The Gambling Commission has written to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport giving its advice on what should be done about maximum stakes and prizes for gambling machines. The Secretary of State is expected to announce the Government’s response to the Triennial Review of Stake and Prize Limits over the summer. The Gambling Commission’s advice is disappointing to those of us who have recommended that there should be greater controls on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs, officially known as category B2 machines), either by removing them from high street betting shops altogether or by drastically reducing maximum stakes to bring FOBTs more into line with other categories of gambling machine.
The Gambling Commission makes encouraging noises about adopting ‘the precautionary approach’ which is set out in its own Statement of Principles for Licensing and Regulation of September 2009. It is good to learn that, ‘in interpreting the available evidence, the Commission will take a precautionary approach. For example, caution may be justified where evidence is mixed or inconclusive, and the Commission would not want to restrict its discretion by requiring conclusive evidence that something was unsafe before taking measures to restrict it’ (paragraph 4). They could imagine circumstances in which a case could be made for ‘some prudential restrictions being imposed’ on stake and prize limits (paragraph 12). There is an even clearer statement about ‘the precautionary principle’ in the advice which the Commission received on the issue of maximum stakes and prizes from the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board (RGSB) in June: ‘the essence of the precautionary principle is that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm, but there is no scientific agreement that it is actually causing harm, then the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those wishing to promote that product... [It] shifts the burden of proof away from the regulator having to demonstrate potential harm towards the hazard creator having to demonstrate an acceptable level of safety’ (paragraph 11.4).
Despite those encouraging statements, both the RGSB in its advice to the Gambling Commission, and the Gambling Commission in its advice to the Secretary of State, conclude that there is insufficient evidence to recommend taking any action about B2 machines at the moment. They recognise that the high maximum stakes on such machines does mean that comparatively large amounts of money can be lost in a short time and that there is justified concern about them. What is surprising is the lack of any attempt in either of these advice documents to review, or even refer to, the evidence that Gambling Watch UK and the Campaign for Fairer Gambling have drawn on in their evidence to the Government Consultation on stakes and prizes and which has figured prominently in the media in recent months, including the Channel 4 Dispatches and BBC1 Panorama TV programmes. For example, neither the Gambling Commission nor RGSB make any reference to the secondary analysis of the 2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey which estimated that 23% of takings from B2 machines come from people with gambling problems (published in the journal International Gambling Studies, and see also this website: Research/People with Gambling Problems Are Making a Massive Contribution to Gambling Profits). This is all the more surprising in the case of the Gambling Commission advice to the Secretary of State, since it refers several times to the need for exactly that kind of estimate, and in that context refers to an estimate made by the Australian Productivity Commission for high-stakes gambling machines in Australia (paragraphs 14, 16, 22). The RGSB advice refers specifically to a Gambling Commission consultation with an international panel of machine experts which ‘produced a consensus that high-stakes machines were associated with problem gambling’ (paragraph 9.4). But it immediately dismisses the conclusion that such machines are dangerous on the grounds that this could be explained in terms of problem gamblers being particularly attracted to such machines rather than the characteristics of the machines themselves creating problems. They also fall back on the familiar argument that B2 machines are not a new product; if they were, they would be more inclined to invoke the precautionary principle (paragraph 11.6). But that completely ignores the way in which these machines were introduced into high street betting shops only a few years ago using a loophole in the law followed by a negotiated agreement with the weak Gaming Board in the years immediately before the 2005 Gambling Act.
One of the recurring themes in both the Gambling Commission and RGSB documents is the wish to see greater use made of industry data about the details of gaming machine play. Indeed the RGSB advice document reads more like a case for using such data than a review of current evidence relevant to immediate decisions to be taken about stakes and prizes. There is clearly a belief on the part of both organisations that the future, when it comes to evidence relevant to policy regarding gambling machines, lies with working alongside the industry to make maximum use of industry-held data about player behaviour. Such data are seen as offering boundless opportunities for analysing player data, predicting problematic gambling, providing individualised advice messages and evaluating the effectiveness of attempts at harm minimisation. By comparison all other forms of evidence are treated with suspicion since they do not assess ‘real gambling’ (RGSB paragraph 10.2) behaviour. A lot of hope is vested in the current scoping study, funded by the Responsible Gambling Trust, which is looking at the feasibility of collecting these kinds of data. This will not only strike many as being over-optimistic, but it also reflects a very narrow approach to policy-relevant evidence which should come from a number of different directions.
One has got to be worried about where these ideas are coming from and whose interests they really serve. There is little acknowledgement in the RGSB document about the source of their ideas about player behaviour data, until comparatively late on in the document (paragraph 10.16) when it is acknowledged that a large amount of the relevant work on this has been undertaken by the Division of Addictions at Harvard. What they fail to say is that this is the group that has become notorious in the USA for working very closely with the gambling industry and which has been widely criticised on grounds of conflict-of-interest and bias (see for example the book by Natasha Schüll reviewed on the Gambling Watch UK website: Important New Book about Machine Gambling). What is of concern to us in the UK now is that these ideas are being strongly promoted by the influential RGSB, which is itself not independent of industry interests. Further troubling is the way in which the Gambling Commission, set up by Government and required to advise it on relevant policy matters, draws so heavily on RGSB advice, agreeing with it in almost every particular and following its lead regarding the relative value of particular forms of evidence.
It is interesting that these documents have been made public in the very same month in which the Government has come in for criticism from many quarters for giving in to lobbying from Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco by pulling back from commitment to minimum unit alcohol pricing and plain tobacco packaging. If Government refuses to use the precautionary principle when it comes to the widespread concern about, and evidence of harm caused by, high stake gambling machines, then accusations of giving in to lobbying by Big Gambling can be added to the list.