William Hill accused of ‘cynical’ tactics over cafes serving hot food in its shops

William Hill has been accused of deploying “cynical” tactics to keep people gambling after the bookmaker launched an in-store cafe selling hot food, with some items cheaper than at McDonald’s.

At one branch of the bookmaker in the Arndale shopping centre in central Manchester signage advertised a “WH Cafe”, selling meal deals, burgers and breakfast.

The promotion included a special offer for a sausage and egg muffin at £2, less than the equivalent menu option at McDonald’s, while the Big Al’s Chicken Burger is £2.50, again cheaper than a McChicken Sandwich.

William Hill is testing the idea at five of its 1,048 betting shops and said it was a response to customer requests rather than an attempt to keep gamblers in shops for longer.

Bookmakers have often sold snacks and provided tea and coffee, sometimes free of charge, to regular punters betting on horse races or playing machines such as the controversial fixed-odds betting terminals.

Campaigners for tougher controls on the gambling industry said the introduction of hot food, at very cheap prices, appeared to be designed as a “loss leader”, an offer that does not make money but that entices people to stay and spend money on other things.

Matt Zarb-Cousin, a recovering gambling addict, the founder of Clean Up Gambling and a former adviser to Jeremy Corbyn, said: “When the cheapest sausage and egg muffin on the high street is in William Hill, you start to wonder whether the food is there as a loss leader, in an attempt to generate new customers.”

The criticism comes with the gambling industry under increased scrutiny, as the government prepares to publish a white paper expected to herald a rollback of the liberalisation of gambling regulation that took place under Tony Blair in 2007.

Carolyn Harris, the Labour MP who chairs a cross-party group examining gambling-related harm, said the cafes appeared to be an example of the tools used by betting firms to keep punters playing.

“It looks like a cynical plot to keep customers in the bookies,” she said. “Yet another tactic of an industry hell bent on squeezing every pound they can out of customers.”

A spokesperson for William Hill said: “We are currently trialling WH Cafes in five of our 1,408 shops in the UK, and although early feedback from our customers is positive, there are no plans for an estate-wide rollout.

“The five shops are licensed to provide betting services and are registered with the relevant authorities to sell food and non-alcoholic beverages.

“The WH Cafe concept was born out of customer suggestions, and it is aimed at improving our customer experience and not at increasing the amount of time they spend in our shops.”