Thursday, 1 May 2014

FOBTs: A weak prime minister who stands up for the wrong people.

In a written statement on Wednesday, the Government finally announced its strategy on betting shops and Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. It has been a long, confused and contradictory policymaking process which has consisted of several overlapping reviews into the effect of FOBTs.

The announcement has three parts to it, all of which are small and in some cases entirely inadequate steps towards tackling the excesses of FOBTs and the gambling industry.

One element is mandating the industry Code of Practice. The current (voluntary) Code was created by the industry, and as such it naturally does very little that might threaten the revenue stream created by Fixed Odds machines. When I met with representatives of the Gambling Commission recently they told me that they had not been provided with the evidential basis for Code of Practice, and therefore were in no position to endorse or commend it.

The Government's plan also revises the maximum stakes. A requirement that customers staking over £50 per spin must use an "account-based play or load cash over the counter" – effectively this means that players can continue to stake £50 per bet completely unsupervised. This amount is well above the average amount that players tend to stake in any case – it risks being nothing more than a superficial change. Only 7% of stakes exceed £50 and the average sum gambled per spin is around £20.

It is doubtful the changes will have an effect on gamblers. The Campaign for Fairer Gambling believes that the maximum stake should be £2, and while I believe we should clearly have a debate on this matter, it is obvious that by limiting cash stakes to a point well above what is normally staked will result in little difference.

The final step that the Government has announced is measures on use class. This is an attempt to reduce the clustering of shops in town centres. This won't be retrospective and will permit the existing 33,000 FOBTs to remain on the high street.

I am concerned about the phrase that is used in the statement that they will seek "a re-emphasis within current planning categories", as this sounds weak. Unless the law is robust, it risks be threatened with cash-strapped local authorities reluctant to restrict applications.

Ed Miliband has been clear on this: Labour will give Local Authorities the power to limit the number of betting shops through change of use class however he will also permit reviews of existing existing licences with an open for revocation. In other words if local people want FOBT free areas they can decide to do so.

So at the end of several reviews and after this announcement, the Government has done nothing meaningful on high stakes betting on our high streets; we will still have single-staffed shops with unhappy, intimidated and pressurised staff. Recent investigations by the Guardian (video) and Channel 4 News has reinforced the fact that betting shop managers believe that the industry is singularly wedded to profits. That the is little interest in tackling problem gambling.

I asked the minister in the Commons today how much of last months incased tax hike on FOBTs, some £90million per annum will be given to GamCare. A charity to help problem gamblers. The figure is none. The government have done little to help problem gamblers.

The Governments attempt is an attempt to give the impression that it is acting on FOBTs, whilst failing to tackle the issue. Local communities, local authorities, politicians of all colours and even the people who work in betting shops themselves are united in wanting something to be done. 78% of the public according to YouGov polling want action and 63% want the maximum stake lowered to £2. David Cameron is a weak prime minister who stands up for the wrong people. The Murdocks rather then the McCanns, the tobacco companies rather than it's victims, brewing corporations rather than alcohol charities, the gambling industry rather than the problem gamblers and their families.

Yesterday on the back of the governments announcement share prices in bookmakers climbed sharply. Shareholders confident that their profits would not be dented.