Astonishing acts of self-mutilation afflicting both the Government and Opposition have so dominated the news that serious damage being done to society as a whole has been all but ignored.
Thus the latest details of the sums sucked out of the pockets of Britons by the gambling industry slipped out last Friday without the slightest comment.
They were astounding: according to the Gambling Commission, Britons lost about £12.6 billion in the 12 months to September 2015, an increase of almost 12 per cent on the previous year.
That is almost £500 for every household in the land — equivalent to about seven weeks’ worth of job-seekers’ allowance.
I put it in that context, because it is among the most deprived areas that the gambling companies have concentrated those soulless purveyors of false hope and addictive ruin — the fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs).
This turbo-charged electronic roulette was released onto our High Streets as a result of the Gambling Act of 2005. In that same measure, the Blair administration also legalised the promotion of gambling via television advertising.
It is a mystery how the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, reconciled this with his conscience as a son of the Manse. Or perhaps not such a mystery: the Exchequer hoped to derive considerable extra revenues from taxation on greatly increased betting. It has not been disappointed. Last year, FOBTs raised £425 million for the Treasury.
The costs to society, however, have become increasingly insupportable. Last week, Divorce Online, the site which logs all uncontested divorce petitions, revealed that gambling is now cited in no fewer than one in five such petitions as a reason for the break-up of the marriage — a dramatic increase over the figure only a few years ago, when only one in 15 such claims mentioned gambling as a cause.
Gambling has always been a cause of marital breakdown, but the FOBTs, which enable punters to risk as much as £100 per spin every 20 seconds, are a particularly lethal trap for addicts or those the industry would like to turn into addicts. And since divorce, especially when children are involved, tends to lead to an increase in benefits paid out by the Exchequer, this is part of the hidden cost of FOBTs.
The bookmakers insist they do nothing to encourage the public to become hooked on these machines. But the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme last month spoke to a former manager at Coral, who told how he had been instructed to offer perks to keep customers at the machines for as long as possible: ‘If we had a customer coming in their lunch hour, we had to make sure they didn’t waste time trying to get a cheese and ham roll instead of playing the machines. You could buy them a cheese and ham roll and have it ready for them.’
Another Coral manager revealed an email in which the company’s central operations department gave instructions on a new FOBT game called Big Banker: ‘Offer a demo … to whet their appetite … then encourage them to play with their own money. Once you have identified your target customers, it often helps if you use a “hook” to encourage them to play: “You like Big Banker, do you have our bonus card yet? It’s quick, it’s easy and it’s free.”’
This ‘free’ bet is the standard method of hooking first-time customers. It appears over and over again in television advertisements for online gaming companies, even during live football matches, which will undoubtedly be watched by many under the age of 18.
Children are also heavily exposed to similar gambling adverts on Twitter by firms such as Betfair and Paddy Power, even though the Advertising Standards Authority insists that gambling ads must have ‘particular regard for the need to protect children’. It is hardly surprising that Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, the founder of the National Problem Gambling Clinic, said there has been a marked rise in youngsters seeking help with gambling addiction.
Of the £12.6 billion lost by British gamblers last year, £3.6 billion was online — overtaking the £3.2 billion lost in betting shops.
The form of gambling which has been declining is the one which actually has the redeeming social function of bringing people together: bingo halls. There are now fewer than 600 of them across the country.
Online gambling, by contrast, is a solitary vice with none of the community-enhancing aspects of the bingo hall. Yet if you watch the advertisements for online gambling shown almost non-stop in the breaks on TV sports programmes, you will see films of laughing young people gambling on their smartphones while partying happily at a bar or at each other’s homes.
It is a gross misrepresentation. If such adverts portrayed reality, they would show a young man sitting alone and unsmiling, too obsessed with the numbers flashing in front of him to think of anyone else.
Still, at least he would not be smashing up someone else’s property. The High Streets, by contrast, have seen increasing violence and havoc, as the inevitable losers take their impotent rage out on the FOBTs.
Last week, a freedom of information request to the Metropolitan Police extracted the information that bookies’ 999 calls to the police are increasingly commonplace. Last year there was an 11 per cent rise in such incidents, with the Met being called out no fewer than 11,998 times.
This, too, is part of the cost which must be set against the Exchequer’s gains from taxing these firms’ burgeoning profits.
A growing number of Tory MPs have been calling on the Government to limit the social damage caused by the FOBTs, but to no avail. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is meant to conduct a review on the maximum stakes allowable on these machines every three years: there has been no such inquiry since 2010.
Conservative Party members should not fail to raise this with the would-be leaders about to solicit their vote, not least because the current Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, is serenely indifferent to the pleas of those who call these machines ‘the crack cocaine of gambling’. As a guest of a gaming industry conference a few years ago, he told his delighted listeners: ‘People talk of [FOBTs] being the crack cocaine of gambling. I’m not even sure they’re the cannabis of gambling.’ Ha ha.
There might have been hope when, after last year’s general election, the MP for Chatham and Aylesford, Tracey Crouch, was given a ministerial role at the DCMS. In a Commons debate she had spoken of the ‘devastating impact that these high-risk, high-stake machines are having’ on her constituents. But there is no sign Ms Crouch has been allowed to challenge these interests now she has gained a ministerial red box.
In fact, the entire political system has become a plaything of the gaming industry. Throughout the referendum campaign, my work email was inundated with press releases from betting firms, promoting their odds on who — out of Remain and Leave — would win. Oddly, even though the opinion polls suggested the race was a very close one, the betting market always had Remain heavily odds-on.
One very senior political adviser suggested to me that this was ‘a thin market, easy to rig’ and that the Remain campaign were encouraging wealthy supporters to bet heavily on their victory, so that their warnings of financial chaos on Brexit might be given a kind of market credibility.
In fact, the financial traders really did believe there was some predictive wisdom in the betting markets, which on the night of June 23 were suggesting a 90 per cent chance that Britain would vote Remain. This explains the extent of the collapse in sterling and shares immediately after the nation voted for Brexit — and the apoplexy this must have caused investors across the globe.
In other words, the odds put out by the likes of Ladbroke and William Hill actually fomented the global market panic that ensued when those odds were suddenly revealed to be wildly out of sync with reality.
Ladbrokes’ head of political betting, Matthew Shaddick, said with disarming candour: ‘Nobody at Ladbrokes’ HQ will be criticising the predictive power of our odds: they’ll be looking at the money we made.’
The same would go for William Hill, which took great pleasure in revealing that a London woman had chosen this firm to make her first-ever bet: a £100,000 punt on the UK voting to stay in the EU.
Another life damaged or destroyed. And they call it entertainment.
Source: Daily Mail