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Gambling with the community

17 August 2012

Councils need support to halt the spread of betting shops, argues Daniel Webster


Fair games? A roulette wheel and gambling machines at a trade show

Fair games? A roulette wheel and gambling machines at a trade show

NEARLY half a million people in the UK have a problem with gambling. This is about the same number as are addicted to Class A drugs, and the problem is growing at an alarming rate. Since the Gambling Act 2005 was fully implemented, the number of people classed as problem gamblers has risen by about 50 per cent.

There is no single factor that has prompted this rise. The Act changed so many things: it brought advertising for gambling into our living rooms, and opened the doors of casinos to non-members - quite apart from attempting to address the increasing availability of online gambling. But there is one culprit that appears to have contributed significantly to the problem: the gambling machines that have been set up in betting shops across the country; because of their profitability, they have led bookmakers to open more branches.

The Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Harriet Harman, spoke out recently against the spread of betting shops, and the damage that these machines, known as Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs), are causing. She told a Dispatches investigation, broadcast on Channel 4 last week, that if her Government had been warned, it would not have pressed ahead with the changes that have now sparked the spread of betting shops. The trouble is that the Government was warned.

The machines have been described as the crack cocaine of betting, and it was said that allowing FOBTs in betting shops was like allowing a mini casino on every high street. Church groups gave evidence to the committee examining the Bill in 2004, and warned specifically of the dangers.

The games played on FOBTs look like casino games, because they are: you can play virtual roulette, staking up to £100 every 20 seconds. Since their introduction, they have be- come increasingly important to the gambling industry, so much so that they now account for about half of all revenue in betting shops.

The 2005 Act restricted each shop to four machines; so companies now open new shops just round the corner, in order to maximise their allowance. This is why some urban areas have a dozen betting shops on the same high street.

In 2007, Jeremy Hunt MP, who is now the Cabinet Minister responsible for gambling, recognised the danger: "The real cause of problem gambling lies with betting-shop roulette machines and internet gambling." After two years in government, we are still waiting for him to act.

IF THE problem was simply the spread of betting shops and the look of our high streets, then perhaps the advice of a Parliamentary Select Committee last month would make sense. It recommended giving local authorities the power to lift the current cap of four FOBTs to a limit of their own choosing. This might have the effect of reducing the number of betting shops, but it would turn the mini casinos on the high street into casino warehouses, packed with machines from which the only winner is the gambling industry.

The warning that FOBTs are the crack cocaine of gambling is not scaremongering. Statistics produced for the Dispatches programme by Jim Orford (Emeritus Professor of Clinical and Community Psychology at the University of Birmingham) suggest that problem gamblers lose more than £1 billion each year, and nearly £300 million of this goes on FOBTs. This number is especially alarming when you consider that only six per cent of gamblers play these machines. Further research produced for the Dispatches investigation suggested that betting shops are more than twice as common in areas with high unemployment.

FOBTs take your money like a high-stakes casino, and they belong in a casino - not in a large number of shops in some of the most deprived communities in Britain. Part of the problem is that the premises licence that each betting shop needs can be challenged only on very specific grounds, and local councils have a statutory assumption to say yes, unless there are particular reasons to the contrary. Some betting shops also need planning permission for a change of use, but, because they are in the same category as a bank or building society, this is often not needed.

Councils, however, are starting to fight back; they are fed up with their hands being tied, as more and more betting shops open, and the evidence becomes stronger that FOBTs are causing real harm to vulnerable people.

The gambling industry does not back down easily, and has put financial muscle behind legal appeals when applications are turned down. But if councils have enough evidence that betting shops will either lead to a rise in criminal activity or attract young or vulnerable people, they can reject an application. In some places, the courts are starting to back this up. Unfortunately, the 2005 Act removed what is known as the "demand test", so that councils can no longer look at the number of betting shops already in existence and say that they do not want any more.

There are things that any of us can do to help. If a new betting shop is due to open in your area, tell the council what you think. If it is near a school or a hostel, tell the council that this will put the principles of the Gambling Act in jeopardy. Talk to the police: how has the clustering of betting shops affected crime and disorder in the area?

Councils do have the power to turn down new applications, but they need help. The Evangelical Alliance and other groups are pushing for stronger powers from government, but they also need to hear from the communities they represent; so your voice can make a difference.

Daniel Webster is the parliamentary officer at the Evangelical Alliance. The responses from various Churches to the Parliamentary report last month is at www.eauk.org/gamblingreport.

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