Don’t gamble with the poorest in society

Forget the tax income, Cameron, just pull the plug on the social curse of high street mini-casinos

The smoking and drinking industries are better regulated, and while successive governments have introduced tougher measures on both, gambling is still seen as a more harmless, entertaining addiction. Gambling companies are even allowed to advertise on TV during football matches.

But it’s the FOBTs that have been given the loosest rein. These high-tech machines have been shown to be four times more addictive than anything else in a bookmaker’s. More than £46 billion is now put into these terminals, a 50 per cent rise in four years. Unlike traditional casinos that once played host to the rich, most are in deprived areas. The Gambling Prevalence Survey, a major study of British gambling, found the machines are almost exclusively used by men on low-incomes — particularly the unemployed — as well as students, the retired and those from ethnic minorities. In some ways the machines are worse than pay-day lending schemes, preying on people’s desperation, yet the gambling companies receive none of the opprobrium.

Don’t gamble with the poorest in society

It all started innocently enough with the maternal Tessa Jowell stretching over a roulette table in her pearls to introduce the 2005 Gambling Act, which abolished many restrictions and allowed bookies to bring the machines on to the high street, creating mini casinos. The Presbyterian Gordon Brown was surprisingly relaxed about gambling, but his old friend the MP Tom Watson has become less so. “At the moment, a punter can walk into a high street bookmakers and gamble away £100 every 20 seconds for 13 hours. This has the potential not only to destroy their life but also the lives of everyone else around them,” he said yesterday. The 2010 Gambling Prevalence Survey found that 9 per cent of those who had used fixed-odds betting terminals in the past year were problem gamblers — a higher rate than for almost any other form of gambling.

The industry says that the number of betting shops has risen only marginally in the past two years from 8,500 to 9,100 but that is extraordinary when you consider the explosion of online gambling. Almost every other high street enterprise is struggling rather than expanding, and few had the
£0.3 billion rise in profits that the gambling companies enjoyed last year from their machines. They insist that staff are trained to prevent gamblers becoming dangerously addicted but employees at Betfred, which has 1,400 betting shops and holds FOBT tournaments, have been told that their salaries in future could be linked to the profit their shops make from the machines. Councils at present can’t even turn down applications to open new bookmakers’ shops.

Today Ed Miliband has called a debate aimed at giving councils greater powers to block new shops but he should also call for a cut in the maximum stakes on FOBTs from £100 to the normal amount for fruit machines, which is £2.

The Government, however, is determined to do little. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has belatedly and half-heartedly supported a review. A Downing Street adviser said: “It’s not in our top 30 priorities.” The Treasury doesn’t want to stop this source of revenue when it is looking for another £25 billion cut in state spending. Only a civil servant from the Department for Works and Pensions pointed out the obvious: “We’re getting into an absurd position where we are giving people money in benefits, they feed it into a machine, which is sucking millions out of their communities and we then get a little of it back in tax from the gaming companies.”

David Cameron needs to step up. There may not be many direct votes in this but it will make him look responsible and concerned. If he’s going to be tough on immigration and benefits, he needs to be seen to be helping the most vulnerable too, rather than always being seen to be on the side of influential vested interests such as the gambling industry. In the long term he could save money by preventing people throwing away their lives on the push of a button. To do nothing is, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would have said, “a gamble at terrible odds — if it was a bet, you wouldn’t take it”.