A new row over fixed-odds betting has erupted, amid claims that potential conflicts of interest are distorting parliamentary debate on the issue.
Last week, MPs debated proposed reforms that include reducing the stakes on the electronic games of roulette and blackjack played on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) in betting shops. The terminals are a huge source of profit for bookmakers but have been described as the “crack cocaine of gambling” because of their addictive qualities.
A document leaked prior to the debate revealed that numerous questions drafted for the MPs were pushing arguments made by lobbyists for the bookmakers. Some highlighted the steps betting shops are taking to tackle problem gambling. Others stressed the importance of the shops as employers, or urged tougher action against online gambling sites that are eating into the shops’ profits. Versions of many of the questions made their way into the debate. The revelation has prompted fears that some MPs – especially those who have benefited from lavish hospitality provided by the big bookmakers – could be overly influenced.
“I have been campaigning against fixed-odds betting terminals for many years now, and everyone who has been involved in this campaign is well aware that the gambling lobby is a very powerful and well-resourced organisation with friends in parliament who are keen to protect their interests and profits,” said Labour MP David Lammy. “The damage caused by these machines has been tolerated for far too long, aided and abetted by this lobbying.”
About 34,000 FOBTs are currently in operation in the UK, generating about £1.4bn in profits every year for bookmakers, who are now preparing lengthy responses to the government’s call for evidence, following its announcement of a review of gambling machines last week.
“In my own constituency, the growth and proliferation of bookies on Tottenham High Road has been funded by the vast profits pulled in from FOBTs, with no regard shown for the misery and broken lives that they have left behind in my community,” Lammy said. “It is therefore deeply disappointing that gambling companies and their supporters are still organising in this cynical manner, and in my view the government needs to be clear that they care more about the huge harm caused by FOBTs than the profits of big business.”
There are also fears that a limited clampdown on bookmakers’ terminals may simply drive business elsewhere. Officials at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) privately acknowledge that limiting proposals to betting shops may favour amusement arcades, bingo halls and pub chains that have vocally lobbied against betting shop terminals.
Restrictions on stake size alone fail to adequately address concerns in relation to cost of play