Thursday, 8 December 2016

The abuse of All Party Parliamentary Groups: booze and gambling edition

This week saw the publication of a report by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Alcohol Harm in association with the soon-to-be-merged Alcohol Concern. The report sought to whip up hysteria about Booze Britain in the face of sharply falling rates of alcohol consumption and binge-drinking.To do this, they shunned official statistics and produced a report based almost entirely on anonymous anecdotes presented at their 'inquiry', thereby leading to a laughably unhelpful reference section at the back...

The main 'fact' that emerged from the report was that more than 70 per cent of weekend A & E admissions are caused by alcohol.

This statistic was dutifully tweeted by all the usual suspects, despite it being a contemptible, demonstrable lie. It is attributed to 'Source 12' in the report but is, in fact, a gross misrepresentation of a study of A & E departments in Newcastle which found that less than 20 per cent of weekend A & E attendances involved alcohol. I wrote about it when it was first misreported. There is not a shred of truth to the APPG's claim.

The media presented the document as a 'parliamentary report' and many readers will have assumed it was equivalent to a select committee inquiry. In fact, any group of MPs with a bee in their collective bonnet can set up an all party group about whatever they want and produce reports saying anything. They have no authority and its members cannot be assumed to have any expertise. Hence the report came with the following disclaimer:

This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees.

The truth is that the APPG on Alcohol Harm is the parliamentary puppet group of Alcohol Concern, just like the APPG on Smoking and Health is the puppet group of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). The latter was set up by ASH in the 1970s and ASH is still the secretariat, just as Alcohol Concern is the secretariat for the alcohol APPG.

All party groups were never supposed to become fronts for special interests but that is what they have become.

Today, another APPG turned up with the 'findings' from their 'inquiry'. This time it was fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) in the cross-hairs and the APPG came to exactly the same conclusion as the pressure group that trades under the name 'the Campaign for Fairer Gambling' but whose real name is Prime Table Games.

The Times reports...

Cut betting terminal stake to £2, MPs demand

A cross-party group of MPs will today demand stricter controls on betting machines that allow punters to lose £300 a minute on casino games.

The fixed odds betting terminals all-party parliamentary group will publish the findings of a six-month inquiry into the machines.

Its report says that there is a “prima facie” case to cut the maximum stake of £100 a spin. It also urges ministers to slow the speed with which punters can make bets from once every 20 seconds.

What is the APPG on Betting Terminals? It was set up in April 2016 and its secretariat is a public affairs consultancy called Interel. Only five MPs are listed as members.

The APPG's associate members include BACTA, the trade association of the amusement arcade industry who are in direct competition with betting shops.

They also include the aforementioned Campaign for Fairer Gambling is also a member. Otherwise known as Stop the FOBTs or Prime Table Games, it was founded by casino tycoon Derek Webb. Its main political goal for the last few years has been to reduce stakes on FOBTs to £2 thereby making them unplayable for most punters.

Another member is the Hippodrome Casino, a fine establishment in central London which is also in competition with those who offer blackjack and roulette on electronic gaming machines.

Another member is Novomatic UK, a manufacturer of gambling machines that compete with FOBTs.

With the exception of the Hippodrome, all of these associate members gave the APPG £3,000 each to get started.

In addition, Interel Consulting UK provide benefits in kind worth between £10,501 and £12,000, which conveniently falls just under the £12,500 contribution level at which an APPG 'must prepare annual income and expenditure statements identifying the support received and the purposes for which it was used', according to parliamentary rules.

And who are Interel? They are a new name to me but it so happens that Adrian Parkinson of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling was working as a consultant for Interel 'offering advice and knowledge on gambling-related issues' when they decided to help set up the APPG. What a small world. Interel's clients include BACTA, the Hippodrome casino and Novomatic.

No wonder the bookies declined the invitation to give evidence at the APPG's rinky-dink 'inquiry'. The Association of British Bookmakers' response was commendably forthright for an industry body:

“We see no value in providing evidence to a group when the outcome of its inquiry has been pre-determined, and it operates as little more than a kangaroo court.

“The All Party Group is a club of anti-betting shop MPs, funded by amusement arcades and casinos with commercial interest in attacking betting shops.”

APPGs are supposed to be clubs for MPs who share an interest in a topic. I do not see why they require any external funding or outside control. From time to time, MPs raise concerns about how these groups operate but nothing ever seems to change. On the contrary, the problem of vested interests using APPGs to give a cloak of parliamentary respectability to their cause only gets worse.

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