Anti-gambling campaigners have voiced fears that new culture secretary, Matt Hancock, will shy away from strict curbs on fixed-odds betting terminals, as it emerged the machines are taking more revenue than ever from British punters.
Anti-FOBT campaigners warned that Hancock, who replaced Karen Bradley in this week’s cabinet reshuffle by Theresa May, may be less inclined to curb the machines, citing his voting record and ties to the horseracing industry, which is funded partly through a levy on bookmakers’ profits.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) will this month conclude a consultation on whether FOBT stakes should be reduced from £100 to between £2 and £50.
Figures released by the Gambling Commission before the decision show the sum that gamblers lost on FOBTs rose from £1.76bn to £1.82bn in the year to March 2017, despite 3% fewer machines to 33,611.
The changes mean gamblers lost an average of more than £54,000 per machine, up from £50,777 the previous year.
Hancock’s West Suffolk constituency includes Newmarket racecourse, and an email seen by the Guardian shows that he recently organised a day there for MPs, partly funded by the British Horseracing Authority.
Hancock has voted against tighter regulation on six occasions since becoming a minister in 2010, in line with his party, including measures that would have given local councils more power to prevent the proliferation of FOBTs.
The Labour MP Carolyn Harris urged Hancock not to shy away from clamping down on FOBTs.
“Historically, Matt Hancock has had close links to the horse racing industry,” she said. “I would strongly urge him to continue with the government’s important work of tackling the many harms caused by FOBTs.
“Any change in this policy would clearly be a significant U-turn by the government at a very late stage in the process.”
One longtime FOBT campaigner, who asked not to be named to ensure good relations with the new minister, said Hancock had “been to the races and probably had an earful of nonsense from the bookies about how a £2 stake on FOBTs will destroy racing.
“Hopefully he’s wise enough to know that FOBTs are responsible for racing’s decline as they’re taking potential customers away from it.”
The DCMS said: “We have been clear that FOBT stakes will be cut to ensure we have a safe and sustainable industry where vulnerable people and children are protected,” adding that a final decision would be made “in due course”.
The Association of British Bookmakers says cutting FOBT stakes to £2 would cost thousands of jobs, damage the horse-racing industry and cut gambling duty paid to the Treasury.
But a new report by Bacta, a trade body which represents the amusement arcade industry and has clashed with bookmakers, will say that bookies’ revenues would only fall by £335m, 47% lower than a government estimate of £689m.
The report, written by the economics consultancy CEBR and due to be published on Wednesday, says this should be set against an estimated £1.2bn cost to the public purse caused by problem gambling, of which £210m is associated with FOBTs.
The CEBR’s chief economist, Oliver Hogan, said a stake cut to £2 “would not be nearly as detrimental as has been portrayed” and could even be a “net boost to the economy”.
Bacta’s chief executive, John White, said FOBTs were a “dangerous anomaly” in the gambling industry.
Source: The Guardian