It also seems to be the case that local authorities are becoming more vociferous in their opposition to the clustering of betting shops on high streets, particularly in poorer areas. Tony Page of Reading Borough Council and the Local Government Association put forward the view that current proposed changes, which are meant to make it easier for local councils to have some control over gambling on their high streets, were insufficient and in any case were not retrospective so they would not affect the clustering of betting shops on high streets which had already taken place. Such clustering, he argued, was contrary to the principle of high street diversity. He called for a reversal of the present presumption that gambling premises licences will be granted, a bringing back of the 'demand test' (licences would not be granted unless it could be shown that there was existing unmet demand, as was the case before the 2005 Gambling Act), and a recognition that accumulation of impact should be allowed to be taken into consideration when deciding on the granting of a new licence. Meanwhile, things are hotting up in Scotland. The present Scotland Bill includes the proposal to cap the number of high stake (more than £10) gambling machines, and a Scottish Parliamentary Committee has just concluded that FOBTs should be banned altogether in Scotland.
The high point of the RGT conference for me came right at the beginning when Tracey Crouch spoke. She is the current Minister responsible for gambling at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. She gave a very encouraging speech emphasising the very significant harm that gambling caused for a large minority of people who gamble – she gave a figure of 7% of gamblers – and for their families. It was also good to hear her say that she has talked to colleagues in the Department of Health (DoH) about this. I've been arguing for a long time that gambling and the harm it causes is a public health issue and that DoH should start to recognise its responsibility for providing help.
A number of interesting things were said at the conference about the issue of gambling advertising. Someone from the Advertising Standards Authority admitted that the volume of gambling advertising had increased beyond expectations and perhaps beyond the limits of public acceptance. Dr Margaret Carran of City University London talked about her interesting PhD research which had involved over 200 children and young people who had talked about gambling advertisements. They mostly thought that gambling advertising, which emphasised the fun of gambling, was not realistic, and they particularly thought that 'shouting adverts' were not attractive. Dr Carran's own opinion was that the 9 p.m. watershed might not be the most important thing since children now often watched TV, often in their own rooms, well after 9 p.m. More important might be banning gambling advertising if programmes were particularly appealing to children and young people, whereas at the moment it is only banded if programmes are specially designed for children. Even the representative of the new gambling trade association IGRG said that, although their review concluded that there was no evidence that gambling advertising was contributing to normalisation of gambling (no surprises there then!), the industry was getting the message that it needed to soften the tone of gambling advertisements on television, and had recommended banning free sign-up offers before 9 p.m.
But, alongside these encouraging signs, there are indications that resistance to real change is as strong as ever. The changes to TV advertising, suggested by IGRG, are quite minor and would do nothing to reverse the massive increase we have seen in gambling advertising on television, the consequent exposure of young people to gambling advertising, and the increasing normalisation of gambling.
It was no accident that RGT invited as their principal speaker someone from the Responsible Gambling Council in Canada who talked about the gambling education they had been providing for young people and others. Although the methods he described were highly creative, we know from research in related fields, such as alcohol and drug education, that education for young people is one of the weakest and least effective methods of harm prevention. In fact it may be worse than ineffective because it gives the implicit message that gambling is a normal, ordinary part of life so long as people engage in it 'responsibly'. It may therefore contribute to the normalisation of gambling without being at all effective in preventing harm.
It becomes clear that the industry, threatened by widespread concern about such things as the FOBT machines and gambling advertising, is keen to be seen to be doing something, but is naturally anxious not to do anything very significant that would seriously risk profits. A talk at the Westminster seminar by Ron Finlay, the chief executive of yet another new gambling trade association, the Senet Group, referred to the group's aspiration to 'change the culture', although its proposed actions, like those of the Canadian Responsible Gambling Council, were weak ones, unlikely to alter the current direction of British gambling policy. Matt Zarb-Cousin, of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, was right I believe in describing the Senet Group in his talk as simply a publicity exercise for the industry, similar to the notorious alcohol industry Portman group.
Meanwhile, a theme of the Westminster seminar, which was dominated by speakers from the industry, was present and future threats to the profitability and survival of the gambling industry (other than remote gambling), and particularly betting shops, many of which it was said might have to close, with the associated loss of jobs, and the general burden of increased taxation and increased expectations of social responsibility, and the difficulty for the industry of lack of harmonisation across the European Union. Several contributors to the seminar thought there was no appetite in government to change things.
Another significant event that happened in the closing weeks of 2015 was the publication, early in November, of the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board (RGSB) draft Strategy 2016-17 to 2018-19, as a consultation document. Unfortunately this potentially important document reinforces the impression that much noise is currently being made about the industry being socially responsible and minimising harm, whilst in fact there is resistance to real change. There are lots of interesting things in the RGSB document, for example about extending self-exclusion and about identifying harmful patterns of gambling. But the abiding emphasis is on individual gamblers and how to identify, educate and if necessary exclude them, and not on investigation of the harmful products themselves and how they are being designed and marketed. This is hardly surprising when it is realised that the 2005 Gambling Act, and subsequent behind-closed doors negotiations, have led to a situation where Government, the Gambling Commission, the RGSB, and the industry-led RGT, are expected to work closely together and have common aims. Together they constitute what I call The Gambling Establishment. No wonder that, despite all the noise, no real change is being proposed. When it comes to gambling in Britain, it is business as usual for 2016.