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Not a game of passing the buck but definitely more to play for – the Senet Group

Yesterday saw the launch of the Senet Group by the big 3 Bookmakers and Irish upstart Paddy Power. For those of you who missed it, which is odd because it got some good news coverage, the Senet Group will be an industry watchdog, ensuring that it’s members abide by the industry’s own codes of practice and in addition, the agreement not to advertise sign-up offers (free bets and free money) on TV before 9pm, to not advertise gaming machines in betting shop windows and to dedicate 20% of shop window advertising to responsible gambling messages.

This will be monitored and enforced by an independent Board comprising of two members from the gambling industry, two lay members from outside the industry and an independent Chair, who will act as Standards Commissioner, who will probably be an ex-judge. The Group will be able to name and shame offenders and impose fines. Organisations will not be able to use the Senet Group logo if they persistently breach the code, and could face expulsion. In effect, it’s the Bookmakers Guild.

For those of you wondering where the name came from, Senet was an ancient Egyptian gambling game, considered to be the first game of chance, whose name (according to Wikipedia) means the passing game. This may be an indication of an intellectual approach finally being introduced to the great Fixed Odds Betting Terminal (FOBT) debate which has seen the Bookmakers played off the field by 2 men and a dog in the shape of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling which has blackened the name of the whole industry.

Fortunately, the ‘Old White Men’ responsible for the years of political intransigence, which have put the whole industry in its worse political relationship ever (I would argue as an gambling politics history student), have either retired, finally seen the light or managed to extricate their feet from their mouths and walked away from the fight. Their replacements, from my conversations with them, appear to be relatively well adjusted and in tune with post-financial crisis politics that cares more about ethics than shareholder value.

As a persistent critic of just how appalling the bookmakers have played the political game since the departure of Chris Bell (see articles passim) it really does gladden me to be able congratulate them, or at least some of them, for taking action that they should have done at least two years ago. The Senet Group is an in-your-face approach to telling government that social responsibility really matters to 73.5% of the betting shop estate.

And this is where my first concern is, where are the rest of the industry? BetFred is said to still be talking, why so? What is there to discuss? Their inclusion would just leave the independents who are only 11% of the industry and they would surely have to fall into line. Plus, why just land based? The biggest advertising irritant if you read the political commentary is not Paddy Power’s tactless attempts at schoolboy mischief but Bet365’s Ray Winstone threatening tone. If the online guys aren’t playing, will anybody notice?

My second concern is does this go far enough? A cynic could argue that all the Senet Group has done is pre-empt regulatory changes that will probably be proposed after the various consultations on advertising and licensing codes of practice are complete. There is no step-change or giant leap in the actions, just what a fair assessment of what could be enforced in only a few months’ time. The gambling industry knows how to pre-empt regulation, as it did with the casino industry’s proposal to set up the Gaming Board back before the 1960 Betting & Gaming Act or the setting up of the Responsibility in Gambling Trust a year before the Gambling Act was passed. This is not a bad thing, it shows an industry that (eventually) realises that it lives or dies by its regulation and that it’s better to be ahead of the game than playing catch-up (as it has been). The only problem is the willingness of the government to keep the industry’s informal approach informal or does it just formalise and make all of the Senet’s Group’s rules actual regulations. In which case, the Senet Group is just duplicating the job of the Gambling Commission and then the industry is just fulfilling the minimum regulatory requirement again.

My next concerns are more practical than anything else. How will the Senet Group monitor and enforce its rules? Will there be an inspectorate? Will there be a regulatory process with appeal? Will a PLC CEO with a fiduciary duty to his shareholders actually pay a fine that he is not legally obliged to pay? Will the Senet Group issue fines of a size that has any meaning??

Then how do we escape the inevitable criticism that any body, be it concerned with research or regulation, can be independent if it is paid for by the industry? Those in the academic community who are starving and can’t understand why the industry doesn’t fund them to fulfil their ideological fantasies are already producing methodologically weak arguments that all research commissioned by the Responsible Gambling Trust is completely tainted and purely industry propaganda. The Senet Group with its two industry members and industry pay cheques will suffer the same attack. Ignoring the fact that unless the industry pays, nothing happens in research or regulation, because no one else cares enough to put their hand in their pockets, one answer could be the removal of the industry members. If the Senet Group is there to impose rules that are clearly set out and there is a fair procedure, are they really needed?

But my real concern is that is this really all there is? Just as political conference season starts and not long before the General Election manifestoes are signed off, is this Group enough to deflect some of the tidal wave of criticism that will happen in November when the Responsible Gambling Trust’s research into FOBTs is published and says nothing conclusive? The Senet Group are looking at advertising mainly, but the big guns are still trained on FOBTs and betting shop clustering.

By aping the drinks industry’s Portman Group, the betting industry is damping a fire that hasn’t caught hold yet (concern about gambling advertising and marketing), while leaving a bush fire smouldering away (FOBTS and clustering). This may be because they think that a Professor Griffiths sign off on a Professor Griffiths code of practice for FOBTs is sufficient to put the issue to bed. They may well be right as Whitehall is a sucker for a Professor. But I am not so sure and I suspect that as the months go by it will prove that others in Westminster aren’t either.

 So a definite A for effort bookmakers but if normal relations with Parliament are to resume, and for the rest of the wider gambling industry to come out from this shadow, far more work needs to be, quickly, done.