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98% of bookies allow under-age to bet 31/05/2009
Jamie Doward

The betting industry has been left shaken after its watchdog found that almost every bookmaker surveyed by its investigators was allowing under-age punters to place a bet.

The Gambling Commission's undercover exercise checked all five of the major betting operators, who between them account for about 80% of betting shops. It found 98 of the 100 shops visited allowed a 17-year-old to place a bet at the counter. The legal age for gambling is 18, but staff are consistently told to check the ID of anyone who appears to be under 21.

The commission, which branded the results "disturbing", has summoned senior executives from the industry to urgent talks to discuss how to clamp down on the problem that led to licences being revoked.

A senior executive at the Association of British Bookmakers described the findings as "embarrassing" and promised that it would respond with an industry-wide action plan within weeks. "Some of the industry's compliance directors are tearing their hair out," said Andy Lyman of the ABB. "They've invested so much money and resources in training staff and this happens."

All of the major bookmakers train their staff to ask anyone who looks under 21 for identification before they place a bet, similar to the scheme operated by many of the major pub chains.

But Lyman said it was clear something had gone badly wrong. "We have to take these findings on the chin and admit that for some reason that culture has not been embedded in the industry in the way that it should have been."

He said there would be more training for staff, but also gave warning that those employees who failed to observe the "think 21" code would have to bear the consequences. "All the major operators agree that failing to operate the 'think 21' policy amounts to gross misconduct," he said. "Staff who do not carry out this procedure are likely to be sacked."

The Gambling Commission has written to all bookmakers reminding them they must have effective policies and procedures in place to prevent young people from gambling and to warn them that further mystery shopping exercises will be conducted in the future.

The commission assumed responsibilty for the regulation of the UK's 8,500 betting shops in 2007, following a reform of the gambling laws. Prior to this it was the job of local authorities to police the betting shops. One of its key mission statements is to "protect children and vulnerable people from being harmed or exploited by gambling". But the findings raised questions about the ability of the watchdog to police the betting industry.

"We were told by the government that reforming gambling laws would help to protect our children, but yet again we have damning evidence that shows that isn't happening," said Don Foster, the Liberal Democrats' culture, media and sport spokesman.

"With 98% of betting shops failing this test, you have to ask whether the industry is taking its responsibility to prevent children from gambling seriously. The commission's 'softly, softly' approach is extremely worrying - sending out a strongly worded letter to these companies simply isn't good enough."

But a spokesman for the commission, which can revoke a betting shop's licence, denied that the results showed it was failing in its responsibilities.

"Through these sort of exercises we are testing the operators to see if the procedures they have in place are working," the spokesman said. "We expect to see significant improvements."