Gambling Commission’s former Chair talks at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA)

 

Following his five years as Chair of the Gambling Commission, Philip Graf was invited to speak to an audience at the RSA on 19 July. His title was, Getting the Balance Right in Gambling. Now retired from his key position at the Commission, this was an opportunity for him to speak some truths about gambling in Britain today.

 

Indeed, he did make a number of admissions. I particularly pricked up my ears when he admitted that the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board (RGSB), Responsible Gambling Trust (RGT), Gambling Commission structure, which in many people’s view does not guarantee independence of research, prevention and treatment from the gambling industry, was ‘frankly not ideal’. Furthermore, he was clear that the Commission has a responsibility to advise Government on whether this structure works. That is the clearest statement I have heard which acknowledges that the Gambling Commission should be telling Government that the structure needs changing.

 

He voiced some criticisms of Government. He expressed disappointment that a recent DCMS report devoted only a single line to gambling. He wanted to see more debate about gambling policy across different parts of DCMS. I was particularly pleased to hear him urging a public health perspective on the subject and the engagement of the Department of Health. The latter is something I have been advocating for several years. But so have many people and it is not clear what progress can be expected on that front. He acknowledged that lack of funding was a real problem and that the voluntary industry levy, contributing about £6.5 million a year, was inadequate.

 

It was also good to hear him be appropriately cautious about the officially accepted summary of gambling problem prevalence figures, said to show that prevalence is ‘static’. He admitted the limitations in the research, and pointed out that we should be concerned about gambling-related harm generally, and about risk, not just about the minority identified as having gambling problems. We should be especially concerned, he said, about the figures suggesting worrying rates of gambling harm amongst younger people.

 

But, at the end of the day, Philip Graf was for five years at the centre of what I call the British Gambling Establishment and it would be surprising if he was suddenly to change his position. It was clear as his talk went on that he sees the general direction of travel of gambling regulation in Britain to be essentially sound, which I and many others believe it is not. The gambling industry had changed a great deal, he said, and it was a question of continuing to work with operators, to get them to be ever more socially responsible. He mentioned as particularly important the new annual assurance statement which gambling companies are now required to make regarding their social responsibility. He saw this as a way of engaging the owners and boards of gambling companies, not just company staff at the compliance management level which has tended to be the level at which companies have engaged with the Commission to date. He wanted the Commission to be seen as the chief authority on gambling: he cited the recent example of a two-page spread in The Times which he said had been based on Campaign for Fairer Gambling (CFG) material, with the Commission being phoned only at 5 pm the evening before publication.

 

On the subject of the FOBTs (the fixed odds betting terminals), which have been so controversial and which CFG have been vigorously campaigning about for some years now, he was, predictably, disappointing. He trotted out the well worn statement that there was a lack of evidence about the harmfulness of FOBTs. In answer to a questioner from the audience, who asked why machines with £100 maximum stake in the relatively unregulated environment of a high street betting shop should continue to be allowed, he did acknowledge that this was an anomaly, and had been the result of ‘a deal’. But in his opinion there was still a question whether reducing the maximum stake would result in decreased harm.

 

Following his talk, Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, engaged Philip Graf in conversation, asking him a number of very pointed questions. One was how he would respond to the critical idea that the relationship between the modern commercial gambling promoter and the punter was in effect ‘one of psychological manipulation’: whereas in the case of smoking and drinking what we now say is, okay enjoy it if that’s what you choose to do but be in no doubt that it is harmful and not a good lifestyle choice, we seem to be saying that gambling is good other than for a small minority of people who are exceptional because they have gambling problems. Time was running out by that stage and it seemed that the occasion was not one for dealing with such basic matters. But this is exactly the sort of bigger issue that society should be discussing.

 

You can listen to Philip Graf’s talk, and see Matthew Taylor’s critical Blog on the subject of commercial gambling, on the RSA website.

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