We should stack the odds against gambling

Liberalisation has gone too far. Fixed-odds betting terminals are fleecing deprived communities

This was nearly a decade ago when I was researching a book on gambling (an activity I have always enjoyed). I spoke to many gamblers, some extremely successful. Alan Woods, for example, a computer-driven horse-racing punter, won, on a conservative estimate, more than £400 million in a career in Hong Kong. It was the night in Hammersmith that stayed with me, though: the lies, the deceit, the destitution wrought upon the minority for whom gambling is destructive.

Historically, the pendulum of gambling legislation has always swung between liberty and constraint. Eventually the Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 legalised betting shops, establishing a happy medium whereby the Government recognised that prohibition was ineffective and undesirable, that gambling was a legitimate and not immoral pastime enjoyed by many, but also that it should not be encouraged unduly. This remained the sensible position for almost four decades.

Successive governments under John Major and Tony Blair, in keeping with the free-market attitudes of the time, further liberalised the industry. Having introduced the National Lottery in 1994, thereby sponsoring and profiting from gambling, no government could refuse the demands of an industry threatened by a rapid technological revolution, with the advent of the internet.

We should stack the odds against gambling

I was interested to see how this combination of the ease of access to gambling brought on by the internet combined with a much more laissez-faire attitude on behalf of the then Labour Government would play out. I suspected trouble. The fear in 2002, when Tessa Jowell posed as a croupier to publicise A Safe Bet for Success, the government response to the Gambling Review Report of 2001 chaired by the noted free-marketeer Sir Alan Budd, was that a wave of American-style and American-owned supercasinos would swamp the land.

That did not come to pass. What did — apart from a significant rise in the number of adults gambling (up by 8 per cent between 2007-10) and a small increase, on the margins of statistical relevance, in problem gamblers (up from 0.6 to 0.9 per cent of the population in the same period) — is an explosion of what might be called mini-casinos on the high street. Here the take from Fixed-Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs), some 33,000 of them, underpins the profits of the high street bookmakers at considerable human cost.

These machines are a misery. Not only have they changed the atmosphere of the high street betting shop from a convivial social club for those needing to kill time (and money) to a hang-out for dead-eyed addicts, they suck huge amounts of money from the most deprived communities — £13 billion is estimated to have been gambled on these machines in 55 of the most deprived boroughs in the country, with losses of £470 million.

GamCare, the gambling helpline, whose premises the last time I visited were situated, in delicious irony, just behind Guy’s and Thomas’ Hospital, which was built on the profits of an almighty gamble on the South Sea Bubble, recorded just over 16,000 calls for help between 2012-13. Of these 32 per cent concerned fixed-odds and roulette machines. With the ability to gamble £100 every 20 seconds or so on an FOBT, the potential dangers are unsurprising.

There are obvious specific areas upon which the Government can act. It could limit the amounts that can be gambled on these machines and reduce the speed of play. It could empower local councils to act in areas blighted by the prevalence of bookmakers who rely upon them for profit. After all, bookmaking has been a recession-proof business, more than doubling its floorspace on the high street since 2008.

This would mean taking on a powerful gambling lobby and forgoing money to the Treasury at a time of austerity. It would also mean a return to the notion that the Government is there to regulate gambling rather than to peddle and exploit it. Fixed Odds Betting Terminals would be a good place to start.

Mike Atherton is the author of Gambling: A Story of Triumph and Disaster