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High Stakes Battle for High Street Bookies

31/07/2013 10:43 BST | Updated 29/09/2013 10:12 BST

Bookmakers across Britain are joining forces to combat the scourge of problem gambling, or so the script goes at least. The formation of the P3 Group is seen by more cynical observers as just the latest, desperate attempt by the bookies to stave off a growing avalanche of pressure to better police the gambling industry.

Unsurprisingly, bookmakers believe that self-regulation is the best way forward, in line with trade groups of every bent who put the pursuit of profits above all else when it comes to their modus operandi. Just as unsurprising is the abject failure of self-regulation in all manner of business models, from Libor to health trusts to energy pricing and beyond - yet politicians still appear blasé about the perils of such a stance, an approach which has already had catastrophic effects in the world of gambling.

Gambling's reputation as the hidden addiction is borne out by the muted response of British society to the burgeoning crisis in its midst. The number of problem gamblers in the UK has more than doubled in the last five years, with 600,000 Britons now addicted to gambling, twice as many as the amount of problem drug users amongst the population. Yet the betting industry is treated with kid gloves by regulators and politicians alike, who are loath to kill the goose whose golden eggs swell the nation's tax coffers year after year.

But the damage wrought by problem gambling is becoming harder to ignore with every passing month, as campaigners and journalists expose the devastating impact of the deregulation ushered in by the 2005 Gambling Act. The proliferation of betting shops on recession-hit high streets up and down the country is testament to the powerful draw on vulnerable gamblers exerted by the industry, with the ubiquitous fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) seen as the most dangerous menace of all.

Bookmakers have easily sidestepped the limp edict capping the number of FOBTs per shop by simply opening more and more outlets, many on the same street or even next door to one another, allowing the money to flood in at an alarmingly fast pace. And just as fast as the rate of FOBT gambling increases, so too does the funding for research into problem gambling dry up, allowing bookmakers to shrug their shoulders and deny there is hard evidence to impel them to remove the machines from their midst.

Instead, they offer fig leaves to legislators, nobly offering to self-regulate and trumpeting their stellar "approach to social responsibility" as if they were charity workers feeding the sick rather than corporate megaliths doing the polar opposite. Groups such as the Campaign for Fairer Gambling (CFG) believe that the formation of the P3 Group - as well as recent PR campaigns through friendly sections of the press - is merely a transparent ploy by the industry to pre-empt any tough regulation that may be in the offing.

CFG's Adrian Parkinson sees the latest spin from the bookmaking industry, in which their trade association proclaimed its selfless desire to ban ATMs from betting shops, as simply a rerun of their approach the last time they felt they needed to jump before they were pushed. "In 2003 the bookmakers said they wouldn't take card payments on FOBTs but instead facilitated their use remotely from the counter to circumvent their own self-regulation. Ten years later, they are doing the same thing again over a small number of cash machines. This is all part of the continuing manipulation the industry deploys to protect the most addictive gambling product in the UK".

Despite their scorn at the bookmakers' latest manoeuvres, campaigners also take succour from the fact that such a concerted effort is being made by the industry, speculating that the bookies have been sufficiently riled by recent exposés to recognise the need to up their own level of lobbying. The laissez-faire approach taken by the Labour government with the 2005 Gambling Act, and the even more industry-friendly attitude of the Coalition since taking power, has possibly run its course, according to some analysts, thanks to the public perception of the destructive nature of the spread of betting outlets.

"If Labour get back into power, then the bookies are toast", said an industry figure who spoke under condition of anonymity. "But even before the election, let's say that the Daily Mail and other [anti-gambling] campaigns continue, then Cameron will be under pressure to try and get some easy wins under the belt, either taxing this industry more, or being seen to clamp down... but I don't think the Treasury are going to want the number of machines reduced. I think the emphasis will be on either staking limits or raising the time span between placing bets".

Both capping stakes and increasing the break between FOBT bets are anathema to the bookmakers, who will see their revenues from the machines plummet if such a scenario comes to pass, yet an increasing number of concerned parties believe such a move is the only way to prevent problem gambling getting even more out of control. And with more and more countries clamping down on FOBTs and other dangerous gambling pursuits, the UK's lackadaisical approach looks increasingly outdated and blinkered. While the bookies hope such an attitude persists, those for whom social cohesion is of far greater concern than corporate profits are hoping that the worm may be about to turn at last.