At one o’clock today (Wednesday), the first game of Pronto! will be played at the Lord Palmerston pub in London’s Kings Road. It’s the first “rapidly-repeating” online lottery game in the UK with draws held every few minutes and a jackpot prize of 25,000.
But it will not just be eager gamblers watching with interest. Home Office minister George Howarth has decided this game represents everything that is most dangerous about gambling. He has set in motion legislation to ban it amid criticism that it fuels gambling addiction and is especially dangerous in pubs.
But the legislation will not be in place before next summer, giving Pronto! a good six months either to prove it is not socially harmful, or at least accrued enough money to have made taking the risk worthwhile.
The person given the task of monitoring the game for the Home Office, and protecting us from ourselves when it comes to gambling, is Tonia Pearson, the 34-year-old daughter of a scrap metal dealer.
Pearson holds a key position in the development of the UK lottery industry. It is her job to assess the legality and desirability of any new game, and also to check the credentials of the people launching the games. If there is ever to be a serious, private sector competitor to the National Lottery, it will have to make it past Pearson first.
She was most recently head of the Home Office nationality team in Hong Kong which had to tell 80,000 applicants out of a total 130,000 why they could not be British. Now, as head of the Gaming Board lottery and machines division, which has spent the past three years deregulating the gaming industry, she could find explaining why Pronto! is unacceptable even more difficult.
Pearson is the official who must ensure that Pronto! is run legally and fairly – until at least a ban can be introduced. And although she will not be in the Lord Palmerston today she will soon know how the first day went – organiser Inter Lotto must furnish her with all the information on sales, prizes and profits for each Pronto! draw. There could be up to 600 draws each day.
“I would say these games are socially undesirable because they are akin to a form of hard gambling which the Government thinks, and I agree, is best restricted to premises specially licensed for that purpose, like casinos,” she says, with an accent honed in the suburbs of Surrey.
“We have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable and to consider the social impact of any development in gaming and to advise the Home Office accordingly,” she says.
Confusingly it was the Gaming Board which gave Pronto! the go-ahead earlier this year when Pearson’s predecessor John Buckle, who left to take up a job in the Home Office’s equal opportunities division, gave it a licence. But within weeks of the general election the Gaming Board was encouraging Howarth to legislate against rapidly-repeating online lotteries – in short, it provided the ammunition for Howarth to act. He announced a consultation on Pronto! after the Gaming Board expressed concerns. Then Prime Minister Tony Blair announced the Government’s intention to ban it.
One observer says Howarth is annoyed with the Gaming Board for licensing Pronto! in the first place. “They are asking, why didn’t you protect us from this? Even though she (Pearson) wasn’t around when the decision was taken, she may get some of the blame from the Home Office,” he says. But Pearson denies this: “It’s certainly not the case – the Government understands we can only operate within existing legislation.”
These are early days for Pearson, and observers say it may take some time to get a complete grasp of the complex legal issues. If the Government succeeds in banning Pronto! and other rapidly-repeating lotteries, others will probably step into their shoes, and devise new forms of lottery games to compete with the National Lottery.
Which may leave Pearson caught in the cross-fire between the Government’s desire to protect the National Lottery’s income from new competition, social concerns about turning the UK into an offshore Las Vegas, and the complexities of gaming legislation. She will have to pick her way through a legal minefield that is also politically sensitive.
The Gaming Board’s workload has grown since the 1994 launch of the National Lottery, and some observers have questioned its ability to cope with the sudden growth in lotteries and new forms of gaming which have arisen. In Pearson’s spheres of influence, for example, sales of society and charity lottery tickets have risen to an annual 115m in 1996/7, from 79.6m the previous year. The total “drop” for fruit machines now stands at some 9bn a year, twice the National Lottery’s turnover.
The Board also has to deal with more than 20 pieces of deregulation launched by the last Government in an attempt to introduce a more level playing field for the gaming industry as it competes against the National Lottery. And on a self-funding budget of only 3.4m.
All this is a far cry from the conditions which inspired the 1968 Gaming Act, under which the Gaming Board was set up, and the 1976 Lotteries & Amusements Act. There have been calls – echoed by Pearson – for a complete review of legislation. “We feel we can carry on with the legislation as it stands for a few more years, but developments in gambling are moving so quickly that it is probably time to start reviewing it. It’s fairly old legislation, and no one conceived of the idea of online lotteries, or the possibility of scratchcards, let alone some of the developments coming along now,” she says.
Pearson is no stranger to executing controversial roles, although 11 years at the Home Office has made her tight lipped. She has worked in different Home Office posts, firstly, with the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board after obtaining a BA in modern languages at the then South Bank Polytechnic. Immediately before joining the Gaming Board she was in Hong Kong. And that was after a spell as deputy head of the UK Central Authority for mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, which deals with exchanged information on criminal cases between countries. She curtly admits to being “interested” in this kind of investigative work.
Which may explain her move to the Gaming Board. Her role involves conducting investigations into applicants, though she refuses to discuss the extent of her powers. This rather reinforces the Board’s image as a somewhat secretive organisation with extensive investigative powers.
As a civil service official, there should be no difference in the way Pearson handles the role from her predecessor John Buckle. But one observer says: “These people like to put their individual stamp on things. And when she becomes more familiar with the legislation, she’ll start making her own decisions.”
When Blair announced the Government was planning to ban Pronto!, many said it was doing so to protect the National Lottery from competition, a claim which the Government fiercely denies.
But any wider review of gaming legislation will take at least three years to put into effect. In the meantime, Inter Lotto could use its influence in the Lords – its chairman is Lord Mancroft – to stall any attempt to ban Pronto! His tactics are likely to expose the Gaming Board’s embarrassingly relaxed attitude in giving Pronto! a licence at the outset.
That may be the first difficult issue Pearson has to resolve – but probably not the last.