A few month's back, the CEO's of Britain's main gambling companies were sat around a private dining table in a London casino. The topic of discussion of this urgent meeting was the current campaign against Fixed Odds Betting Terminals and the clustering of betting shops.
As reported in my previous article (A Date for your Diary http://www.gamblingconsultant.co.uk/a-date-for-your-diary/ ) this campaign against the bookies is now becoming an accepted part of mainstream thinking within the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats, fueled by the bookmakers farcical inability to counteract the campaign of the well funded, but minuscule, Fairer Gambling Group. It is my belief that we will see manifesto commitments in 2015 by both parties to give betting shops their own planning use class (hence making every new shop a planning application) and a high possibility that maximum stakes for FOBT's will be reduced from £100 to £2, critically wounding the bottom line of the bookmakers. The Lib-Lab coalition (or minority Labor government) of 2015 will not be a friend to betting or gambling in general.
The outcome of the British gambling elite's dinner was an agreement to create a fighting fund of £250,000 to improve the perception of betting shops. Unsurprisingly, those companies without betting shops seem to have all failed to sign up to the deal. Some with the basic reason that this is a topic that doesn't involve them, some not having any confidence in the strategy proposed. To some in the industry, the shock was the idea that Neil Goulden would be the one to lead the campaign. One scurrilous observer even suggested that it was Neil who really initiated the dinner even though the invitations supposedly came from Mr Glynn at Ladbrokes, who is not known for his belief in the use or need for political lobbying.
Neil Goulden is truly a doyen of the British gambling industry. A young rising star at Ladbrokes, who went on to build their Dutch retail business, Neil then joined the corporate elite by turning around the sports caterer Letheby & Christopher and the ten pin bowling company Allied Leisure. Returning to gambling, Goulden joined the Gala bingo company and was part of that companies meteoric rise (and then fall) as it ramped up to become the Gala Coral Group, which has now got new owners selling it off to pay down the debt. Neil was Chairman of the Group and then became its Emeritus Chairman with responsibility for lobbying government.
This short C.V. has been harvested from the Burleywood Capital website (http://www.burlywoodcapital.com/team/neil-goulden/), a new venture capital fund set up by the founder of Sportingbet, Mark Blandford, ex Merril Lynch gambling sector analyst Andrew Burnett and including David Michels, the one time CEO of the Hilton Group who then owned Ladbrokes. Surely a leisure behemoth in the making.
What this shows, is like many top executives. Goulden wears many hats. According to his biography on the Responsible Gambling Trust website
(http://www.responsiblegamblingtrust.org.uk/neilgoulden.html) where Neil is Chairman, he is also the;
'Chairman of Affinity Sutton Housing Association, as well as a Member of The Low Pay Commission and a Non Executive Director of Marston’s plc. He is also a Companion of the Institute of Management.
Oddly for an organisation that has to tread delicately about any possible allegation of industry influence over the research it commissions into problem gambling, it fails to mention that Neil is also the (relatively) newly appointed Chairman of the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) as well.
I'm certain that this isn't on purpose as by the looks of the website it hasn't been updated since 2012. The fact that the ABB website (http://www.abb.uk.com) doesn't mention his appointment as well (as far as I can see) could make one think that there is a conspiracy of silence about it! Although I am certain there isn't.
I should first make it crystal clear that this author is a fan of Neil Goulden. He is a force for good in this industry, an intellect and a political operator (as well as being a large funder of the Labour Party). But this author has to point out, in a way that friends can critique friends, that the wearing of two hats like this is a political time bomb which will be triggered at some point (and I have told him this to his face).
The Responsible Gambling Trust (RGT) is currently conducting research into Category B machines and problem gambling. The largest research ever conducted, with the most bookmaker cooperation ever offered (with the exception of BetFred). The outcome of this research will set the stage for any future regulation of FOBT's.
It is my belief that it won't produce definitive evidence of FOBTs causing problem gambling (individual devices don't cause problem gambling per se), but there will be sufficient evidence that they are a preferred tool of problem gamblers to make manifesto writers (who don't need to adhere to the evidence-based policy making rule) want to restrict their stakes, even though this will have little impact on problem gambling, but a major impact of bookmakers' bottom lines.
So when this research is published, due around the time of the build up to the election, it will be Neil Goulden who has to present its findings with his RGT hat on and then respond to the results with his ABB hat on. A farcical situation that can only end up with those campaigning against the FOBT's arguing that the results have been influenced by the cuckoo in the nest.
When politicians and I have raised this issue with members of both the ABB and the RGT, arguing that it looks awful politically, a train crash waiting to happen, manna from heaven to the Daily Mail and the Fairer Gambling Group, we have all received the same reply. That the two appointments are not connected, Neil's having been the Chair of the RGT for some time beforehand and the Chairmanship of the ABB coming about purely because they couldn't find someone of a similar calibre willing to do the job for the peanuts the ABB was willing to pay. Furthermore it was only because of Neil's influence on the ABB, that the big bookmakers were willing to agree to sign up to the research and without him, it just wouldn't have happened. They then go on to state that the RGT has gone to inordinate lengths in the governance of the research that will mean that Goulden has no chance to influence anything, even if he wanted to.
All of which I wholeheartedly believe, just to those of us who study the politics of British gambling and the public perception so integrally linked to it, good governance and Chinese walls, are simply not enough and to suggest that a Daily Mail feature writer will focus on the separate committees put in place to prevent influence, is to be so politically negligent that it almost stinks of arrogance.
In a recent article in Gambling Compliance, by Daniel Macadam on the 14th February 2013, where the Fairer Gambling group were criticisng the RGT research, Goulden was interviewed, the article read;
'The 18-month study into category B machines will “dispel some of the myths and help to work out the real risks to gamblers”, said Goulden, an industry veteran who also chairs Gala Coral and the Association of British Bookmakers'
Such a statement could be misconstrued as Goulden pre-judging the research before its even started. I am certain he wasn't but when Goulden is described with the many hats that he wears, it is easy for the unitiated reader to get the wrong impression of whose side he is really on. So how is that going to play out when the research reaches its conclusion and is finally published?
Now to add to this Neil spearheading the arguably too little, too late campaign to improve the public perception of betting shops and you widen the open goal to the opposition in my view.
That is not to say that such a valuable resource as Neil shouldn't be utilised, just that he should either be playing in the first team for the bookmakers or for the RGT but not both. By doing so, he jeopardises the integrity of the argument of either team.
This may prove difficult for the BISL brigade to accept, but when their tendrils are in every section of the debate, people begin to take notice. This industry can't keep relying on its old warriors to wear multiple hats if they want to stop the sky falling in. New faces, new strategies are the only thing which will save us.