They don’t like it up ’em Captain Mainwaring!

A phrase made famous by Corporal Jones in ‘Dad’s Army’; does it apply to gambling companies?

Since the start of 2019 I’ve read more nonsense in just one month about the gambling industry being ‘picked on’ than I care to recall. 

To keep on the Dad’s Army war theme my only concern about these industry moans are the good, often independent bookmakers, who try to run their businesses in fair and safe ways.  They may suffer ‘collateral damage’ (are?) caused by a modern war between the consumer and the gambling industry.  This author doesn’t see it as a war though; it’s simply an attempt to redress a power balance.  It could have been achieved through constructive discussions, but these were refused by the gambling industry and in the main still are.

It’s the Gambling Commission and government’s role to decide which licensees are ‘fair and safe’. Those who aren’t should be seriously reprimanded, even closed down and those who are supported and promoted.  One piece of basic advice for officialdom; documents outlining processes mean nothing; actions are what mean everything.  One piece of basic advice for independent bookmakers; if you don’t have your processes written down in documents the lawyers may come for you:  I know, I worked with many NHS staff, don’t drop a yellow post-it note on the floor and lose it; it’s a nice little earner for some.

Over the last three years what we have seen is an attempt to change the balance of power between the gambling customer and the gambling service provider; it was and still is desperately needed.  The balance of power is still massively in favour of the gambling companies and they certainly aren’t being ‘picked on’, but there has been progress.  Sure, some dodgy characters, even criminals are trying to take advantage of gambling companies, but this has always been the case, it’s not down to the recent customer campaigns. 

The gambling industry has; the Association of British Bookmakers, the Remote Gambling Association, the European Gaming and Betting Association, reputation management organisations sometimes dressed up as charities and well paid political lobbyists who can be compared to Manchester United fans, i.e. you’re never more than 10 metres away from one in London, despite David Cameron’s promises.  On-course horse racing bookmakers are somewhat separate and have umpteen trade organisations who can’t agree on which sandwich to have for lunch, meaning they’re not well represented. This is made worse by their unelected, self appointed loudest ‘mouth-piece’ upsetting everyone, including other on-course bookmakers. 

The gambling customer has a few politicians, a disparate group of tiny charities and small groups of ‘idiots’ who give their time for free. Yet some in the gambling industry think all the power has passed to the customer; dream on.

A massive help for the customer has been the media.  It’s around 3-4 years ago since the media began to realise there was a ‘David and Goliath’ story to be told.  Somehow, until then, the gambling industry had managed to ‘keep a lid’ on the unfair and in some cases downright dangerous practices officialdom allowed them to get away with (and still do).  This adverse media coverage has now become a weekly occurrence. Some of the coverage hasn’t been totally accurate, but the majority has.

This media coverage has put the gambling industry and its regulators under pressures they’ve never experienced before.  Its exposed a culture of corporate greed where customers are rapidly profiled and either encouraged to lose more often without appropriate safeguards for the vulnerable, or restricted from sports betting if they display any ability whatsoever.  It’s incredible that the UK government and its regulators have allowed this to happen for so long (and still do).  The 2005 Gambling Act charged these bodies to keep some controls on the newly liberalised gambling market.  Despite this, officialdom is still refusing to take some clearly sensible actions to enable gambling to be as safe, fair and open as is possible.  Officialdom needs to change some of its work rapidly, because it is often been caught up in reputation management akin to other industries that they should have learnt from, e.g. alcohol.  It’s time for officialdom to take more appropriate action and to stop believing that laissez-faire regulation works in the gambling industry; it clearly doesn’t.

We witnessed a different approach when Sarah Harrison was the recent CEO of the Gambling Commission.  In the 12 months since she departed the ‘jury is certainly out’ on whether progress has stalled or even gone backwards.

It’s not difficult to work out how corporate greed has developed in the liberalised environment since 2005, e.g. a decade of ineffective regulation, meaning an industry with the freedom to do as it pleased; no sanctions until recently for poor practices even illegal practices; rapidly increasing profits and rapidly increasing remuneration packages for Directors.  Ultra-free marketers won’t agree, but some recent remuneration packages and payments following takeovers/mergers in the gambling industry have been obscene. In many ways the corporate gambling industry was completely out of control until the last 2-3 years, when some reigns, by no means enough, have been tightened.

Losing the FOBT debate has been the highest profile set-back for the gambling industry, but there have been other challenges, e.g. a heightened public health agenda and the exposure of unfair terms and conditions.  All these issues will seem like ‘small fry’ though, if the world ever gets to know about the true extent of the harm that has and is still being caused by VIP schemes and a failure to identify, mainly for no good reason, those with a gambling disorder.

There’s no point crying we’re being ‘picked on’ when all that is happening is the exposure of poor, sometimes harmful practices.  Take the initiative, change in the most appropriate ways and cry-out about that, even if it means distancing yourself from those dinosaurs that refuse to change.

If any industry grows to a size where it needs to rely on unfair and exploitative practices to expand in its traditional markets it has to accept that it will ‘get bitten’ at some point.  A few piranhas have taken a nip over the last couple of years and it may lead to some industry contraction, but that is ethical, not being ‘picked on’.  

One thing is becoming certain, if the gambling industry doesn’t change whilst it still holds the balance of power, governments in Europe will become a pod of killer whales rather than a few piranhas.  That has to be a greater worry than Corporal Jones and his bayonet.

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