15th June 2020
Following Friday’s unparalleled decision by Government to reverse the decision to allow AGCs in England to open, the lobbying work has continued over the weekend and into today. I wanted to give you an update.
I am sure the anger and frustration that has burned over the weekend amongst us all will not abate for some time. I can assure you we haven’t taken this lying down, and can I again thank members for contacting their MPs at such short notice on Thursday and Friday. This had an impact and we did get Government to pause and think again. What remains baffling is that given the rethink, the decision nevertheless remained.
I have been pondering long and hard about this and I have had a number of further conversations on and off the record. My conclusion is that there has been an almighty cock up somewhere within Government. We will get to the bottom of it. Many of you will have seen that the list of premises classified as shops (and referenced by Business Minister, Paul Scully today) contained an amendment that changed the list to include ‘Betting Offices and High Street Gambling Arcades’ whereas before it just said ‘Betting Offices and Arcades’. This itself was an amendment, including us on the list for the first time following our lobbying to have AGCs classified as non-essential retail so we could open on June 15th. The change today says to me that all the necessary ducks were in a row and that betting offices, AGCs (and indeed on that definition High Street Bingo), were slated for opening.
Furthermore, government press communications were saying until recently that AGCs were going to open. Last night for example I had to get the DCMS duty comms team to tell Sky News to stop broadcasting the fact that AGCs could open following a number of calls from members.
Local Council’s have also not been told anything different and even many within Government, responding to MPs letters, have said that they had heard nothing to suggest AGCs couldn’t open.
We have therefore spent a lot of the day clarifying the position both for members and third parties due to parts of government not catching up with a last minute decision by Number 10.
However, the fact of the matter is that the Regulations have been laid and AGCs are not permitted to open. LBOs are.
So where does this leave us? Following our call with the DCMS Minister, Nigel Huddleston on Friday, he wrote on Saturday a follow up letter which disappointingly failed to address a number of the points we raised and most specifically why we were being treated differently to our similar High Street competitor. The view AGCs are more indoor leisure than retail and LBOs were the opposite just doesn’t stack up. Neither do suggestions that AGCs present a higher public health risk than other venues. They don’t. Dwell time is shorter, surface to surface transmission is less likely and there aren’t that many AGCs in the greater scheme of things (1000 vs 8000 LBOs). We don’t have that many customers.
It seems to me that a lot of these arguments are being used to backfill a decision which Government now realises is wrong but struggled to change. Otherwise there is no rational explanation.
We have today written back to the Minister setting out all of these points. We have also requested that they correct their mistake by rapidly introducing the necessary amendment to the Coronavirus closure Regulations to permit AGCs to open as soon as possible.
It is important that we continue to maintain pressure on Government to address this. Your MPs’ letters have been incredibly powerful in getting this issue on the desks of Ministers and into Number 10. We can’t let up. Can I therefore ask you to write again to your MP. Please thank them for their support and encourage them to write again to relevant Ministers. They can request that urgent consideration is given to the opening of AGCs at the earliest possible opportunity given that the decision to not allow them to open today was manifestly unreasonable, unfair and created a competitive imbalance on the High Street with bookmakers. A template letter you can use is below but again I would ask you if you can to write in your own words.
Finally, we spent a lot of time over the weekend exploring with lawyers potential legal remedies. At this stage our view is that this is unlikely to be productive. A successful Judicial Review has a high bar particularly at a time of national crisis. That would require a high burden of proof it is not clear we could meet in the time we have. Even then it would also take some time to organise, by which time we would be open in any case. We will nevertheless keep this option in our back pocket until we have seen the Minister’s response to our detailed requests for further explanations and to opening asap.
Lawyers also confirmed that AGCs that did open would be breaking the law and liable to an (unlimited) fine.
TEMPLATE LETTER TO MPS
I wrote to you on XX to explain that Government late on Thursday informed my trade association, bacta, that my business would not be allowed to re-open on Monday 15th June as originally indicated by the Prime Minister on May 11th. Guidance to that effect had been published and indeed even today still indicates that it was the intention of Government to allow me and my colleagues to resume business and get the economy going again. I spent a small fortune getting ready for re-opening, taking staff off furlough and promoting the fact we could again welcome back our customers. To be told we were not opening at three days notice has been crushing for me and my staff, especially as my competitor betting offices have been allowed to open.
Thank you for taking this matter up on my behalf. I know your intervention at least persuaded Government to think again. Sadly they did not change the decision.
Over the weekend my trade association bacta has been in communication with DCMS Minister Nigel Huddleston. He has communicated that Government felt that Adult Gaming Centres, such as mine, were more akin to indoor leisure venues, despite the fact that we are not and were listed by the Government itself as shops in the guidance published on May 11th. Secondly, it is suggested that Betting Offices are more akin to retail. I agree. But if they are retail then so is my business. We offer similar products to similar customers. Betting Offices contain four Category B3s machines, as well as a number of Self Service Betting Terminals. I offer Category B3 machines. My other machines are played far less frequently.
It was also suggested that AGCs somehow presented a greater public health risk for reasons which do not stack up. We were told that customers dwelt in our premises. They do so on average for 15 minutes, playing on their favourite products. However, the dwell time in a Betting Office is much longer. Not only do customer stay to play on machines there, they will watch the sporting events on which they bet. It is not uncommon for a customer betting on the horses to sit through an entire race card. Customers will dwell in all retail environments. Why are businesses like mine being singled-out?
Furthermore, it was suggested that because we have a number of hard surfaces this presented a greater risk. All retailers have hard and other surfaces over which customer’s hands will pass. Our machines are touched by one player. Under our hygiene protocols they would then be cleaned once the player left. The same happens in a Betting Office, where all the social distancing and other hygiene protocols are identical to mine.
It should also not be forgotten that a Betting Office has more customers than I do and there are nationally eight times as many Betting Offices as AGCs (roughly 8000 vs 1000).
It therefore simply cannot be true that AGCs present a higher risk to the population than Betting Offices.
For all these reasons we believe the Government has made an error of judgement based upon incorrect information. Betting Offices should be open as non-essential retail; but if they are open then there is no logical reason why AGCs cannot be open too. They are my competitor on the High Street. It is deeply unfair and anti-competitive for Government to take this discriminatory approach.
Can I please ask you again to contact relevant Ministers and indeed the Prime Minister to highlight this error and to ask them to correct it as soon as possible. Amendments to the Health Protection (Coronovirus, Closure)(England) Regulation 2020, are being made simply and frequently to allow increasing numbers of businesses to trade. I need to get my local staff back to work and off of the Job Retention Scheme, so my business can start again contributing to the Country’s economy.
As always members can ring me on my mobile at any time if you have any questions.