Our race will be run without some help, First Minister – John Heaton

John Heaton makes a plea for financial aid to see Scotbet and fellow independent bookies through unprecedented times

Thursday, 24th September 2020, 7:30 am
CHAPELHALL, SCOTLAND - JULY 22:  Men watch the TV screens at the Scotbet Independent bookmakers shop, as coronavirus measures are relaxed to allow televisions and seating inside betting shops on July 22, 2020 in Chapelhall, Scotland. Independent Bookmakers are concerned that they will put out of business through a lack of help from the Scottish government during the Coronavirus pandemic. The Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) has called for Scotland to follow the lead of the UK Government and make betting shops eligible for rates relief. (Photo by Robert Perry/Getty Images)
CHAPELHALL, SCOTLAND - JULY 22: Men watch the TV screens at the Scotbet Independent bookmakers shop, as coronavirus measures are relaxed to allow televisions and seating inside betting shops on July 22, 2020 in Chapelhall, Scotland. Independent Bookmakers are concerned that they will put out of business through a lack of help from the Scottish government during the Coronavirus pandemic. The Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) has called for Scotland to follow the lead of the UK Government and make betting shops eligible for rates relief. (Photo by Robert Perry/Getty Images)

With millions of people returning to their workplace and the furlough scheme gradually being wound down, the economic turmoil of the early days of lockdown seems like a distant memory. But for Scotbet, the nation’s largest independent betting shop operator, there is no end in sight to the economic calamity that Covid has created.

First thing’s first. We are grateful for the financial support we have received, not least the UK Government’s furlough scheme. Without it, we would have been wiped out by the pandemic. It allowed us to retain our talented, experienced team and get us through the worst of lockdown.

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Our shops were closed for over three months, during which time we received no income whatsoever. Of course, we are not alone; many businesses were in the same boat, but some at least received government support to help them through the worst of the economic turmoil. Not Scotbet.

John Heaton is the chairman of Scotbet, Scotland’s largest chain of independent bookmakers

Unlike other small businesses across the country, we were deemed to be ineligible for 100 per cent business rates relief, which would have been enough to see us through the coronavirus shutdown. The Scottish Government have instead offered us a paltry 1.6 per cent discount on our annual rates bill.

We were also ineligible for a retail, hospitality and leisure support grant to betting shops, despite others parts of our sector – including amusement arcades, bingo halls and racetracks – qualifiying And to make matters worse, we have also been refused access to a Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan, a UK Government scheme to help small businesses.

All told, the lack of support has cost our company more than £500,000. There are not many businesses in Scotland, large or small, that can sustain such a financial hit. It is all so infuriatingly unfair.

Scotbet was established in the early 1990s and at its peak had around 75 shops. We employ over 100 people, many of them in small rural communities where employment opportunities are hard to come by.

Our workforce is hardworking and loyal; many have been with us for years through thick and thin. We feel a sense of duty towards them. We all feel let down by the Scottish Government. Having contacted them several times to raise our plight, we have not even had the courtesy of an acknowledgment.

Betting shops in Scotland reopened in June, albeit with a number of restrictions not in place in England. which made it almost impossible to trade. Even now, with football and racing resuming, our takings are down by 20 per cent. This is unsustainable.

Scotbet went into administration last year and was saved by a management buy-out. It was a difficult period for the firm and our employees. But fortunately some 30 shops and 100 jobs were retained. Smaller and leaner, Scotbet was performing well before coronavirus hit. Now, our future feels more uncertain. The lack of support from the Scottish Government does not help.

The First Minister is on record as having said that she wants all Scottish businesses trading viably again, but actions speak louder than words. Where is the practical support for businesses like ours?

I understand that resources are tight, but betting shops in England were deemed worthy of government support, so why not those in Scotland?

We are a small company but there are many like us across Scotland – many of them family-run, independent bookmakers that have been in business for decades.

Collectively, our sector employs around 4,500 people in Scotland. We employ people in mainly small, rural communities.

Our shops have won national awards for their community activism and commitment to responsible gambling. Surely a company like ours – Scottish-owned and operated – deserves the support of its government?

Even at this late stage, I hope that Scottish Ministers reconsider our plight. We are back in business but not as we know it and the next few months will be challenging at best. First Minister, we need help.

John Heaton is the chairman of Scotbet, Scotland’s largest chain of independent bookmakers

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