Woolworths pokies investigation lacks credibility and transparency

Independent MP and gambling harm campaigner Justin Field has called into question the credibility and transparency of the NSW Liquor and Gaming Regulator’s investigation into Woolworths following today’s referral of just two hotels to the state’s Independent Liquor and Gaming Regulator over serious allegations stemming from February last year.

The allegations arose after whistle-blowers who had worked in Woolworths-owned ALH Group hotels accused the chain of having a systematic system of spying on poker machine customers and keeping and sharing personal information about them including gambling and drinking habits to encourage people to gamble more. The accusations included offering free drinks to customers to further encourage gambling.

A Woolworths internal investigation reported in the media in August 2018 acknowledged 22 of its pubs in three states collected personal information on high turnover pokies players and shared the data among its pubs to enable staff to encourage them to increase their losses and further it found that, in Queensland, staff gave free drinks to "high value customers to encourage further gaming activity".

After commencing an immediate investigation in February 2018, Liquor and Gaming NSW acknowledged more than 50 ALH venues in NSW were under investigation in February 2019.

Freedom of information requests submitted by the Office of Justin Field in March 2019 identified four venues under investigation that had been recommended for some form of action but details were blocked by the Department of Industry. As well as the two hotels referred today, the Belfield Hotel and the Cloyton Hotel in Sydney were also identified.

Independent NSW MP Justin Field said, “This investigation lacks transparency and credibility and smacks of political interference.

“In August last year Woolworths acknowledged systemic issues amounting to unconscionable behaviour in almost two dozen hotels across three states. In February the NSW regulator claimed over 50 ALH Group hotels in NSW were under investigation and today just two have been referred for consideration of disciplinary action.

“The Government needs to explain to the community and the hundreds of people and families affected by Woolworths unconscionable conduct why this investigation has now run to over 15 months and what happened to the other 48 venues and the systemic failures acknowledged by Woolworths?

“Freedom of Information requests by my office turned up at least four venues where possible action had been considered. It is clear that investigations into at least some of these venues were completed before the state election so why the delay?

“There is a clear perception of political interference. We have a long history in NSW of the gambling industry exerting undue influence over politics in NSW.

“These aren’t victimless breaches of the gambling regulations. They have real impacts on individuals and families.

“Over the time this investigation has been underway Woolworths has made more than $250 million profit from their 1389 poker machines in their 53 venues in NSW.

“The regulator has acknowledges systemic behaviours at least two venues that amount to significant breaches of gambling and liquor laws in NSW. These venues should lose their gambling and alcohol licences.

“However the Government must also make clear how the ultimate group owner of the venues, ALH-Woolworths, will be held accountable for these systemic breaches.

“I’m also calling for a special commission of inquiry into the influence of the gambling and racing industries on NSW politics. For too long we have seen special deals between mates, tax breaks and direct financial gifts for the gambling and racing industries while the harm caused continues to grow and bad behaviour rarely gets dealt with,” Mr Field said.

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