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Members are united against machines that take £70 million a week

24 February 2017

CONCERN about the dangers of gambling was expressed by the Synod on Wednesday morning when it amended and carried a London diocesan motion about fixed-odds betting terminals, which sought a reduction of the maximum stake allowed.

Introducing the debate, Clive Scowen (London) said that Anglicans held a wide variety of views on gambling. But fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), or B2 machines, were causing “real problems” in society, and the relevant regulations urgently needed reviewing. They were touch-screen machines found in shops throughout the country, on which gamblers could bet on “almost anything”. For sports-based bets, the maximum stake was “£3 but on the same machine you could play other games with a stake up to £100 every 20 seconds”. It was thus possible to gamble away £18,000 in an hour. This made them an anomaly in regulation.

Whereas casinos were high-supervision environments, supervision was minimal in betting shops. The maximum stake should be £2, as for all other machines permitted outside casinos. There were now almost 35,000 machines in shops. More than half of Ladbrokes’ profits were derived from them. The British Gambling Prevalence Survey in 2010 had shown that, while only one person in 25 used FOBTs, they gave rise to a higher proportion of problem gambling than most other forms of betting: about 125,000 problem gamblers used the machines.

Nearly £70 million was lost each week on the machines, “mostly by the poor”. There were twice as many betting shops in the poorest 55 local authorities than in the 115 most affluent. “B2 machines feed off poverty and exacerbate it, often plunging people into unmanageable debt, bringing misery not just to the gamblers, but to their families, and especially their children.”

In 2014, Newham Council, supported by 93 other local authorities, had asked the Government to reduce the maximum stake to £2; the Government had twice refused the request. But last year the Government had announced a review of gambling machines; so there was reason to think that it was open to the possibility of change. “We should call on the Government to act now in the public interest.”

Carl Hughes (Southwark) supported the motion. There was a “very strong case” for it. The Government had already acknowledged that the level of stakes was a cause for concern, and he hoped that the Synod would provide further impetus for action in Parliament. He wondered whether the industry was protesting too much in its detailed technical arguments. If the average stake was £19.66, then it should be possible to reduce the maximum stake to £20 without significant detriment to the profits of betting offices.

Canon John Sinclair (Newcastle) described how a few weeks before, in the early hours of Sunday in Newcastle, as a Street Pastor, he had met a young man, “Graham”, who was “addicted to gambling” and wanted help. Graham had spent time with Gamblers Anonymous, but at two in the morning he felt vulnerable and wanted someone to talk to about his desire to gamble less; he was on his way to the casino. He invited the Street Pastors to pray with him; they did this, and they walked with him beyond the casino to the taxi rank. He left “very happy”.

Canon Sinclair had spent six years as a priest on a very deprived estate in Newcastle, where he had had daily encounters with gamblers and their families, who were suffering. The answer to their problem was to have someone to be there with them, walking with them. But that was not always possible. The motion was a practical step to remove some of the allure of the machines.

Stephen Boyall (Blackburn) lived in Preston, in an area where people could be vulnerable to these machines. It was an “excellent motion” that “shows love in a very practical way”, he said.

The Revd Dr Jason Roach (London) described hearing confessions of gambling addiction, including from one man who had debts of more than £60,000, of which his family were unaware. This problem had escalated in the past six months, and his livelihood was at stake. The cause was the size of his debt that he could accrue in a short time. Dr Roach urged the Synod to vote for the motion.

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, reminded the Synod that this was not “harmless” betting but a focused form of gambling which had caused “huge suffering”. FOBTs posed serious danger to those vulnerable to gambling addictions, and took advantage of the poor, in particular.

His first amendment would add to the motion a line praising the Government for opening a consultation on the issue. The second amendment would sharpen the focus of the motion by specifying what the maximum stake on FOBTs should be lowered to, namely £2, which would bring it into line with the other kinds of betting available in High Street shops.

Dr Smith’s third amendment related to his attempt to pass a Private Member’s Bill in the House of Lords to give local authorities the powers to control how many FOBTs there were in their areas. Given that his Bill was not likely to pass through Parliament, his amendment to the motion would urge the Government to include this idea in its own legislation.

Mr Scowen said that he and the London diocesan synod would have included Dr Smith’s first amendment had their motion come about after the Government’s consultation began. Thus, he was happy to support it.

The second amendment had a “compelling logic”, but, as the diocesan synod had not had a chance to express a view on it, he would remain neutral on this amendment and leave it up to the Synod. The third amendment would be redundant if the Government did lower the maximum stake significantly, Mr Scowen said, but he did not want to resist it either.

All three amendments were carried.

The Synod unanimously approved the amended motion by 310 votes, nem. con., with no recorded abstentions. It reads:

That this Synod, mindful of

(a) the destructive impact which accessible, high-stake machine gambling can have on families and whole communities and

(b) the widespread public concern about the very large amounts being wagered at fixed odds betting terminals located in high street betting shops,

welcome Her Majesty’s Government’s review of the maximum stake for such terminals and call on Her Majesty’s Government as a matter of urgency to bring forward proposals

(i) for the amendment of existing legislation to reduce from £100 to £2 the maximum amount which may be wagered on a single game at such terminals; and
(ii) to grant local authorities the power to make provision about the number and location of such terminals, in order to reduce the risk of harm to large numbers of vulnerable people.

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