The new boss of William Hill has drawn battle lines with the government on his first day in the job by declaring that politicians could not possibly be any more hostile towards the betting industry.
Campaigners said that the comments revealed the animosity felt by the industry towards the government and claimed they called into doubt companies’ commitment to tackling problem gambling. Adrian Parkinson, from the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, said: “If the industry was genuine about this they would have started the ball rolling ten years ago. The problems have not suddenly occurred in 2014. It’s only because of government pressure that it has introduced new measures.”
Mr Henderson, who has been at William Hill for 29 years, insisted that his comments related to recent increases in gambling duties. The chancellor raised the duty on bookmakers’ fixed- odds betting terminals (FOBTs) in the budget. Antibetting campaigners claim that the terminals, used for high-stakes roulette and other games, are the “crack cocaine of gambling”.
“We got caught a bit unawares in terms of [machine games duty],” Mr Henderson said. “We could have worked better with the government. We are now working well together.”
In April William Hill and other bookmakers brought in measures aimed at tackling problem gambling on FOBTs. Pop-ups now appear on screen whenever someone spends more than £250 or more than 30 minutes in one go. The government is looking to make these warnings tougher and mandatory.
Mr Henderson suggested that time is needed to judge whether these measures are effective before any further action is taken. “If decisions are evidence based it’s much more valuable.” Labour has proposed a multimillion-pound levy on sports betting that sent shares in betting companies down sharply when it was announced last month. William Hill has long adopted a hardline stance against what it sees as meddling by the authorities: Mr Topping once dismissed the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which oversees betting, as the “department for ballet”.
The company yesterday reported a 15 per cent fall in first half pre-tax profits to £122 million from £144 million last year because of an extraordinarily bad sequence of football and racing results for bookmakers. During two “black swan” weeks, the top 18 favourite football teams around the world won their matches, when normally only the top two or three would win, resulting in huge payouts. Ascot and the Derby horse races were also lossmaking for the first time in years.
The fall in profits would have been worse without the World Cup, with betting up 80 per cent on the 2010 tournament, contributing £28 million in first-half profits.
Shares closed down 9½p at 343p.