You are in:
Former UK Shadow Gambling Minister Nick Hawkins sorts the wheat from the chaff in his bi-monthly column…
We are all familiar, I’m sure, with the Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times”, a saying I have always put in the same category as that in Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister when Sir Humphrey Appleby says, in order to condemn a plan the Minister has, utterly, “very courageous, Minister”.
However, in the real rather than ironic sense, the times, since I wrote my last column for CI, have become very interesting indeed – not in a good way – and with the predictions now being for up to seven years of austerity in the UK, and economies all across Europe in severe difficulties, Ministers actually do have to be genuinely courageous in order to bring about growth. In particular, they need to identify sectors which have a real potential to grow further even in tough times, and back those sectors to create jobs and produce the economic growth the country so desperately needs – and one of those is clearly gambling, sport and leisure. Part of this is to identify threats to those sectors (which might be being created quietly by their own civil servants) and remind those same civil servants that the present Coalition Government has a declared mandate to deregulate, not to create more bureaucracy and stifle growth.
Unfortunately, as I know from my own years in Government and Opposition, Ministers have such incredibly crowded diaries and so many commitments that they cannot possibly follow all the minutiae of every proposal. Also, because of the compartmentalisation of Government, if the Minister for Gambling (the excellent John Penrose, a real deregulator by instinct and in practice) doesn’t have control over legislation which may have a major impact, because the proposals are tax changes and therefore being put forward by the almost all-powerful HM Treasury, the problem is far worse.
When this happens it is incumbent on our industry to rally together (which it has not been good at, historically) to bring real influence to bear on every part of Government, to stop it. There’s a very good example of this going on right now. Fortunately, industry trade associations such as the RGA, NCIF and BISL are very well-led, by people wise in the ways of Westminster and Whitehall, and efforts will be made by them.
However, individual companies must do their bit too; whenever there’s an opportunity to talk to a Treasury Minister, please ask “are you aware of the damage the latest proposals will do to a sector which could otherwise help you bring the economy back on course?”
The particular issue I’m referring to – there are many others – involves “skill machines” (the kind of fun quiz machines playing pub quiz or Battleships or the like, which you’re quite likely to find groups of students or other late teens/early 20’s challenging each other on the questions, grouped around a machine, in any given pub).
As everyone will have seen as they drive around the UK, pubs in sadly increasing numbers are boarded up, blighting so many high streets, livelihoods of pub landlords destroyed by the smoking ban – (completely unnecessary as there was a perfectly sensible compromise in the previous law where pubs could have one smoking bar and one non-smoking one) – and remaining pubs need all the footfall they can get, just to stay in business. So, anything which damages that footfall could be fatal.
The quiz-type skill machines were quite deliberately left out of the ambit of the Gambling Act 2005, for the precise and very good reason that they are not gambling machines, they are for fun.
However, that hasn’t stopped the HMRC and the Treasury from now putting forward their current proposals which will, for the first time, seek to bring such skill quiz games machines within the ambit of tax – despite much lobbying to try to explain the importance of not doing this, to the relevant civil servants. If this goes through, because it is only possible to have a limited number of machines in a pub, and true gambling machines earn more money, pub companies won’t be able to afford to have skill quiz game machines at all (this tax would make them uneconomic) and there will be a resultant further drop in footfall in pubs, and yet more will close. Also, the designing of skill quiz machines is a UK success story; there are companies which specialise just in this; if this tax goes through it will mean companies closing and jobs being lost. I despair of the inability of HMRC officials and Treasury civil servants to understand the harm they are doing in a misguided effort to seek to raise amounts of tax (tiny in the great scheme of things) on something which was never intended to be taxed.
So, why should this matter “a hill of beans” to CI readers when it is all about pub machines? It’s because an attack on one part of the gambling industry is an attack on us all. The casino sector may be next to receive more unjust impositions.
I urge CI readers of this column to get stuck in on this issue, if they get the chance to talk to anyone in Government – especially Treasury Ministers or John Penrose.