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.