The chair of the UK’s leading charity that aims to minimise gambling addiction also lobbied on behalf of Britain’s bookmakers and warned his corporate peers of the threat posed by “a vociferous anti-gambling lobby”, according to industry documents seen by the Guardian.
In a paper drawn up in January 2013 for the gambling industry, Neil Goulden, who chaired both the Responsible Gambling Trust (RGT) and the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB), identified “a large degree of righteous paternalism” which would see the public mood “swinging away from smoking, heavy drinking, gambling, non-contributors and tax avoiders”.
The paper came as the non-profit organisation that Goulden oversaw launched the largest ever study of high-speed, high-stakes betting machines, which are thought to be particularly addictive.
The 2013 strategy, written by Goulden and Richard Glynn, then chief executive of Britain’s biggest bookmaker, Ladbrokes, says gambling firms needed to learn from the car industry which “is not blamed for road accidents or for building cars that exceed the maximum speed limit”.
The paper calls for research “which helps to position gambling as an economically valuable and socially responsible leisure pursuit”.
A few months earlier the RGT, which describes itself as the leading charity in the UK committed to minimising gambling-related harm, had announced it had begun research into betting machines. This culminated in studies that showed it was possible to identify patterns of play that distinguish problem gamblers from non-problem players.
The RGT had commissioned a team of researchers to plough through 6.7bn individual bets at fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), one of the most controversial aspects of UK gambling that provide bookmakers with substantial profits from their shops.
Last year FOBTs, which are disproportionately found in poorer parts of Britain, generated £1.7bn of revenues for bookmakers. Campaigners label the machines the “crack cocaine of gambling” because they allow stakes of £100 to be laid every 20 seconds on casino games.
Politicians of every party have been alarmed by the rise of the machines. In April the government forced bookmakers to put checks in place so that punters who wanted to bet more than £50 at a time would need to set up gambling accounts.
Critics say the way the RGT is funded – through donations from the gambling industry – already raises questions about the independence of its research programme.
A Goldsmiths University report in 2014 argued that “gambling research is heavily dependent on industry support” and warned “the idea of ‘problem gambling’ is politically useful … It focuses attention on individual gamblers, rather than relationships between the industry, the state, products and policies.”
The Campaign for Fairer Gambling said that it had been long concerned about why the “RGT refused to address the key question of whether FOBTs cause gambling related harm due to their addictive characteristics”.
A spokesman said: “We are worried that the chair of the trust was busy devising lobbying strategies for the bookmakers to improve their image when this research was first announced. This needs to be looked at.”
The RGT denied there was any conflict of interest in its research agenda or that it shied away from asking tough questions to industry. It said it had “put in place a clear structure to protect the independence of the research it funds from any industry influence”, adding that a separate board made up of academics and chaired by a former civil servant set the research agenda.
“We welcome the increased use of our research by those on all sides in an evidence-led debate about responsible gambling, and believe the track record of that research now speaks for itself in support of its independence,” it said.
Earlier this month Britain’s bookmakers promised to install software on gaming machines that would flag up addicted customers.
Such moves have not silenced critics. In December MSPs in Scotland called for FOBTs to be banned, and in England and Wales local authorities have forced ministers into talks over an attempt to cut stakes on the machines to just £2.
However, it is clear that the bookmakers were well aware of the effects of bad publicity with the Goulden/Glynn paper warning that a “negative perception will spread like a virulent virus”. It called for the issue of problem gambling to be “put in context”, saying it was “dwarfed by problems with drug use, alcohol abuse and obesity”.
The strategy went on to say “all products (from cars through to high-fat foods to pet dogs) potentially create harm. What society has to decide is what is an acceptable level of harm, how do you educate the consumer as to risks in the products and how do you minimise the level of harm.”
When contacted by the Guardian, Goulden said: “I had no involvement in setting the research questions (the minister and RGSB and the [Gambling Commission] did that) nor did I have any involvement in the choice of researcher, the commissioning of the research, the presentation or the interpretation of the findings.”
He said that in the paper he had been merely urging “the industry to take consumer product protection more seriously or face more bad press and a loss of government and consumer confidence”.
Goulden is one of the public faces of British bookmaking; he became chair of the industry lobbyist ABB in 2012. He had previously been on the board at Ladbrokes and was chairman of bookmaker and bingo group Gala Coral until 2014.
He also defended the idea of having an industry executive being chair of a charity which tackled the problems encountered by those who used the industry’s products. “[Bookmakers] would not have released data or have taken the actions it continues to take in prevention of harm without my personal influence and urging,” he said.
“I have continually urged the industry to do more to protect at-risk customers and to share best practice and to better communicate what they are doing and its effect. True harm minimisation can only be fully effective if it engages with the industry and that the 100,000 people employed in the industry take their social responsibilities seriously. The recent RGT research has given clear pointers to anyone committed to reducing harm and the subsequent actions taken by the government, the regulator and the industry have significantly reduced volumes from the group of at-risk customers.”
In a statement Ladbrokes said it was “proud to support and fund the RGT but have not and will not seek to influence the findings of its independent research projects”.
The ABB said the research by the RGT was important as the “ability to pinpoint problem gambling behaviours and those people that may be at risk of problem gambling is a potentially significant step forward, especially when combined with other responsible gambling initiatives on the part of the industry”.
Source: The Guardian