David Snook: Nick Harding interview
There is a commonly-held misconception that BISL represents bookmakers and in the coin machine connection, B2. It certainly includes representation from that sector, but in reality is much more widely-based and its ranks include a number of high-profile manufacturers and operators whose current machine inventories do not include B2 equipment.
Nick Harding would very much like to include B2s in many of his 169 locations under the Praesepe plc banner, but current legislation does not permit that.
It is one of the areas – but only one of many – which he hopes to address through BISL in the coming year.
The Praesepe CEO doubles as Chairman of the Gambling Working Group, a sector of BISL specifically dedicated to matters concerning the production and operation of gambling equipment. It is a group which has grown, he feels, from expediency.
“Despite its best efforts, in my opinion the gambling industry has had limited success in lobbying and influencing the decision makers to improve its position and status.” Hitherto, Harding feels, the industry has had the appearance of an exclusive club – exclusive from the wider sphere of leisure with its ability to generate £200bn in revenues annually and employment for 2.6m people. This, he maintains, gives the wider industry far greater ‘clout’ when talking to government. Making the gambling industry an integrated part of ‘leisure’, says Harding, opens doors.
He was a leading light in the formation of the Gambling Working Group within BISL (Business in Sport and Leisure) and that group certainly includes representation from bookmakers….both Ladbrokes and William Hill are regular attendees. But the group also has an infinitely wider spread of membership.
There is what Harding describes as ‘a healthy mix of online and offline suppliers and operators as well as software/hardware providers and sitting at group meetings there will regularly be interests from bingo clubs, casinos, adult gaming centres, family entertainment centres, motorway services, licensed bookmakers’ offices, pubs and route operators.
Indeed, it would appear to be the only forum which will encompass every element of machine operating in the country. More specifically, around 75% of the machines manufactured in the UK are represented in BISL membership. Names like Bell Fruit Games, Barcrest, Games Media and The Global Draw are rubbing shoulders with Gamestec, Inspired Gaming, Praesepe, Moto, Rank, Gala Coral, and in turn with BSkyB, Aspers and PartyGaming.
An even wider perspective on their deliberations is given by legal and accountancy groups such as EY, KPMG, Deloittes and Eversheds. The ‘big names’ is more than just a token ‘watching brief’ exercise – it appears to be a genuine, united and extremely active lobbying factor on gambling issues as a part of wider leisure.
“In recent years the UK gaming entertainment industry has been subjected to a continuous barrage of regulatory change, tax increases and uncertainty, all of which has combined to inhibit the long-term health of the sector and has discouraged investors,” said Harding. This, he feels, has encouraged the fresh initiative offered by, initially membership of BISL and latterly by its industry-targeted Gambling Working Group.
“The whole point of bringing our membership under the leisure umbrella is that the Government has asked to hear one voice and one voice is always going to be more effective when influencing decision makers.” His Chief Executive at BISL, Simon Johnson, added: “In fact, the Minister, John Penrose, said at our launch of our UK Leisure Report this year that ‘BISL is a leading force in marshalling strategic thinking on the leisure industry and banging the drum on its behalf. I hear you and want to be a helpful partner in order to help this industry stake its rightful place at the top table.’ BISL believes that its arguments can support the trade bodies when they are talking to government and offer an additional set of arguments. There are undoubtedly times when the industry can achieve the most by speaking with one voice. BISL is happy to play its full part in ensuring that the gambling sector speaks when relevant with one voice. The Government and the Gambling Commission regard BISL as a voice of reason and there will be issues where BISL can make progress move effectively than if the various trade bodies were to speak with separate and disjointed voices.”
Said Nick Harding: “One of my former non-executive directors, Charles Henry (an ex-President of BACTA) used to say to me: ‘When the water rises all the boats float up together.’ That must be the sensible approach; internecine warfare will only allow the naysayers the opportunity to delay everything that we all need in order to restore the UK gaming industry.”
Is this a reference to the more traditional industry forum of BACTA? There has recently been some high profile ‘defections’ from BACTA to BISL, but Harding does not want to be drawn into criticism of the association of which he was once a leading member. After all, both organizations have some dual objectives, chief among which might be the leveling of the playing field between bookmaker’s shops and AGCs over B2 machines.
“There are those who for some silly reason suggest that BISL is only representing bookmakers. They conveniently disregard the fact that just Praesepe and Moto alone operate over 240 AGCs between them, but don’t let’s permit the truth to get in the way of a good story! We have a healthy mix of all sectors in the gaming machine business. It is actually difficult to think of any area of the gambling industry which we do not represent and a quick calculation shows that our GWG members between them operate over 100,000 gaming machines in the UK.”
The BISL ‘shopping basket’ of priorities are clearly set down in its UK Leisure Report and the key items are jobs creation, reducing the tax burden and improved regulation. One of the areas upon which BISL and BACTA appear to disagree is the Triennial Review. BACTA’s position is to retain it; BISL’s is to move it to biennial. Harding and his colleagues see the increased frequency as ‘better aligned to the rate of change we see today.’ He added: “The more important point is that we move the review process away from being a political issue to being simply an administrative price review, as was intended when the 2005 Gambling Act was written. Put simply, in this age of supersonic technical change who on earth would advocate that technical regulations are only looked at every three years? There is the distinct possibility that if first rejected really important changes might only happen every six years. I feel strongly that we must push for more frequent reviews than the current process is allowing, which feels like a three-yearly version of the X-Factor!”
The coming year will see a rapidly hardening of the issues; an increasing sharper image of the priorities as recession continues to bite and jobs are put at increasing risk. The overall leisure industry – and its integral gambling microcosm – will without question experience a fallout from the more straitened times. How the industry maneuvers its way through that minefield will be largely governed by the degree to which BISL can influence those who make the decisions.
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