Public Affairs: The game is on

The popularity of gambling has led to the updating of existing legislation. Mark Johnson reports on industry reactions.

Although the protracted process of updating the UK's antiquated gambling laws has taken the Government four years of consultation and committee scrutiny so far, at no point has it felt like a game of roulette for the gaming industry. The Draft Gambling Bill looks likely to create more opportunities for gaming organisations than before.

The reasons for new gambling legislation are much like the reasons for updating any existing law: gambling and society have changed. Gambling has become a major British leisure activity, with £3.5bn exchanged for gaming chips in 122 casinos each year, £1.16bn staked in bingo and 8,800 licensed betting offices in operation. And the advent of internet gambling and wireless application gaming could never have been envisaged when the 1968 Gaming Act was passed into law.

But the Draft Bill also makes it clear why PA chiefs in the gambling industry have been monitoring the situation and lobbying around issues that have emerged. The new regulations are driving in two directions: liberalising the market to create more gambling opportunities, and aiming to protect the vulnerable - problem gamblers and kids.

Bingo industry leader Gala Group, which runs 166 bingo clubs across the UK and has 1.2 million members in the 32 casinos it manages, has been one of the major interests lobbying for liberalisation. Gala Group CEO Neil Goulden believes the Draft Bill struck the balance between giving the gaming industry what it wants, while ensuring the resulting explosion in gambling opportunities does not fuel a culture of addiction or entice under-18s into betting.

'Gambling is like alcohol,' says Goulden. 'It isn't addictive in itself, but some people develop problems. We need to be socially responsible.

What has been delivered in the new Bill is balanced. There should be freedom for responsible adults to spend their money as they wish, while there's also protection for the most vulnerable.'

Gala has been in consultation with the Government since the 2000 Gambling Review Committee chaired by Alan Budd was set up, using Brunswick for corporate PR and The Fellows Consultancy for PA. The firm has had 'unprecedented access' to departmental committees throughout each stage, according to Goulden.

The most vocal opponents of liberalisation have been the Salvation Army and the Methodist Church, which have lobbied for greater provision in the Bill to protect children and the vulnerable. Fruit machines are one of its biggest concerns, as they're one of the most addictive forms of gambling, made worse by their proliferation in places such as pubs, they argue. Salvation Army PA officer Jonathan Lomax says: 'Casinos want to increase the number of fruit machines. We've worked hard to have children excluded from playing them.'

But in June, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Draft Gambling Bill said it is prepared to allow children to continue playing low-value fruit machines in arcades, a serious blow to the anti-liberalisation camp.

Generous gesture

While the Bill will introduce regulation to areas such as internet gambling for the first time, it will give more to the gaming industry than it is taking away.

Goulden sees a lot of positive outcomes from the Bill for some of the traditional as well as modern forms of gambling. Gala's bingo halls currently pay out £20m in prize money each week. That is now set to soar. 'Many people are convinced bingo will be a major beneficiary,' he says. 'There are still limits to the size of prizes. That will be lifted and allow us to compete with the National Lottery, and for the first time we'll be allowed rollovers.'

Prohibition of online gambling does not deter people who want to bet online. The UK has pursued the path of tolerance for two reasons: first, it believes it's easier to regulate the industry by allowing it to be established in the UK; second, the gaming machine sector already contributes £152.6m in duty, so the Treasury won't lose out on taxes.

One of the lobbying firms most involved in representing interests around the Draft Bill is Quintus Public Affairs, appointed by Rank Group (PRWeek, 26 March). 'Remote gambling needs to be enshrined in law,' says Quintus MD Chris Guyver. 'Operators will soon have to adhere to regulations that will mean people under 18 can't access the site.'

Membership of casinos will be easier to obtain and we'll all know the whereabouts of our nearest roulette game. Not only that, but we will also be able to visit our local casino for bookmaking services. If current thinking of the Parliamentary Joint Committee is carried forward, as is likely, casinos will also be allowed to advertise and promote themselves for the first time.

Guyver says while the Draft Bill appears to facilitate an explosion of casinos, bingo halls and bookmakers, the legislation is also restrictive: 'We're not talking about deregulation, but re-regulation in an already highly responsible and regulated sector that will allow firms to develop but will also have a strong element of social responsibility in it.'

One of the biggest concerns for the UK gaming industry is the protection of its interests, which the Draft Bill goes a long way towards doing.

The concern for firms such as Rank and Gala is the potential for large US gaming groups such as Las Vegas Sands to enter the market.

But Guyver says much as those self-preservation interests are uppermost among concerns, so too are the values of social responsibility that the Salvation Army and the Methodist Church argue are being overlooked.

'The pre-condition for the Government has been to ensure that kids and potential problem gamblers are protected. We, as a lobbying firm, have that in the forefront of our minds,' he says.

However the new legislation turns out, the public affairs industry will have been a major force in shaping it. M

WHO'S WORKING FOR WHOM?

- Las Vegas Sands has Edelman working on public affairs and media relations in the UK. The company owns the Venetian Casino Resort and Grand Canal Shops mall in Las Vegas

- The British Amusement Catering Trade Association, which represents the interests of Britain's 'pay to play' leisure industry, takes strategic advice from Bell Pottinger Public Affairs

- Rank Group, which operates bingo halls and casinos, hired Quintus Public Affairs this year to raise its profile at Westminster

- The Interactive Gaming, Gambling and Betting Association, the trade association for remote gaming firms, employs Quintus Public Affairs

- Bet Fair, the online betting exchange, retains Quintus Public Affairs to work on issues arising from the Draft Bill

- Leisure Link Group manages public space gaming machines, supplying 90,000 games across the UK.

Quintus Public Affairs is its public affairs agency

- The Casino Manufacturer's Group also retains Quintus Public Affairs as its adviser

- The Salvation Army and the Methodist Church lobby is using in-house resources.

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