A Safe Bet? Gambling on a conflict of interests

Gamble,_I've_already_rolled_the_diceMP takes donation from business man. It’s a bit of a dog bites man news story.

Except when that politician has previously spoken out against the practice at the heart of said businessman’s interests.

Chuka Umunna, Labour shadow business secretary, is in the news this morning for taking a £20 000 donation from Neil Goulden. Neil Goulden was Chief Executive of Gala Coral Group, still provides some consultancy for them, and in an aspect missed by most of the papers is the current and active Chairman of the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB).

What makes this donation newsworthy are comments the Streatham MP had previously made about betting shops in his South London constituency: “I know there is huge concern that some streets in our area are steadily filling up with betting shops and payday loan companies that take advantage of our community, rather than help us.” He also promised “new powers to control the number of betting shops”.

I want to give Chuka Umunna the benefit of the doubt. Receiving a political donation does not mean you agree with everything the donor stands for, and nor that it necessarily leads to a change in his position. I hope that Umunna will continue to speak up for his community and continue to press for stronger powers that would allow them to choose whether they want more betting shops on their doorstep. A response from Umunna’s office also made clear this was a personal donation from Goulden and not from Gala Coral or the ABB.

But I don’t think that’s the story here. And apologies as I wade into a marshland of acronyms…

Because Neil Goulden has another hat he wears. He is also the Chairman of the Responsible Gambling Trust (RGT) which has responsibility for funding and commissioning research, education and treatment (RET) into problem gambling.

You could say it’s like the head of the tobacco manufacturers association heading up an investigation into lung cancer.

The Gambling Act of 2005 reserved powers to introduce a levy which would take money from the gambling industry for RET, however, the industry said they would sort it out themselves, they tried and it fell apart, a complex but independent tripartite structure was created to achieve this end, it fell apart. So while the government have refused to hit the switch on the levy which would force the industry to pay for RET, the RGT is now the body responsible for getting the money from the industry, and deciding what to spend the money on.

I don’t like that. I think it provides scope for the fundraising to be leveraged based on what the industry thinks the RET will focus on. Currently most of the money goes on treating problem gambling rather than researching its causes and educating to prevent its spread. The gambling industry do not like the idea of a levy because they believe it will firstly take more money from them and secondly take its direction out of their control. Neither of which bother me in the slightest.

I see the current arrangements as problematic, and I see the fact the person who heads it up is also the chair of a major industry trade body an undeniable and inappropriate conflict of interests.

The situation is exacerbated because the primary focus of research which the government have requested and the RGT have begun to commission is focused on gambling machines. Over the past few years increased concern has grown around the relationship between Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) and problem gambling, these machines, located in betting shops, allow far higher stakes to be bet, and can take a lot of money out of the gambler’s pocket very quickly. Betting shops are increasingly reliant on these machines for their profits, with them representing over half of their gross gambling yield. It is in their interest that these machines are permitted, and they have gone further and pressed for a relaxation of the current restriction of four per shop.

While there is no conclusive evidence of which forms of gambling cause problem gambling, the association between the use of FOBTs and problems is indicative and sufficient to place it as the focus of investigation. Analysis of the problem gambling prevalence studies suggest 23 per cent of money gambled by people with problems is spent on FOBTs. They are frequently cited by callers to the national gambling help line, and anecdotal stories tell of the harm they cause to families and the role they can play in criminal behaviour.

All of this means that if the government were to take the precautionary approach they claim to favour action should be taken. I think these machines should be more tightly regulated unless they can be shown not to exacerbate gambling problems, rather than permit their continued use and expansion unless or until conclusive proof is forthcoming.

Like I gave Chuka Umunna the benefit of the doubt I also want to acknowledge the efforts the RGT and Neil Goulden have taken to ensure the outcomes of the current research into machines is rigorous and independent, it is an externally commissioned piece of work with a reputable provider, separate oversight for the programme has been provided, and they have made a valiant effort to mitigate against the conflict of interests.

Despite these efforts, valiant though they may be, the problem remains. When research is published on gambling machines who does Neil Goulden speak for? Is it the ABB protesting at potential job losses? Or the RGT who commissioned the research? Perhaps it’s worth noting his absence from the RGT press release announcing the research programme.

Neil Goulden dismissed debate about FOBTs (also known as B2 machines) as divisive and misguided, while presiding over research seeking to inform that very debate.

I want research into gambling and problem gambling to be rigorous and independent. I want it to have credibility and I believe Goulden’s duel roles undermine that.

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4 thoughts on “A Safe Bet? Gambling on a conflict of interests

  1. “As one of the Responsible Gambling Trust’s independent trustees I absolutely understand the concerns you have raised, not least the need to generate widespread trust and credibility in the charity’s independence and integrity, particularly in view of the investment of both fundraising and commissioning functions in a single, industry-funded body. This is especially so in relation to the commissioning of research.

    All our research activity is wholly the responsibility of a research committee, chaired by myself. This arrangement ensures that those trustees who may have a direct interest in any research outcomes are entirely excluded from directing or otherwise influencing any research activity that the Responsible Gambling Trust undertakes to commission. The terms of reference for the research committee can be found on our website: http://www.responsiblegamblingtrust.org.uk/Research-committee.

    Also, for each substantial research project commissioned, the Responsible Gambling Trust will establish a panel of independent experts in collaboration with the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board (RGSB) to provide further academic oversight, which will ensure all aspects of any research programme is transparent to the Gambling Commission and therefore to the Government. Furthermore, all research outputs will be published by the Responsible Gambling Trust following a rigorous and entirely independent peer-review process.

    We are committed to delivering an independently commissioned research programme that focuses on gambling behaviour and the effectiveness of various treatment, prevention and education strategies in minimising gambling-related harm. Research priorities are guided by the national strategy advised by the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board (RGSB) and endorsed by the Gambling Commission. The latest strategy was published in December 2012.

    An essential feature of the Responsible Gambling Trust’s strategy for research is executing a robust and systematic examination of data collected and held by the gambling industry in order to consider its usefulness for research into gambling behaviour generally and harm minimisation specifically. This necessarily requires the co-operation of the industry in addition to the funding it provides, which is why it is important to have ‘industry’ trustees as well as trustees, like me, that are wholly independent of the gambling industry. Together we will continue to work hard at building confidence in our objectivity and determination to get at the truth in the best interests of all stakeholders, not least those who suffer gambling-related harm.”

  2. It’s a vicious circle.Bookmakers want to make more money and the government want the tax they pay.Its not just Betting shops it’s also Newsagents who sell Lottery Tickets where people who can’t afford to gamble spend vast amounts of money in the hope that they will win the ultimate prize and this is a Government initiative.Gamblinghas been the ruination of many families and it is a disease that is becoming an epidemic.
    Mike

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