Bookmakers have tried to head off a growing political backlash against the industry by announcing voluntary measures to tackle problem gambling.
William Hill, Ladbrokes, Coral and Paddy Power have agreed to advertise less aggressively and to promote “responsible gambling” messages. They will also set up and fund a body called the Senet Group to “self-govern” the industry.
Anti-gambling campaigners called the heavily trailed move a “PR exercise” and “window dressing”. The Campaign for Fairer Gambling, which wants a crackdown on gaming machines, questioned the independence of the body. A spokesman pointed out that the Gambling Commission was already responsible for making sure that vulnerable people are protected.
The four bookmakers have agreed not to advertise sign-up offers that promise free bets and free credit before the 9pm watershed, saying that they were “mindful of children and young people watching”.
They will also stop advertising gaming machines from their betting shop windows. Campaigners claim that these fixed-odds betting terminals, used for high-stakes roulette and other games, are the “crack cocaine of gambling”.
A fifth of shop window space will be dedicated to responsible gambling messages, while the quartet promised to fund a big responsible gambling campaign.
Richard Glynn, the chief executive of Ladbrokes, said: “Gambling has long been a leisure pursuit and part of the cultural fabric of the UK, but we are alive to the concerns of the public to keep gambling a responsible and fun activity.”
A spokesman added: “Maybe the balance has not been right in recent years. People have a right to bet, but advertising has been too aggressive. The pendulum has swung too far.”
Betfred, which has more than 800 outlets, has not signed up to the initiatives, although the company said that discussions were “ongoing”. None of the online-only gambling companies, such as 888.com, have signed up.
Ivor Jones, an analyst at Numis, questioned whether the initiative would succeed in getting politicians off the industry’s back. “There are currently more regulatory challenges for bookmakers than I can ever remember,” he said. “Labour has mounted a politically effective challenge to the government on gambling, based on the view that that there is too much of it. The measures proposed have the potential to address problem gambling. Whether it will head off political momentum, which is simply anti-bookmaker, is a lot less clear.”
Last month, James Hill, the new boss of William Hill, said the political environment towards the industry could not be more hostile. In March the government raised the duty on fixed-odds terminals. In April bookmakers brought in measures aimed at tackling problem gambling on the terminals.
The government has also made it harder for new betting shops to get planning permission. Labour has gone much further, proposing a multimillion-pound levy on sports betting.