In bandits’ arms

by
23 March 2018

AS PART of the Gambling Commission inquiry, users of fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) were surveyed about their attitude to “tracked play” — the use of technology to identify problem patterns of gambling and, potentially, prevent things’ getting out of hand. Their opinion was reasonably interesting (most think it might be useful), but not as interesting as the profiles of the 1003 gamblers who completed the survey. The polling company breaks them down according to the Problem Gambling Severity Index: only 36 per cent were classified as “non-problem gamblers”. The other categories were “low-risk gamblers” (16 per cent), “moderate gamblers” (27 per cent), and “problem gamblers” (19 per cent). This breakdown of a random sample, using the industry’s own model, shows the unhelpful vagueness about statistics which has frustrated efforts to regulate betting in the UK. Is gambling a problem for 19 per cent of gaming-machine users? Or 64 per cent?

There is a similar vagueness about the evidence that the commission produces to justify its timidity about the £2 limit: “Our analysis of data from billions of plays on B2 machines reveals that most sessions involve an average stake no higher than £30. So, we think that a precautionary approach should involve a stake limit no higher than £30. Setting a specific limit up to this level is a matter of judgement.” Given that existing data contains evidence of abuse as well as use, this seems inadequate reasoning. The Bishop of St Albans and others fear that, without a firmer line from this exercise, the Government will not be strong enough to resist the casino companies or, indeed, the Treasury, which rakes in more than £500 million in tax from gaming machines each year.

The Government needs to read the commission’s report carefully, since an appendix contains the encouragement that it needs to act boldly against problem gambling — and by that we mean gambling that harms families and communities. Acknowledging the weakness of the evidence, the commission lists the relatively high rate of problem gambling (even by its definition) associated with high-stakes machines; the concentration of high-stakes machines in geographical areas “where residents may be more vulnerable to gambling-related harm”; and the “surprising reluctance of machine operators to produce data to respond to claims of violence caused by machine play”.

The commission expresses a concern about restricting freedom of choice. But people addicted to gambling machines, or who respond to the enticement of escape from their low-income struggle offered by the casino companies (the average player loses £1250 p.a.), do not have this freedom of choice. A nation that is slowly recognising signs of slavery needs to see that what is being perpetrated by these machines is exactly that. Wilberforce did not expect the slave-owners to reform themselves, and neither should we.

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