Labour campaigners slam ‘disappointing’ government announcement on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals

PUBLISHED: 10:54 31 October 2017 | UPDATED: 14:37 31 October 2017

Medway Labour campaigners say the announcement doesn't go far enough. Picture: Daniel Hambury/PA Wire

Medway Labour campaigners say the announcement doesn't go far enough. Picture: Daniel Hambury/PA Wire

Figures in Medway have long called for the maximum stake to be reduced to £2, which ministers refused to commit to as part of a gambling review

The government is to cut the maximum stake on controversial gambling machines, but campaigners in Medway say the pledge doesn’t go far enough.

Fixed Odds Betting Terminals - known as the crack cocaine of gambling - are said to be dangerously addictive and currently allow a stake of up to £100 every 20 seconds, allowing a player to theoretically gamble away £18,000 an hour.

In an announcement on Tuesday, the government said it would cut the maximum stake to between £50 and £2 as part of a package of measures in its gambling review.

Culture minister and Chatham and Aylesford MP Tracey Crouch said: “It is vital that we strike the right balance between socially-responsible growth and protecting the most vulnerable, including children, from gambling-related harm.”

Raising standards of player protection for online gambling, a responsible gambling campaign and new advertising guidelines are among a raft of suggestions designed to help minimise the risk to vulnerable people and children.

Strengthening the code on responsible gambling advertising and responsible gambling initiatives are also being considered.

A 12-week consultation is being launched on the proposals, which are aimed at reducing the potential for large losses on the machines.

The government has also asked the Gambling Commission for more information about how better tracking and monitoring of play on FOBTs might be used to protect players.

They have also asked to see if the spin speed on games such as roulette should be looked at.

Leader of the opposition Labour group on Medway Council, Vince Maple, has long made the case for a severely reduced stake, previously dubbing the machines a “cancer on Medway’s high streets”.

Medway has been a particular problem area over the years, which led to the unitary council introducing a pioneering cross-operator self-exclusion scheme, since replicated by a number of local authorities nationwide.

He told us this week: “The fact that we are into yet another consultation is disappointing. But we may be getting close to a conclusion that I would like to see which is reducing the stake to £2 - that’s an option which is not off the table.

“Over the next 12 weeks I will be doing everything I can, working with community activists and faith groups, to hammer home that this is the only solution.

“Reducing it to £50 would not make that much difference, which is why we need to reduce it to £2 and bring it in line with other machines in pubs and bingo halls.”

Cllr Maple’s frustration was shared by shadow culture secretary and Labour deputy leader Tom Watson.

He said: “Ministers have squandered a real opportunity to curb highly addictive fixed-odds betting terminals which can cause real harm to individuals, their families and local communities.

“After months of delays they’ve simply decided to have another consultation.

“And instead of taking firm measures on the proliferation of gambling advertising, on TV and online, the government have again been found wanting.

“Britain is suffering from a hidden epidemic of gambling addiction.

“The measures announced today will do very little for those suffering from gambling addiction and for the millions, including hundreds of thousands of children, who are at risk of developing an addiction.

“Labour is committed to reducing the maximum stake for FOBTs to £2 a spin and will ban gambling company advertising on football shirts.”

According to figures made available by campaign group Stop the FOBTs, there are 645 FOBTs across Kent and Medway, with punters around the county losing some £35m in 2016, and a staggering £234.2m on machines since 2008.

However, the Association of British Bookmakers has frequently dismissed criticism of the machines, pointing out there are now fewer betting shops than at any time since 2003, with the number of FOBTs also falling by 0.5 per cent in the past year.

It has also denied that FOBTs are more addictive than other forms of gambling.

A spokesman said: “This consultation sets out a number of proposals which we will consider and respond to. We believe the focus of any final decision should be to ensure measures are adopted that will be of genuine benefit to problem gamblers.

“Betting shops cater for over six million customers every year and the vast majority of them gamble responsibly.

“We know that most problem gamblers use seven or more different types of gambling products, therefore there is a challenge for the whole gambling industry to move from a position where there is a stable level of problem gambling in this country to one where problem gambling rates are decreasing.

“Betting shops are investing very significant sums of money to help identify those at risk so that they get the help that they need, we are continually updating and working to improve responsible gambling measures.”

A spokesman for William Hill added: “This is a broad package of gambling reform.

“We are pleased that the government recognises both the industry’s contribution to the wider economy and the progress made on social responsibility including player tracking.

“We are concerned that severe stake cuts remain an option and will play a full part in the consultation process to ensure an evidence-based outcome.”

During a debate in the House of Commons this week, some MPs made the case that bookmakers provide significant employment and contribute to the economy, and warned of a detrimental impact.

Cllr Maple said in response: “I don’t accept the argument that this will see hundreds of bookmakers shut across the county. As I’ve always said, I’m not anti-gambling, I’m anti-problem gambling.

“The final proof will be in the pudding in another 12 weeks, but as far as I’m concerned, every day we have these machines on our high streets is a day too long.”

Simon Blackburn, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said: “It’s extremely positive that government is committed to the review and looks set to substantially reduce FOBT stakes, but we are pushing for the final outcome to be £2, which is what the LGA has long called for, to help protect vulnerable people from harm.

“Not only are £100 maximum stakes significantly out of line with maximum amount that can be wagered on other gaming machines, but there is credible evidence that these machines may be particularly addictive and can harm vulnerable players - for example, through spiralling debt - as well as being linked to anti-social behaviour and crime in betting shops.

“However, regulating gaming machines is about more than just stakes, and we urge government to give councils powers to prevent the opening of new betting shops in areas where there are already multiple premises.

“A new cumulative impact test would give councils the power to veto new bookmakers’ in areas already saturated by betting shops.

“Government also needs to look at curbs on the volume of gambling advertising, particularly where it is accessible by children.

“Councils are not anti-gambling but a greater balance is needed between commercial freedom and the impact on local communities.”

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