The recent announcement by the four major retail bookmakers – William Hill, Ladbrokes, Coral and Paddy Power – that they are committing to a range of voluntary measures to promote responsible gambling standards and ensure that the marketing of gambling is socially responsible, has been well received by the national regulator, the Gambling Commission, and politicians alike.
Together these four operators have formed an organisation called the Senet Group, and whilst the founding members are all bookmakers, the organisation is open to all gambling operators.
The response by the betting industry to address very public concerns around gambling sees a commitment to the following steps from the 1st October 2014:
- a voluntary ban on advertising sign-up offers (free bets and free money) on TV before 9pm, mindful of children and young people watching;
- the withdrawal of all advertising of gaming machines from betting shop windows;
- dedicating 20% of shop window advertising to responsible gambling messages.
These measures follow a further initiative taken by the industry in September 2013 when the ABB's Code for "Responsible Gambling and Player Protection in Licensed Betting Offices" was launched.
In addition to the above, from 1 January 2015, a commitment has been made to:
- the creation of a new independent body, The Senet Group, which will be headed by an independent Standards Commissioner to hold the industry to account;
- fund a major new advertising campaign to educate people about responsible gambling;
- all TV advertising carrying more prominent responsible gambling messages
In launching these initiatives Richard Glynn, CEO of Ladbrokes said that whilst "Gambling has long been a leisure pursuit and part of the cultural fabric of the UK…we are alive to the concerns of the public to keep gambling a responsible and fun activity.”
Patrick Kennedy, CEO of Paddy Power also commented that "Putting responsible gambling at the heart of our business is simply the right thing to do.”
The Public Response
The Gambling Commission has welcomed the initiative adding that they "hope it will gain traction across the industry more widely" whilst Helen Grant MP tweeted that she was "encouraged by leading bookmakers announcement …on social responsible gambling" adding that she was "pleased with the industry's pro – activity".
Needless to say the proposals did not receive universal praise. The Campaign for Fairer Gambling is reported as saying that "the bookmakers are engaging in desperate conjuring tricks to protect their FOBT market monopoly and, put simply, this is just more smoke and mirrors. If the Gambling Commission was fit for purpose there would not be the need for a watchdog. But for any such watchdog to have credibility it should be neither industry-run nor industry-funded."
This may seem a little harsh on an industry who no doubt feels that they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. In practice, what does all of this mean? Is it too little too late from the industry and has the "fobt" horse already bolted? There are clearly those who will feel that the industry has not gone far enough and that the proposed measures are a token effort as the political pressure mounts on the sector.
What does this mean in practice?
Whichever side of the argument you find yourself on it is, however, progress and the betting industry should be applauded for the steps that they are going to take. The recent announcement, however, should not been seen as the end for any self-regulation. It should simply be regarded as a start. Any policy, whether they be in relation to responsible gambling or, for example, health and safety, needs to be dynamic, and the steps proposed by the major bookmakers need to be re-visited on a regular basis to keep in step with changing gambling habits and trends.
On a national level the Gambling Commission should have confidence that the words of the industry are now being translated in to actions. Whilst it remains to be seen whether the Senet Group will bear the teeth that it is ultimately given it should at least be given time to bed in before any sensible conclusions can be drawn.
In so far as the local regulators are concerned, when it comes to considering applications for premises licences, local authority licensing committees (and Boards in Scotland) should take greater comfort that those operators who have signed up to the above initiatives will not only comply with their statutory obligations under the Gambling Act 2005 ("the Act") but will be going over and beyond that which is required of them by statute to ensure that the objectives under the Act, and in particular the protection of children and the vulnerable, are being upheld.
These steps do not of course not stop an operator from proposing its own application specific conditions nor from preventing a local authority from adding its own additional conditions on any licence where there is evidence that to do so would be necessary to uphold and promote the licensing objectives under the Act.
The argument over fobts, the debate over primary gambling activity, and the political pressure on betting operators will inevitably continue (there are outstanding consultations on the LCCP and planning regulations in England and Wales as well as Scotland). There has also been an announcement by a well-known operator of AGC premises that they intend to convert their premises from an AGC to a betting office and install 4 fobts.
The recent announcement will have taken some of the heat off the betting industry in the short term at least. Observers of the industry will watch closely to see what impact, if any, the proposed changes have and how the Senet Group holds, as they say they will, the industry to account.