AN INTERVENTION by the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has led the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, to suggest that he may back tighter regulations on betting machines, which have been blamed for driving thousands of people into gambling addiction.
Dr Smith has been campaigning for new curbs on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) — automated machines in betting shops that can allow gamblers to lose up to £100 every 20 seconds — for several years.
A long-awaited review of FOBTs, due to be published in the summer, was pushed back to October because of the General Election. Newspaper reports suggested that the Treasury was opposed to cutting the maximum stake from £100 to £2 — one of the key measures proposed to tackle problem gambling — as it would reduce tax revenue (News, 11 August).
But now Mr Hammond has replied to a letter from Dr Smith, assuring him that the reports were unfounded and that the needs of “vulnerable people” would be taken into account in the review.
“Both I and my department fully support the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport’s work to ensure the UK’s gambling regime continues to balance the needs of vulnerable people, consumers who gamble responsibly, and those who work in the sector,” Mr Hammond wrote.
“I appreciate your concerns about vulnerable people at risk from gambling-related harm, and I welcome the work that the Church of England is doing in this area.”
Dr Smith told the BBC that although it was clearly a “carefully worded” letter, “he does stress that they want to balance the needs of vulnerable people.”
“Nobody is in any doubt just how serious the problem is for those who have got an addiction,” he said. “I wanted some assurance that some of the reports that the Treasury was concerned about the loss of revenue wasn’t going to affect the independence of this review.
“He doesn’t address that point specifically, but there’s such a head of steam from a wide variety of organisations and individuals that this needs to be the first step, that I hope that is going to be under consideration.”
The argument, put forward by some in the betting industry, that cutting the maximum stake on FOBTs to £2 would lead to job losses as well as a fall in tax revenue was also dismissed by Dr Smith.
“I don’t think it’s a very good moral argument to say that something which is causing such huge problems should be judged solely on whether it’s producing employment.
“There’s masses of evidence that it’s causing great problems, and we need to try and look at a number of responses, of which lowering the stakes is one of the important first steps.”
In February, the General Synod voted unanimously in favour of a motion that 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.