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
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
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
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
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.