Bishop of St Albans urges no delay in tightening gambling machine regulation

11 August 2017

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THE Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has said that he will keep a watchful eye on the Government’s plans to regulate gambling machines, after the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced that a long-awaited review would not be published until the autumn.

The Government agreed last October to review how fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) operated, amid growing concern that the machines — which allow gamblers to place bets of up to £100 every 20 seconds — were ruining the lives of gambling addicts and had even caused suicides (News, 28 October).

Before the the General Election, Dr Smith introduced a Private Member’s Bill that would give local authorities the power to regulate the number of FOBTs in their area.

In February, the General Synod voted unanimously in favour of a motion which called for local authorities to be given such a power, and for the maximum stake on FOBTs to be reduced from £100 to £2 (News, 17 February).

The latest report from the Gambling Commission, covering the 12 months up to last September, suggested that British gamblers had lost a record £1.82 billion on FOBTs. Each machine made an average of £53,000 a year.

Reports over the weekend, however, suggested that the Treasury was pushing back against proposed curbs on the machines because of the impact that lessening usage could have upon tax receipts.

Dr Smith said on Monday. “The Government have promised that the review will be published during the autumn. I will continue to campaign about this issue which is causing so much harm. It is a particularly insidious form of gambling, which for a minority of people is having a devastating effect — in some cases leading to the loss of homes and even life. I’m convinced that this form of betting urgently needs to be regulated more effectively.”

Dr Smith has also written to the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, asking for reassurance that the review will still include new regulations on FOBTs. “I understand the pressure on public finances and am aware that a reduction in the maximum stakes would have tax revenue implications,” he wrote in a letter on Tuesday. “However, given the levels of existing gambling-related harm, I hope that the review might be published without undue delay.

“Clergy and congregations are providing frontline support for a great many vulnerable people who are at risk of gambling-related harm, and whose lives are blighted by the prevalence of FOBTs on our high streets.”

The DCMS review was originally expected to be released earlier this summer, but the minister responsible for civil society, Tracey Crouch, has told MPs not to expect it until October at the earliest. In a parliamentary answer, Ms Crouch said that the purdah period before June’s General Election had come just when the different departments were trying to sign off on the findings. The final stage now had to begin again.

A spokeswoman for the DCMS would only confirm that the review would be published in the autumn.

The chief executive of the Christian charity CARE, Nola Leach, said: “Theresa May’s government was supposed to be defined around the idea of creating a Britain that works for everyone, but it’s clear that FOBTs do not fit into this narrative.

“FOBTs may work for the bookmakers and the taxman — but not for problem gamblers, their families or society as a whole. If additional revenues need to be raised then we urge the Prime Minister and Chancellor to find other means of doing so that do not depend on the exploitation of vulnerable people.”

 

Mark Evans, a compulsive gambler in recovery, explains to Madeleine Davies the grip fixed-odds betting terminal (FOBT) machines had on his life

I grew up in a family in which my mum took us to church, and my dad was a compulsive gambler who didn’t realise it. He was in and out of jail several times, and most of my weekends were spent, against my will, in a bookies, sometimes for 12 hours on a Saturday. Money was taken from me that was given to me at Christmas to be used for gambling on Boxing Day.

Childhood: Mark Evans spent most of his weekends in a bookies

I made a real personal commitment to Jesus when I was 18, in 1996, and from 18 to 21, I really felt God was leading me more towards music. But even at that age I was struggling not to go into bookmakers as it had been part of my routine. It took me eight or nine months to break free from it. I didn’t have a bet for nine years and during those years I built a fantastic life. I got married and had beautiful children. I became a worship leader at church and was really enjoying life.

Then in 2005, life became a real challenge. I couldn’t cope and was struggling to talk to people. One Saturday afternoon at the football, I was feeling really low. There was a bookmaker at the football ground, and I placed what I thought was a harmless bet on who the first goal-scorer would be. It was my first bet for nine years, and I won. I went to the booth to collect my winnings and there was a notice saying it was closed and to go to my local bookmakers.

I went on Monday and had a really strange feeling. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have gone in. It did not feel like the awful backstreet places they were in the ’80s. It was more like a coffee shop with glitzy machines and loads of people hanging around these machines. I stayed and watched and placed some money into the machines and won hundreds and hundreds of pounds. At that point, I became re-hooked on gambling. It was not really the money: it was the buzz.

What was different to normal fruit machines was the vast amounts of money that seemingly came out. I didn’t see the vast amounts of money being lost. In the next couple of years, I was living a double life. It started to have a real grip on me. I didn’t want to tell anyone else. They wouldn’t understand this feeling of going into a bookies, and feeling at home, because of what I’d experienced as a child. I want people to understand that it’s not a moral lapse.

With these machines, I felt slightly hypnotised. You can spin every eight seconds and can gamble up to £100 each time, which is a ridiculous amount of money. You can lose thousands of pounds in one hour. I won lots of money then lost it as quickly, then started borrowing money to fund this habit. It was really difficult as shops were springing up everywhere. I am no longer hooked but I still struggle because of the presence on the high street.

Since 2010, I have been on a journey of recovery that has involved psychotherapy, Gamblers Anonymous, and help from my church leader. I really believe that all of the industry attempts to say “we are promoting responsible gambling” are just a show, to keep these machines, which make so much money. The system in which you can self-exclude yourself from bookies is totally flawed. I asked to be banned from all the shops, but they said that was not possible. If I walk into a place where I am already banned, they say, “Hello, Mark, do you want a brew?”

The only way to solve this problem in my opinion, is to remove those machines or, at least, have a maximum stake of 25p, like a fruit machine. The Republic of Ireland has banned these machines across the board. There needs to be limit on how many machines there are on a high street.

Gambling brought me to the point of suicide. It destroyed my finances. My wife has been incredibly loyal, but, when I was at Gamblers Anonymous, I was in a minority of people who were still married. The great story is that in 2017 we bought a house and we are rebuilding our lives. But there are some people who do not get to that point. The bookmakers are responsible for a lot of this social devastation with regard to gambling, and it needs to stop. There needs to be more genuine help there, not help funded by bookies as they have a conflict of interest.

Scientists have likened the hit you get from these machines to the same kind of chemical reaction that cocaine provides; so why are we allowing those on our high street? The Government has a really good reason to leave them there, because of the revenue, but they need to cut those ties and say ‘this is causing social devastation within our towns and cities, let’s do something about it.’ The church leaders and bishops need to keep shouting.

The Church also needs to be a safe environment, a non-judgemental environment. Anybody, whether Christian or non-Christian, can fall into the trap of compulsive gambling and we need to take the taboo out of it. It needs to be treated like an illness, and we need to give compassion to people rather than judgement. We could be leading the way and be the safe haven people can go to and find help and recovery. My own minister was very supportive.

I am not embarrassed to say that I am a recovering compulsive gambler. I have a few battles going on and challenges, but that makes me normal and human, and a real Christian, not one who is hiding things. Not many people come forward and admit, “this has had me hooked and nearly destroyed my life.” That’s why I wanted to speak out.

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