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Simon Thomas exclusive: White Paper 10 years overdue for casinos – but welcome step forward

Simon Thomas, Executive Chairman of the Hippodrome Casino, exclusively joined Gambling Insider to react to the UK Government's Gambling Act White Paper.

Simon Thomas White Paper

What are your overall thoughts on the long-awaited Gambling White Paper?

Well, we’re delighted that the White Paper has finally, after 2.5 years, been delivered. We’re a little disconcerted that that time wasn't used to come back to us with clear public policy decisions. It looks as though we're facing further delays with the round of consultation. Now we're hearing from some sources the consultation could take a year, which would be a bit of a challenge, especially as the changes that have been requested by the casinos really should have happened in 2013.

So they're already 10 years overdue but it's a step forward. I think the measures that I've seen so far seem quite sensible. The UK Government has been quite receptive to the modernisations asked for by the land-based business. But we just want to get it done.

I get complaints on Tripadvisor from customers saying ‘you call yourself a casino, you've only got 20 slot machines. Why don't you put more in?' No, that's all the law allows me!

A comment we have been given by a gambling lawyer is that, overall, the White Paper is good news for the land-based gambling industry at the expense of the online industry. Do you agree with that view?

No, I don't really agree with that. We’re all tarred with the same brush. When you hear a problem gambling story online, it reflects badly on the offline business, as well. So it's in everybody's interest to get the Review through so we can start not having a barrage of bad press all the time. Online and offline are quite different businesses. We are exciting venues where gaming is part of the experience. Whereas online, it's transactional on your phone or your device and they're quite different animals.

The number of slot machines in land-based casinos has finally been recommended to increase from 20 to 80. How much of a boost is that?

It's a very positive move, subject to going through consultation relatively quickly. It's one of the real frustrations of this building [the Hippodrome] because, at peak times, I've got 1,500 customers and I have 20 gaming machines. I get regular complaints. I get complaints on Tripadvisor from customers saying ‘you call yourself a casino, you've only got 20 slot machines. Why don't you put more in?' No, that's all the law allows me! And if you actually think of an analogy, can you imagine a really big pub with great door control, fantastic supervision and only being allowed 20 beer glasses. You've got to wait for somebody else to finish before you can have a drink...

So they're already 10 years overdue but it's a step forward. I think the measures that I've seen so far seem quite sensible. The UK Government has been quite receptive to the modernisations asked for by the land-based business. But we just want to get it done

The people who have got glasses probably won't let go of them very quickly because they know they might not get them back. So you've got unhappy people waiting. You've got people who should possibly be taking a break holding the machines in casinos. It’s just a bit odd and we look forward to it being corrected. To be fair, the DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) Select Committee in 2014 agreed that there should be that harmonisation, which gave casinos 80 machines. The House of Lords Select Committee said it should be harmonised in 2020 and the DCMS in 2018 said casinos are the most highly regulated gambling environments.

Everybody is positive but we're still waiting. And when the change happens, it will lead to investment and job creation in casinos – and more casinos. I don't think anything will be quite like the Hippodrome, but you're looking at more Hippodrome-style casinos with bars, restaurants, live entertainment; which is what clearly the customers want.

I appreciate you made the distinction between online and offline businesses earlier. But, as you also said, the gambling industry as a whole comes together as a sector. So I wanted to ask you about suggested affordability checks as an overall concept. Flutter said that, as a best-case scenario, it’s looking at a £50-100m ($62-$124m) annual loss on its UK revenue.

At some stage, you have to say somebody is an adult now. Clearly, younger people are more vulnerable. But, at some stage, they're adults and you've got to let them live their lives.

The devil will be in the detail on affordability. In land-based casinos, we've already been doing source-of-funds/source-of-wealth affordability checks on customers for years, so it makes absolutely no difference to us. If the checks that have been proposed for online are reasonably non-intrusive, then it's not a problem.

If it starts impinging on people, the reality is that the vast, vast majority – 99.8% of people – are not people with a gambling disorder, and then we are inconveniencing them to protect the 0.2%. It's obviously necessary to have some inconvenience, but it has to be a balance. And there must be a way of actually focusing on the people who need help and leaving everybody else to get on with doing what they enjoy doing.

On a similar note, an online slot limit has been proposed of £2-£15. What is your take here?

It’s curious, and I look forward to the detail and equally the idea of having a different limit for under-25-year-olds. At some stage, you have to say somebody is an adult now. Clearly, younger people are more vulnerable. But, at some stage, they're adults and you've got to let them live their lives.


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