Thursday, 23 July 2015

FOBTs: The SNP are abandoning working class communities

I recently wrote to Scotland’s First Minister about the SNP’s duplicity on FOBTs and problem gambling. Empty SNP rhetoric simply doesn’t match their inactions In a strongly worded response to my letter raising concerns about the SNP’s approach to dealing wi
th betting shop clustering and Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs), Nicola Sturgeon claimed that I am “entirely wrong” to assert they are doing too little.

Obviously a little sensitive on this issue, she claimed that rather than not doing enough, the opposite is the case for the SNP, even though the Scottish Executive have “very limited powers available”.

We saw in the Scotland Bill that there has been an SNP capitulation (to the Tories)from their rhetoric in their Smith Commission submission, their manifesto and communiques. The SNP sought to table no substantial amendments to Tory policy. An acceptance that the Tory policy - through the SNP - is best for Scotland. Labour tabled substantial amendments that not only fulfilled those unmet SNP manifesto commitments but substantially strengthened Scottish devolved powers to deal with FOBTs.

The SNP claim Scotland has too few powers but if that is true, why did they table no substantial amendments to the Scotland Bill. The SNP claim that Scotland doesn’t have powers to deal with FOBTs but that’s a convenient untruth.

In the area of planning policy and regulation, the Scottish Executive have full authority. Last year, hot on the heels of a Westminster government consultation for England and Wales on the issue of planning and betting shops, the SNP launched their own Scottish consultation. Both proposals similarly concluded that betting shops should return to a “sui generis” class thus ensuring all proposed new betting premises would be required to seek a planning consent.

The proposal under the Scottish consultation was to remove the word “betting offices” from the current A2 use class category and transfer them to a category for “undefined use” along with amusement arcades, pubs and hot food takeaways. This was backed by Labour run Glasgow City Council which has the highest number of betting shops of anywhere in the UK.

Then in February this year came the sudden announcement by SNP ministers that they wouldn’t be seeing the consultation proposal through – it was dropped and so betting shops in Scotland would continue to open in any premises they wished with no consideration under planning consent. This was contradictory to the promises of Derek Mackay, the former SNP local government minister, said in 2014 that the Scottish government would change planning legislation to prevent the proliferation of betting shops and pay day loan shops. The SNP Scottish Government consultation proposed to do just that and Scotland has the devolved powers to implement this aspect of legislation, but didn’t.

Whilst Scotish Labour was standing up for oridnary people and for Scotland – the SNP have hidden behind the Tories in Westminster.

Nicola Sturgeon is wrong to say they have taken action within the “limited powers” available to them, as the SNP have taken no action in the one area they already have full autonomy.

Sturgeon’s empty rhetoric has instead focused on an irrelevant piece of regulation to defend SNP wider inaction. The First Minister relates “action” to the very limited, bureaucratic and costly powers contained under Article 4 direction, which allows councils, subject to 12 months’ notice (or pay compensation), to implement an exclusion of new betting premises (A2) within a designated area. A small number of councils in England have tried this and the Local Government Association has said it doesn’t go far enough. Not least because in areas where this has been tried, there has been an influx of betting shop applications in the 12 month notice period.

As it stands now the Scotland Bill will allow the Scottish Government to vary the number of machines where the maximum stake is more than £10.00 but not the numbers on race tracks or at sporting events.

The question being asked in the boardrooms of the major betting chains, prompted by the proposals under the Smith Commission, is: how many FOBTs will the SNP allow bookmakers to have?

Will the power to set a limit be devolved to licensing authorities? Surely there has to be a centrally set number per premises to avoid such devolved powers becoming strategically incoherent? Some of these questions will be answered under the proposed consultation launched by Holyrood last week.
The SNP’s inaction and acceptance of Tory policies and Tory agenda is somewhat inexplicable. Despite denials of donations from betting operators, it is no secret that the family of one senior betting industry figure has assisted their independence campaign financially, whilst understanding some of their more of their direct donations is more difficult.

My amendments proposed for the Scottish Bill address areas of real concern emanating from betting shops and FOBTs, beyond those of just machine numbers but these amendments were not supported by the SNP at committee stage. What the SNP fail to recognise is that the speed and intensity of play at 20 seconds per spin, the addictive content when linked to maximum stakes of £100 are toxic and socially damaging. Given Nicola Sturgeon is keen to assert that the SNP are seeking powers to take “effective action” that Scotland would like to take maybe the SNP will backing my amendments to report stage of the Scotland Bill?

The current SNP & Tory position on the Scotland Bill of setting “stakes above £10” stake threshold to identify the machines that will fall under new devolved powers is a shortsighted SNP view that fails that is a capitulation to the Tories and and abandonment of working class communities.