A government scheme that is meant to allow staff at betting shops to bar problem gamblers has drawn fresh criticism after an investigation found that addicts are still being allowed to bet.
An undercover reporter posing as a known problem gambler who should have been ejected from bookmakers when attempting to use fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) was asked to leave only two out of 21 betting shops.
The reporter had signed up to the multi-operator self-exclusion scheme, a Gambling Commission initiative that helps problem gamblers by circulating their photograph and details to betting shops in the area where the gambler lives or works. This should ensure the gambler is not served in those businesses.
The exercise, carried out by BBC Five Live Investigates, raises questions over attempts by the gambling industry to discourage addicts. It was conducted in Grimsby, chosen because the Lincolnshire town has one of the highest concentrations of bookmakers in the UK.
It took until the 17th visit to a betting shop before the reporter was finally recognised and asked to leave under the self-exclusion scheme. The system was introduced last year following industry consultation to “strengthen social responsibility”.
Central to the debate was tackling the spread of FOBTs, which are disproportionately found in poorer parts of Britain and which in 2015 generated £1.7bn in revenue for bookmakers.
Described by critics as the “crack cocaine of gambling”, FOBTs allow stakes of up to £100 to be laid on machines every 20 seconds.
Rather than being ejected, the reporter found that on several occasions he was offered tea and coffee to help make his betting experience more comfortable.
Responding to the findings – aired on Radio 5 Live on Sunday – the industry regulator, the Gambling Commission, said it was “concerned”.
Sarah Gardner, executive director of the commission said: “We are determined to drive improvements in behaviour across the industry in terms of the effort they put in to reducing gambling-related harm and it really is getting to the stage where there is nowhere to hide. What we would like to see is much more emphasis from gambling businesses on intervening at an early stage.”
George Kidd of the Senet Group which operates the self-exclusion scheme called the findings “a bit of a wake-up call”.
A statement from the Association of British Bookmakers said: “This is a disappointing result, however it was conducted in artificial circumstances, involving a small sample, over a short period of time and the individual concerned was not a problem gambler or previously known to shop staff.
“By its very nature, those who self-exclude are normally known to the staff in the shops they exclude from.”
It referred to an independent review of the self-exclusion scheme which found 83% of participants saying it had been effective in reducing or stopping their gambling activity.