Nicola Sturgeon must not gamble with the future of our betting industry – Michael Dugher

Reopening casinos and giving more support to bookies will boost economy and save jobs, writes Michael Dugher

Casinos in Scotland are scheduled to reopen on 24 August
Casinos in Scotland are scheduled to reopen on 24 August

On 2 July, during her regular Covid-19 media briefing, Nicola Sturgeon said: “We want to get all and every business open and trading, and trading viably as quickly as possible.”

I wholeheartedly agree with the First Minister. As we continue to emerge from lockdown, it’s incumbent upon governments to do everything they can to get the economy back on track and to get people back to work safely.

In the past month or so, I’ve been delighted to see betting shops throughout the country safely re-open their doors. As part of a busy high street, they and other businesses hold the keys to our economic recovery.

Michael Dugher is chief executive of The Betting and Gaming Council which represents online betting and gaming, betting shops and casinos.

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We wholeheartedly welcome the Scottish Government’s announcement that casinos and bingo halls in Scotland should be able to re-open on 24 August, so long as strict hygiene requirements are met.

Across the UK, casinos contribute nearly £300 million a year to the Exchequer. At a time when the economy is suffering from the impact of the coronavirus, they are eager to do their bit for the national recovery and the 800 people across Scotland who work in casinos are looking forward to getting back to work after five long months in lockdown.

Having given casinos in Scotland the green light to reopen on 24 August, we would urge the Scottish Government to stick to this pledge – in stark contrast to the UK Government which has been utterly inconsistent in its approach, informing casinos in England that they must remain shuttered just 12 hours before they were permitted to reopen. The impact on the sector in England will be catastrophic, with around 6,000 jobs – half of all casino jobs in England – now under threat. Let’s hope Scotland does not make the same mistake.

The path out of lockdown has not been an easy one for betting shops either. The 900 shops in Scotland started operating again at the end of June, initially under extra restrictions banning chairs, live TV and gaming machines. Those measures were unique to Scotland and led to a reduction in turnover of up to 95% in some shops, with smaller independents particularly bearing the brunt.

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Some of those restrictions have been lifted, but the ban on gaming machines remains in place until 24 August, the same day that Scottish casinos should open their doors again. It won’t be business as usual – because the virus is still with us and we all need to change the way we work – but it will at least give Scotland’s betting shop operators a fighting chance to get back on their feet. Again, I hope the Scottish government honours its pledge to relax the last remaining restrictions on betting shops. Businesses require clarity and consistency if they are to succeed out of lockdown.

Disappointingly, the Scottish Government has so far refused to give betting shops in Scotland 100 per cent business rate relief for 2020/21, a vital funding boost enjoyed by their colleagues in England. Instead, Scottish shops will see their bills cut by a measly 1.6 per cent. This, despite the fact they were closed for three months generating no income whatsoever. It is a bitter pill to swallow, not least for our smaller independent operators, some of which have been in business for decades.

With hundreds of thousands of pounds at stake, it’s no exaggeration to say that this could be the difference between surviving and going under for some betting shops. Once again, I’m left scratching my head trying to work out why our members in Scotland are being treated so differently from those in the rest of the UK.

Just as she listened to the case we made on the re-opening of casinos and the switching on of gaming machines in betting shops, I hope now that Nicola Sturgeon will have a change of heart on business rate relief and give Scottish betting shops the best possible chance of emerging from the pandemic with their futures secured. The economic consequences of inaction, in terms of job losses and viable businesses going to the wall, hardly bear thinking about.

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When the First Minister said she would do everything possible to get every business in Scotland open and operating viably, we were in full agreement. In contrast to the mixed messages that have plagued Westminster, the Scottish Government has a chance to show they’ll stick to what to they say – and it can start by supporting Scottish businesses like betting shops and casinos.

Michael Dugher is chief executive of The Betting and Gaming Council which represents online betting and gaming, betting shops and casinos.

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