Last night’s Dispatches documentary on the rise of high-street betting highlighted how the issue is a minefield for MPs
So we are now living in “betting shop Britain”. Last night’s Dispatches documentary on Channel 4 has focused minds on the sight of more bookmakers on the high street, and the seeming explosion of quick-play, high-stake slot machines known as fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs). Confronted with stories of people losing everything on FOBTs, Harriet Harman, the former Labour minister who led the liberalisation, said she had made a “mistake”.
So why did MPs from all three parties suggest last month that betting shops should be allowed even more FOBTs? As bizarre as it may sound, some MPs feel they missed a golden opportunity to recognise gambling as legitimate entertainment back in 2005. The select committee report last month was an attempt to fix some of the perceived mistakes of the 2005 Gambling Act. Dropping the arbitrary cap of four FOBTs per betting shop will stop bookmakers from opening up more stores, and prevent so-called “clustering” on Britain’s high streets, the MPs’ report argued.
There is also a lack of hard evidence on how dangerous these machines are. A report by NatCen and Geofutures, produced last year before the Dispatches documentary, showed that seaside areas and satellite towns around major cities with higher deprivation tended to have more betting shops and gambling machines. However, it did not set out to answer whether this has created more gambling addicts.
Nor have many tried to answer the wider question of why it is wrong for the poor to gamble and not the rich. Some betting advocates have said the clustering of betting shops is a simple case of supply and demand. They point out, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that the high street in Barnes, west London is full of estate agents. “Not everyone wants them but the demand is clearly there,” they say.
Some of the more colourful suggestions by select committee MPs last month, including more slot machines in betting shops, are unlikely to ever be picked up by ministers. The government already has enough rebellions on its hands over Europe and House of Lords reform without stepping into the explosive area of gambling.
Another reason for the government’s reluctance is what gambling companies ruefully call the “Daily Mail effect”. Coalition ministers are too frightened to iron out glaring kinks in the 2005 act, the industry argues, in case they are on the receiving end of a bruising crusade by the newspaper. Harman admitted that Labour was influenced by the Daily Mail over gambling policy, and wrongly limited the number of slot machines in casinos, when she appeared before the select committee earlier this year.
To complicate matters, even the definition of problem gambling is disputed. Should we be talking about “gambling addicts”, “gambling obsessives”, or, a wider catch-all, “problem gamblers”? That is without looking at the thousands of under-18s spending hours on social poker and casino games on their mobiles and Facebook.
Last year’s British gambling prevalence survey found a small but measurable rise in problem gambling to 0.9% of the population, or 451,000 adults, since the liberalisation introduced by New Labour. Putting aside differences in methodology, Britain has the same rate of problem gamblers as Germany and Norway, where much of the gambling is under government control. Britain is also some way behind Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States.
And it is not just British politicians who are grappling with the problem. Across Europe governments are being asked to look at the spread of high-stake slot machines. In Sweden, the state-run gambling monopoly Svenska Spel – supposedly free of the hunger for profits that drives publicly listed bookmakers – is also under pressure for installing addictive slot machines in poorer areas. Likewise, in Italy local councils are trying to stop the relentless expansion of slot gambling. Italians have already spent €44bn on gambling this year, more than half of that on slots, and are well on course to outspend the €80bn they gambled in 2011. More than €8bn of that went to the Italian government in gambling taxes.
The question is whether here in the UK the economic benefits of FOBTs outweigh the drain on people’s incomes? Perhaps betting operators will also ask themselves whether extra FOBTs in each of their shops are worth a sustained bout of negative headlines.
Other posts from this source: Daniel Macadam