The damaging episode of the crackdown on fixed-odds betting terminals has left its mark, says Jake Pollard, and the industry quickly needs to learn how to lobby effectively – and with one voice
The intensity of the argument over fixed odds betting terminals over the past two years may have surprised some but it has been going on, in one form or another, for the best part of 15 years.
What was clear to anyone paying attention to the discussion was the heated, emotive and at times brutal nature of the terms used by anti-FOBT campaigners.
Whether they came from pressure groups such as the Campaign for Fairer Gambling or trade bodies briefing against FOBTs because of resentment at the Association of British Bookmakers and its members being allowed to offer the products on the high street, it’s been a bruising debate for all stakeholders.
The result of all this lobbying warfare was that back in May the UK government announced its decision to reduce the maximum stake on the machines from £100 to £2.
Now that the date for its introduction has been set for October 2019, the issue the gambling industry is now assessing is how it can lobby more effectively and, just as importantly, reassure politicians and the public that its corporate and social responsibility guidelines will promote best practice and protect consumers.
In other words, can it lobby constructively, without members sniping at one another or putting spanners in each others’ wheels? For if the FOBT fiasco has proved one thing, it is that the industry will not achieve positive regulation as long as it continues lobbying in such a disjointed manner.
Clive Hawkswood, chief executive of the Remote Gambling Association, makes just this point. “One lesson to remember is that we stand or fall together,” he says.
“The gambling sector is very diverse, but in practical terms this lack of lobbying coordination translates into the industry getting nothing back from the government in terms of regulation.
“If a stakeholder is asking for certain measures to help their sector, it is surely better that they can do that without others criticising or briefing against them. That is what happened during the recent DCMS review, which was counterproductive for all involved.”
To this lack of cohesiveness can be added changes in attitudes across society. One industry source, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the 2018 landscape is a million miles away from “the early noughties, which saw the creation of the industry as we know it now.
The corporatism and light touch regulation of that time has been replaced with a much more judgmental, less tolerant environment where people can sound off through social media with very few facts at their disposal; politics reflects those customs”.
The source continues, “The 2017 general election cost Theresa May her majority in Parliament and prevented the government from being able to take measures that weren’t populist. Prior to that point, the £2 maximum stake wasn’t on the cards, we were heading towards £30 [as a maximum stake].”
It is true that social media can be unhelpful at times, but the idea that the UK government took the decision to impose the £2 maximum stake as a result of the Prime Minister’s botched general election campaign and loss of parliamentary majority seems like a stretch.
One outside observer put it more bluntly, saying, “It was the industry’s repeated lack of effective communication around the issue, over a number of years, that combined to produce such an unsatisfactory result.”
Despite this, there is a will to move on from the FOBT saga. Richard Noble of the National Casino Forum says the NCF’s official position was that it didn’t have a public position on FOBTs, although he admits that some “NCF members took a different view”.
He adds, “It is wrong to have individual sectors criticising each other, it causes a loss of confidence in the industry from a consumer and regulatory perspective. That is why we’re happy to work with other bodies and operators, especially on corporate and social responsibility messaging.”
And while each vertical will have different requirements for how it addresses consumers, Noble says “uniformity of messaging is important and this must be reflected through our campaigns.
“The same with data: there is a need to share learnings and knowing how to better identify problem behaviour or helping players earlier if necessary, rather than each group doing these things separately.”
Clive Hawkswood from the RGA adds that such moves would parallel the way the UK Gambling Commission has restructured its regulatory remits.
“The Commission is now taking a schematic approach to regulation, rather than being sector-specific, and will look at issues across all forms of gambling to get insights for the industry as a whole, because issues like money laundering, sports betting integrity or self-exclusion apply equally across offline and online,” he says.
“For some time online was seen as a disruptor and many people were against it, but in 2018 all operators have sizeable digital activities and it is taking the industry forward, so it doesn’t make sense to be part of four or five different trade bodies working separately.”
“Online encompasses most retail sectors,” Richard Noble adds, “whether it is bingo, poker, casino or betting, and vice versa, so there is a real appetite to work more closely on all these topics, because the technology makes it possible and the benefits of having a unified system are clear.”
Moves to bring lobby groups closer together have started, with recent reports that the Association of British Bookmakers and RGA are working on plans to merge.
“It won’t be a merger in the pure sense of the word,” says Hawkswood, “more a fusion of different functions between the two bodies, giving members more flexibility while bringing consistency to their messaging.
“The benefits of such a move are clear. It also offers the opportunity to ask how the industry got into such a mess over FOBTs and how it can avoid getting into such a situation again.”
The amusement arcade and adult gaming centre (AGC) trade body BACTA was the one body that openly campaigned against FOBTs. Chief executive John White thinks the group’s opposition to the machines was twofold. “FOBTs have had a direct economic impact on AGCs,” he says.
“Half the AGCs across the UK have closed down as a direct result of betting shops opening near them with the four machines per shop. Players have simply left AGCs to go and play FOBTs.
“The second impact has been reputational: the negativity around FOBTs has spilled over to AGCs and the public doesn’t differentiate between the two, they join the dots and equate AGCs with FOBTs. This has also meant heavier regulatory pressures placed on our members.”
White stresses that “BACTA’s door is always open” and is happy to talk about projects on which it can work with other trade bodies. He adds that BACTA has worked with the Industry Group for Responsible Gambling (IGRG) for the past six years and would be taking part in the Responsible Gambling Week initiative, which ran from 1-7 November.
And while such collaborations will be easier now that the FOBT debate is done, the idea that “the industry is taking big lumps out of each other” doesn’t ring true, he claims. “Yes, BACTA is against FOBTs, but we’re not against bookmakers,” White says.
He adds that “the ABB and RGA have a lot more in common when it comes to the verticals they offer consumers than the likes of BACTA”, although it will be interesting to see if the fortunes of BACTA members improve considerably once the maximum stake on FOBTs is implemented.
For all that, the public airing of FOBT-related grievances presented a highly negative picture of an industry at war with itself, low on confidence and unable to put forward the positive aspects the sector provides when it comes to fun and entertainment that the vast majority of the public can enjoy.
The key test for the sector now will be whether it has learnt the lessons from this whole saga.
Jake Pollard is a leading journalist and content producer in the igaming sector. He has covered the industry for many years and worked on all the major business-to-business publications.