to affect all licensed operators of all sectors one way or another. Where this process ends up may be determined in (large) part by how constructively licensees choose to participate in that review.

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Content provided by Regulus Partners

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