This may be a little long winded but I need to get something off my chest and in order to do that I need to set the scene, so as I say, bear with me.
Many years ago I was an assistant manager at Jimmy Thomas’s flagship Bingo Club in Hounslow. At the time we were vying with the Granada Bingo Club at Tooting for the #1 spot in London. We had a weekly admissions figure of c14000 people. Big Business.
As a member of the management team it was felt that I should have a Gaming Board licence, (what was known at the time as a GBII), so I was sent off to the Gaming Board offices in Holborn and was duly interviewed by a panel of three Inspectors and put through my paces in terms of my knowledge of Bingo and how the 1968 Gaming Act applied to Bingo Clubs. I passed and was duly granted a licence. In those days a GBII was as close as you got to a vocational qualification in the Gaming industry and I was very proud of it, in fact I have kept it on file for posterity. This process also reinforced respect for the regulator and a clear implied understanding of what might happen if you tried to circumvent the rules.
The old GBII was superseded in 2005 by the ‘Personal Management Licence’ or PML and unlike the old licence the current approach is not to test your knowledge of the Act itself but to comply with your own licence conditions under Section 75 of the Act and to continue to be ‘fit and proper’, or as one of my past Chairmen would have said ‘ to maintain your Bona Fides’.
So far so good, operators in the UK gaming industry have a PML, some do have other more detailed vocational licences (certain Casino dealers for instance) but all middle management and above have a licence that can in extremis be taken away from them if they transgress in any way. As an aside here I would add that I do believe that this requirement should also cover Non-Executive Directors as well. However, I don’t believe I am the only one that has detected, and been concerned by, the emergence of businesses that appear to be pirouetting elegantly around the 2005 Gambling Act and in particular the legislation regarding lotteries. In the UK Lotteries are contextualized as (and here I quote the Gambling Commission) ‘Lotteries can only be run either to raise money for good causes or for fun. They cannot be run for private or commercial gain’. That seems pretty clear, quite definitive really. But every day (and I mean every day) I receive an email from a company that is purporting to run a skill competition (not a lottery) with prizes that range from high performance cars, to high end music systems, or for cash alternatives. Tickets to participate can cost as much as £10 each and are limited to 99 tickets per player! I also see regular advertisements for the opportunity to buy a ticket to win a house, (or houses plural actually) from a Company which is happy to admit that it is a ‘for profit’ business, and I hear details of daily draws on commercial radio stations for large (up to six figure) cash prizes. In all three examples in order to participate you have to pay on line, or by text message. How does this work? The fancy footwork comes into play as these draws outmaneuver the Gambling Act (and by definition the Gambling Commission) by introducing a so called skill element in order to participate, and/or by having Terms and Conditions that on examination offer you the opportunity to play for free by writing in and requesting so to do.
As an example, one draw for a high performance car that I looked at, included a multiple choice question along the lines of, ‘What is the capital of the UK, Paris, Madrid, New York or London?’, and in order to win the daily cash offered on a commercial radio station you had to remember to answer your phone within five rings at a given time of the afternoon and to simply quote a certain catch phrase. And this ladies and gentlemen is sufficient for these draws not to qualify as lotteries and to escape the beady eye of the Gambling Commission and by definition for the management not to be required to hold a PML…Of course some of them may well hold PMLs, but the point is, they don’t need to.
When the old Gaming Board were put out to pasture in 2007 one of the reasons we were given for this seismic change was that they were not a ‘prosecuting authority’. Well I have to tell you that in those days if you ever started to move down a path of operation which the Gaming Board were not happy about you were soon made completely aware of their feelings on the matter and then what you needed to do in order to change course, whether that was because of a proposed new gaming machine feature, or a new Bingo promotion, or anything else that the Gaming Board felt was within their remit to have an opinion about. And as most of the Gaming Board were ex policemen they were quite comfortable about making you feel uncomfortable. Again, my point here is that (in my humble opinion) they would have had no truck with these so called ‘competitions’ and would have made it clear that the people in charge would start to find themselves in very hot water if they did not desist.
I know that I am not alone in being concerned about these products, and I believe I can include members of the current gambling harm APPG but I daresay that if you were to call the Gambling Commission and ask what their view is they would simply respond by reminding you that a root and branch review into Gambling regulation is currently underway and that there may in time be some significant changes made to current regulation. But I do not believe that is good enough and nowhere near soon enough. A new Chief Executive has now been appointed at the UK Gambling Commission and whilst I am sure that he will be working swiftly towards a broader understanding of the dynamics of the UK Gambling sector, I sincerely hope that he doesn’t wait until the findings of the review are published in order to address some of these obvious and flagrant loopholes in the 2005 act. I would like to see him make his mark early on, respect the PML process and the operators who endeavour to always do things by the book (or at least by the LCCP), instigate action that will encourage all stakeholders that there is now have a firm hand on the tiller, and start to rebuild public confidence in both the regulator and the industry.