Bacta National President, Gabi Stergides reflects on a year in which the association pulled off a lobbying coup that many would not have bet on.
Looking back on 2018 what were the high points and the low points?
There’s no doubt that 2018 will go down as one of the most dramatic and significant years for Bacta and the well being of its members. While the Association continued to exercise the day to day activities which keep it functioning on behalf of its members, the FOBT issue was always present and was quite often centre stage. So, of course the high point has to be the government’s decision to reduce the maximum stake to £2 and then the decision to remain true to its original policy of going live with the new stake in April 2019. The entire campaign and debate was punctuated by uncertainty. What was the Commission’s thinking and rationale, how strong were the bookies links with and influence over our elected representatives, would the Treasury be influenced by the ABB’s very own version of project fear and would the government hold its nerve and do the right thing at the right time? The low points were the uncertainty and the sometimes Machiavellian nature of what we were up against. Ultimately, it was very much worth it as our arguments, both economic and social, were deemed more convincing and consequently won through.
What lessons do you think have been learned from the FOBT campaign?
I think the key arguments relate to engagement. You can’t switch engagement on and off – it has to be a dialogue which means it has to be part of the business culture. What does that entail?
It means making sure that Bacta is continuously in touch with members of parliament, with ministers and their advisers.
It means having a presence at the party conferences, it means working with our political advisers to make sure that we maintain a profile and have an opportunity to explain the values, counter the prejudices and reflect the socially responsible personality of our rather unique industry.
It means presenting the facts and not just opinion and it means encouraging individual members to get involved with their MPs. If there is a problem the only solution is to face up to it and deal with it.
On reflection I think the bookies buried their heads in the sand, denied the existence of a problem and attempted to deflect the arguments to online, pubs and arcades. It smacked of arrogance and didn’t win them any friends. Through the campaign we made some great friends and allies, not least Carolyn Harris, the Labour Member of Parliament for Swansea East. Without her deter- mined and unyielding support our task would have been a lot, lot harder if not near impossible.
How do you think Bacta is now perceived by politicians and government generally?
I think the straightforward answer to this is much better better than it was! Just anecdotally I now have a number of members of the House of Lords on my phone and over 30 MPs!
As we discussed earlier, engagement is a process and Bacta’s work in this area will never and can never be completed, that’s the nature of the beast. The DCMS, Gambling Commission and sponsoring ministers office make themselves available, arrange meetings and let us have frank and open conversations. Where we were just a few years ago to where we are today, are night and day apart.
Would you agree that the entire gaming industry has suffered significant reputational damage as a result of FOBTs and if so, what can be done to address it?
Massively so. Every machine with a coin mech is now seen as an FOBT in disguise. It’s a huge challenge to overcome this misperception, but the only course of action is to continue to engage with all of our external audiences from the population at large to politicians at all levels and to remind them of what we do and how we behave as opposed to how they might think we behave. The world outside our industry does not differentiate between a Category D and an FOBT – equivalent to the difference between a can of Shandy and Moonshine.
It’s about education and positioning: we are leisure, entertainment, out of home fun. We report to the Ministry of Fun, as stated by Mims Davies, offering soft games of skill and chance to millions of players throughout the United Kingdom.We should be proud of what we do, proud of our record in supporting local communities and regional economies and for delivering accessible, socially responsible gaming entertainment.