A long-awaited review of fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) has been delayed until the autumn, following a rift between the Treasury and the government department responsible for the gambling industry over regulation of the controversial machines.
The government’s decision has been further complicated by the fact that MPs in the Democratic Unionist party, which holds the balance of power in parliament, are in favour of cutting the maximum FOBT stake from £100 to as low as £2.
The Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) is examining the machines amid claims – hotly disputed by bookmakers – that they are highly addictive and make it too easy for problem gamblers to lose thousands of pounds in a matter of hours.
Tracey Crouch MP, the Conservative minister overseeing a review that will also look at gambling advertising, insisted on Friday that the decision was “definitely not in [the] long grass”.
The comment, issued via Twitter, came 24 hours after she expressed “frustration” in the House of Commons that the review will be delayed until October, blaming the general election for slowing parliamentary process.
The DCMS must ensure the review is evidence-based and has followed correct procedures or risk a judicial review from bookmakers if it recommends cutting FOBT stakes.
But two separate sources told the Guardian that a big factor in the delay has been the influence of the Treasury, with the picture further complicated by the emerging influence of the DUP.
The Treasury is understood to be concerned at the impact on tax receipts if the DCMS recommends a major curb on FOBTs, which took a record £1.8bn from British gamblers last year.
The UK’s 34,388 machines, which allow punters to stake up to £100 every 20 seconds, contribute around £400m in taxes every year.
But while the Treasury is mindful of its tax take, the waters have been muddied by the unexpectedly close election result, which has forced the government to woo the DUP in exchange for the support of its 10 MPs.
Key DUP figures, including Jim Shannon, MP for Strangford, are vocal critics of FOBTs and have made their distaste for the machines clear.
Shannon accused bookmakers of seeking to “protect their huge profits made at the expense of the vulnerable” during a House of Commons debate last year.
He was due to lead another debate on gambling regulation next week but the event has been cancelled in favour of a discussion on the persecution of Christians abroad.
One well-placed parliamentary source said postponing the debate would allow the DUP to make its voice heard while the gambling review is on hold.
“The news that the DCMS will now not announce the review into maximum stakes and prizes on FOBT machines until October is disappointing,” said John White, chief executive of amusement arcade trade body Bacta.
“Given that the ministerial team is identical to the one that was in place prior to the election and that the review is well underway we had hoped the document to be out before the summer recess.
“£1.8bn is lost per year on these dangerous machines. To put this into perspective, over the course of the 12-week government sign-off process the review has to go back through, £34.6m will be lost on FOBTs per week, totalling £415.2m by October.
“We urge government to expedite the process and get on with it. The evidence for change to the status quo is clear and compelling.”
The Association of British Bookmakers said: “Any decisions affecting an industry that serves six million customers and employs over 52,000 people, more than the rest of the gambling industry combined, should be taken on the basis of the facts and evidence.
“We remain committed to working with the government and regulators on our responsible gambling agenda.”
The debate over FOBTs has split the gambling sector, with the campaign against them securing funding from casinos, amusement arcade groups and JD Wetherspoon, which makes money out of fruit machines in pubs.
Bookmakers have claimed that the campaign to cut stakes to £2, which has support from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, is motivated by vested interests concerned about the success of their rivals.
And the ABB has also claimed that curbing FOBT stakes would force the closure of thousands of bookmakers, cost 20,000 jobs and deprive the Treasury of millions of pounds in taxes.
Bacta produced a rival report accusing the ABB of “scaremongering” and claiming that money not spent on FOBTs would be more beneficial to the economy if diverted elsewhere.
Source: The Guardian