Dawn Foster | Opinion
When I first moved to the capital in 2010, I worked in Newham, in east London. It looked similar to the places I’d grown up and where I lived while at university, but for one difference: the number of betting shops seemed obscene. I’d pop into one occasionally, and notice that far more people were settled in for a long stretch on machines than were approaching the counter.
The growth and proliferation of many high-street bookmakers is dependent on the vast revenues pulled in from fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) – machines that act as digital casinos, allowing gamblers to bet up to £300 a minute (£100 a spin, one spin every 20 seconds). Now the government has announced a review, which proposes to cut the stakes on FOBTs from £100 to between £50 and £2.
The fact that Newham has so many betting shops isn’t unusual or coincidental: bookies tend to cluster in deprived neighbourhoods. In 2014, the 55 most deprived boroughs in the country – predominantly clustered in northern cities and inner-city London – had 2,691 betting shops, compared with 1,258 in the 115 richest areas. The mayor of Newham, Robin Wales, wrote to the Guardian earlier this week, raising concerns that the east London borough has one of the highest concentrations of gambling shops in the country, with 81 in total, and 12 on one street alone. He called for the stakes on FOBTs to be lowered to £2 to reduce the harm caused to communities.
etting companies can only have four machines in each shop, so clustering is a way of increasing revenue locally. But FOBTs are so harmful because they are addictive: users believe they are only one spin from doubling their money or making back what they have lost. And people who use them are much more likely to be at risk of other problems, with 43% of users classified as either problem or at-risk gamblers, according to research by NatCen in 2015.
Part of the problem is that gamblers are left alone with machines, unlike in casinos. A House of Commons briefing note warned seven years ago that“electronic gaming machines are associated with the highest rates of problem gambling worldwide; in contrast, casinos that require deliberate planning and travel efforts tend to discourage repetitive and impulsive conduct”.
The argument that banning them will cause huge losses and prevent money entering the economy is a falsehood
A friend of mine worked in a well-known high-street bookmakers while he was at university and endlessly regaled us with stories about men wetting and soiling themselves because they were convinced that leaving the machine to go to the toilet would deprive them of a win, and of people attacking the machines when they lost on a weekly basis. Most of the violence he witnessed in store – which was considerable – was as a result of FOBTs.
The argument against strictly regulating fixed-odds terminals or scrapping them altogether – that it would limit consumer choice – is easily knocked down. Choice extends only as far as consumers are capable of fully making it. The addictive qualities of FOBTs, and the number of cases of people turning to loan sharks, show that addicts arguably have limited capacity to control their actions. Bar staff can risk a pub’s licence if they serve people who are intoxicated. Staff in bookmakers don’t have that worry.
The argument that banning these machines will see a huge number of job losses and prevent money entering the economy is also a falsehood: a report by Landman Economics found “expenditure on FOBTs supports relatively little employment compared with consumer expenditure elsewhere in the economy”. While £1bn of “average” consumer expenditure supports around 21,000 jobs across the UK as a whole, £1bn of expenditure on FOBTs supports only 4,500 jobs in the UK gambling sector. Continuing the bookies’ argument, the number of jobs in the gambling industry funded by FOBTs in the next 10 years is projected to increase by 5,000 jobs across the whole gambling sector, but at a cost of 25,000 jobs in the wider economy.
In 2012, Harriet Harman, then deputy leader of the Labour party, admitted that the liberalisation of gambling laws under New Labour – which had led to the introduction of FOBTs a decade earlier – was a mistake that had ruined lives. Labour had caved into the pressure and lure of business, attracted by the riches that would pour into Treasury coffers. The Conservative government is likely to cave into the industry now for similar reasons. So the arguments of charities and campaigners desperate to bring the stakes down on FOBTs from £100 to £2, as Labour also now argues, are unlikely to hold sway.
In fact, far better would be to limit people’s exposure to such machines. In 2014 the government announced that councils would get greater powers to refuse new bookies opening in their high street; but this did nothing to combat the existing clusters that had opened when the planning laws classified gambling shops in the same category as banks and estate agents. Nowadays the Tories talk of localism and giving residents more say in planning decisions, yet councils such as Newham, and many others targeted by bookmakers, can still do little to fight back against betting shops.
Ultimately, this battle will come down to whether the government cares more about reducing individual harm and protecting local communities, or big business. Guessing what the outcome will be doesn’t feel like a particularly dangerous gamble.
• Dawn Foster is a Guardian columnist
Source: The Guardian