Wanstead Wetherspoons to lose all but two of its fruit machines over underage gambling despite venue's crackdown
PUBLISHED: 18:00 19 November 2019
A JD Wetherspoon pub in Wanstead will have to get rid of all but two of its fruit machines after Redbridge Council's licensing sub-committee slammed its "oblivious" staff for letting children use them.
The George Public House, in Wanstead High Street, was stripped of its gambling permit for five machines - which it has had since August 2012 - at the climax of a mammoth five-and-a-half-hour hearing at Redbridge Town Hall today (Tuesday, November 19).
It will still be allowed to keep two machines, which under law every pub is entitled to without needing a permit.
Phillip Kolvin QC, representing Redbridge Council, opened the hearing by reminding the committee that the top priority had to be children's safety.
He said: "There is an onus on providers of these gambling machines to keep children away from them, for their own protection.
"That requires systems of protection laid down and enforced by management, as well as vigilance from members of staff.
"It is not enough to simply say to staff 'please do this'. You need systems and procedures laid down and protections in place if those are not followed."
The borough's licensing officers had previously conducted two operations at the pub which saw police cadets under the age of 16 enter the pub and use two gambling terminals.
Despite being in full view of the bar and the pub's staff, on each occasion they were able to spend £3 on the machines without being challenged.
Both times, the entire episode was witnessed by two plain clothes police officers who had entered the pub before the cadets.
Mr Kolvin revealed that the cadets in question had ranged in age from 14 years and 10 months to 15 years and nine months.
He continued: "These are very young people - many years below the minimum legal age to be gambling and either six or 10 years below the Challenge 21 or Challenge 25 policy operated by JD Wetherspoon."
The hearing was shown CCTV footage of the second test purchase operation in July this year which saw underage police cadets play on the machines unchallenged.
On that occasion, the cadets were able to enter the pub and stand in full view of the bar for one minute and 50 seconds before moving over to one of the machines and spending £3.
The bar staff and management had already been warned after failing the first test purchase in January, and the second failure is what prompted the council to request a revocation of the pub's gambling permit.
Concluding his opening submissions, Mr Kolvin told the council chamber: "The London Borough of Redbridge views this as a bad case.
"The requirements are not new, and it is of great importance that management policies are in place to meet them.
"In this case, those management policies have failed not once, but twice."
But Stephen Walsh QC, who was representing JD Wetherspoon alongside the company's own head of legal and several area managers, said The George was "a family pub" with "a safe and well regulated atmosphere".
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He reiterated the company's regret at the two failed test purchases, but stressed that company-wide there was a focus on cracking down on underage gambling.
He went on: "JD Wetherspoon have looked into this. They have spoken to the manager and area manager, who know this pub and know the regulars there.
"They have found that this is not a pub which has a repeated issue with young people coming in to use the gambling machines."
But Mr Walsh did accept that "the entire industry has got something to seriously look at in terms of the supervision of these machines in pubs".
Since failing the second test purchase, management at the George say they have encouraged staff to wear more Challenge 21 badges, as well adding greater signage to the machines themselves and repositioning some of them in more open locations.
Mr Walsh continued: "We are not an operator who is disengaged or disinterested in this. We are leading the way in prioritising it but we are also frank about it.
"The reason why the industry as a whole has noticed such a high failure rate on gambling machine test purchases is that it is one of these issues which, in a pub environment, is very hard to police."
The pub has now joined an "industry leading" pilot project which has seen pressure mats installed in front of each of its gambling machines.
When someone steps on these pads, a signal is sent to a pager held by a senior member of staff or a manager behind the bar, who then knows someone is at the machine and to check their age.
Mr Walsh described this as "a genuinely innovative and workable mechanism" to help combat underage gambling in pubs.
He added: "Everyone at The George and at JD Wetherspoon wants to run this premises to the highest regulatory standards.
"We don't want anyone in any way to think we're flouting the law or getting away with one here - we accept and regret that we have failed two test purchases but there has been no history of concern.
"I make no apologies for saying that this is a well-run pub that has been operated in good liaison with the responsible authorities."
But in his closing statement, Mr Kolvin argued there was insufficient proof that the George was adequately tackling the problem.
He said: "With the right to operate and make a profit from these machines comes an obligation to protect young people from harm.
"Now JD Wetherspoon are saying they have found an 'innovative' solution, but it is still being tested and they are not in a position to provide us with any evidence or results from those tests.
"My client [Redbridge Council] says 'no, we cannot go on with continuous reassurances that something is going to be done about this'."
The council's licensing sub-committee, chaired by Cllr Roy Emmett, said it was "shocked" by a report from the Gambling Commission which revealed the national fail rate for underage gambling test purchases had been 89pc in October 2018, and after a year of action had only fallen to 84pc by October 2019.
Justifying its decision, the committee said it had a duty to safeguard children and had been concerned by the "oblivious" behaviour of staff in CCTV, but took note of the new measures put in place since the second test purchase failure.
This is why the decision was reached not to revoke the pub's automatic right to two machines.