The maximum permitted stake on controversial fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) will be cut from £100 to £2, the government has announced after ministers ignored pleas from bookmakers and branded the machines a “social blight”.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) opted for £2 after more than a year of furious argument between anti-FOBT groups and high street bookmakers, who derive more than half of their revenue from the machines.
The change, subject to a parliamentary vote likely to take place in 2019, will reduce the government’s tax take from the machines but this will be paid for by an increase in duty applied to online gambling.
What you need to know about FOBTs
Fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) are machines, found largely in bookmakers and betting shops, that allow customers to stake up to £100 every 20 seconds on digital versions of games such as roulette.
The UK has 33,611 FOBTs, each of which take more than £53,000 from gamblers per year.
Critics of FOBTs say they are particularly addictive, allow gamblers to rack up huge losses within a few hours, and are concentrated in deprived areas. They have also been linked to money laundering.
The secretary of state for DCMS, Matt Hancock, said the government had chosen to “take a stand”.
He said: “These machines are a social blight and prey on some of the most vulnerable in society, and we are determined to put a stop to it and build a fairer society for all.”
The sports minister, Tracey Crouch, who has led the review, said the government had been particularly concerned by the “consistently high rates of problem gamblers among players of these machines”.
Nearly 14% of people who use FOBTs are problem gamblers, according to Gambling Commission figures from 2016, higher than every other popular form of gambling.
Crouch said the government had also been concerned about the number of FOBTs in areas of high deprivation, given the high losses gamblers can rack up on the machines.
Individual gamblers lost more than £1,000 on FOBTs on more than 233,000 occasions in a single 10-month period, while one user lost £13,777.90 in only seven hours.
The government also outlined a package of gambling regulations designed to protect vulnerable people and the young.
They include the use of spending limits for online gambling until companies have carried out affordability checks to ensure gamblers have enough money to play.
The age limit for the national lottery, which can be played at 16, will also be reviewed, while online gambling firms will be made to tighten up age checks.
Bookmakers across the UK make an annual income of £1.8bn from FOBTs
TV adverts for gambling will have to show responsible gambling messages for their entire duration, while there will also be a dedicated TV ad campaign targeting addiction.
Public Health England will also carry out a review of the damage to health caused by gambling, amid concern about the lack of attention it has received compared with alcohol and drugs.
Crouch warned the rest of the industry not to “take its foot off the pedal” on tackling addiction, warning online gambling firms in particular that they could face new restrictions unless they ramp up their efforts.
Despite the warning to the wider industry, curbs on the UK’s 33,611 FOBTs, each of which take more than £53,000 from gamblers per year, garnered the most attention.
The Association of British Bookmakers, which has campaigned against a stake cut, said: “This is a decision that will have far-reaching implications for betting shops on the high street. We expect over 4,000 shops to close and 21,000 colleagues to lose their jobs.
“The independent expert advice warned that this would simply shift people, the majority of whom gamble responsibly, to alternative forms of gambling where there is less chance of human interaction and its impact on problem gambling levels is far from certain.”
However, campaigners and former addicts said a reduction in stakes was long overdue.
Adam Bradford, who found about his father David’s secret 30-year gambling addiction on the day he was jailed for two years for a £50,000 fraud, welcomed the change.
“No longer will gamblers be able to run into serious trouble on the high street and betting has been restored to a leisure activity,” the Bradfords said in a joint statement.
“In response to the industry’s scare tactics threatening job losses, we believe the industry will be able to stay sustainable through further strengthening their ranges of products and ensuring these are rolled out responsibly.
“We are unsure what calculations have been used to come up with these shocking job loss figures.”
The Labour MP Carolyn Harris, chair of a cross-party group on FOBTs, said she was delighted by the decision.
“FOBTs have caused too much social harm and huge losses for those who can least afford it.
“These machines have increased the risk of problem gambling, which carries a very significant social and economic cost.
“This was morally the right decision to make and it is a victory for all those people whose lives have been blighted by these toxic machines.”
William Hill, whose shares soared earlier this week after a supreme court ruling paved the way for legalised sports betting in the US, said it expects up to 900 shops to become unprofitable, with some likely to close soon and operating profits set to decline by up to £100m.
Betfred has previously said it would consider launching a judicial review to get the stake cut overturned but did not comment on whether it would go ahead.
However, Paddy Power Betfair said the bookmaking industry had “suffered reputational damage” because of FOBTs and welcomed the government’s decision. A spokesperson for Jenningsbet said the industry “needs to go back to its roots and that means a more collaborative and healthy relationship with horse and greyhound racing”.
Source: The Guardian