Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Fixed Odds Betting Terminals have been called 'the crack cocaine of gambling'. Cameron should defend vulnerable people, not the gambling industry.

Fixed Odds Betting Terminals have been called 'the crack cocaine of gambling'. Cameron should defend vulnerable people, not the gambling industry.

Last week in Parliament, there was a vote in Committee regarding whether the Commons had considered the draft Categories of Gaming Machine (Amendment) Regulations 2014. This is something that usually takes place on the nod, in the committee rooms of Parliament, and normally doesn't make the news.

These regulations relate to gaming machines of all kinds, from pub fruit machines to penny slots – however these supposedly carefully designed regulations had one glaring omission, they had absolutely no mention whatsoever of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs); an issue on which Parliament and the Government gets much correspondence on. I have personally never been contacted by anyone asking for the prize of a pub fruit machine to be doubled – however I have been contacted innumerable times by people wanting FOBTs capped or removed altogether.
Having read through the transcript of the debate on the vote there are a few things which the Government Minister said that I thought was worth picking up on. Remember, the Government believes there is not enough evidence to make changes to the regulation of FOBTs (though there is for each other type of gaming machine – the machines which no one is interested in).

Firstly, Minister Helen Grant said that "casinos represent an appropriate venue for higher stake and prize gambling" – regardless of the fact that she has decided to blind herself to the available evidence, I, and many other people would regard £100 every 20 seconds (for 13 hours a day) to be high stake gambling, however this is precisely what is happening on our high streets – not in the casinos. FOBTs allow a phenomenal amount of money to be staked, and are popular with high street bookies because they amount to 80% of turnover.

Furthermore 'evidence' is obviously a concept the Minister considers to have a very flexible meaning. The Minister started that she had "challenged [the industry] to make real progress by March 2014. If it does not, I will not hesitate to consider taking serious action on stakes and prizes."

What the Government means is that it is happy with self regulation of FOBTs. It does not believe £100 every 20 seconds to be an excessive stake for a high street bookie. There will be no Government enquiry as Cameron promised.

This is interesting when you read it alongside other comments such as: "I also want to see one of the biggest pieces of research ever undertaken on this particular matter, and that will be produced later in 2014. Again if I am not satisfied with that research—that is not the industry being satisfied, that is me being satisfied—or if it gives the impression that there are going to be issues or there are problems and concerns, I will take action."

So there we have it. Despite the masses of evidence on FOBTs which have been around since 2001, the Government is waiting until March next year to address FOBTs, despite bringing forward measures for all other games machines now. Except she isn't going to take action because there is more evidence coming at the end of the year – evidence she is happy to legislate without in March – which will eventually compel her to "take action". I don't see why anyone should believe the Government.

For some reason or another, the Government is letting the FOBT operators get off scot free. All of this is merely fobbing off the problem, and delaying and stalling – when Ministers make comments like these, you know something is happening in Whitehall, conversations are being had, that mean they are happy with the status quo, and backing away from the fight with industry.

The fundamental question remains; why legislate on all other gaming machines and exclude FOBTs? Why not wait until March 2014 to legislate on all gaming machines? Why consider the evidence base for FOBTs to be different from that of all other gaming machines?

The links to increased crime, the fact that they may conflict with the licensing objectives of the 2005 Gambling Act, the fact that £900,000 was laundered through them by one drug dealer, the fact one high street chain is being investigated over their laundering procedures, and the concerns over addiction all meant nothing when it came to the Government accepting even a temporary cap on maximum stakes.

If you read the debate transcript you will see that the discussion was not largely about what the statutory instrument was, but what it was not. Labour have forced the Government to Commons for a full House vote on this measure, and I hope the Commons will reject this pick-and-choose attitude to evidence, and get serious about FOBTs.

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