Did you see the Times of 17th February which devoted part of its front page, a whole double-page spread and an editorial to gambling and specifically the FOBT machines? It is good to see the issue getting the publicity it deserves. People keep on adding comments to the Gambling Watch UK site talking about their own or a family member's problems with the machines. Much of what The Times said on the subject was very much what we have been saying for the last three or four years, such as the Responsible Gambling Trust's inherent conflicts of interest, and the lack of independence of research.
But there were some bits that were new to me or which put a new angle on it. One was the calculation that on average each FOBT makes a profit of £48,000 a year - they literally are money-eating devices which extract £s from some people in order to put it in the pockets of others. Another revelation to me was the wealth gambling has generated for the family (uncles, brother) of our Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, and the excessive amount of hospitality the minister responsible for gambling received from the industry between 2010 and 2012, not to mention the apology MP Philip Davies had to make after not declaring hospitality from Ladbrokes. The conflicts of interest of parliamentarians when it comes to gambling need looking into more closely. Celebrities queuing up to be paid for advertising gambling was a feature as well; several were named. I also learnt from The Times about the clever way in which FOBT roulette is used to launder large quantities of money.
As might be expected, the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB), the industry-led Responsible Gambling Trust, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, all part of what I call the British Gambling Establishment, commented that there was no evidence gambling problems had increased and that stronger regulations were now in place such 'putting an end to unsupervised stakes above £50 on FOBTs' - which we know is feeble and doesn't work.
More interesting has been the response of the new Chief Executive of the Gambling Commission (GC), Sarah Harrison, who responded on the Commission's website and later in a speech to the ABB on 14th March. She wanted to correct the 'misrepresentaion' that GC's role included the promotion of growth in gambling, which she says it definitely does not. That is a very welcome statement, a much clearer statement than I have seen previously. Except that, in practice, I am not sure it can really be believed. The GC is required to permit gambling, and inevitably therefore growth of gambling, provided it does not contravene the licensing objectives of keeping gambling fair and crime-free and protecting children. She also emphasises that GC will 'put consumer interests at the heart of regulation'. That sounds good but of course it begs so many questions: whose interests and which interests will be given priority?