THE Government must be courageous and face down the gambling industry on betting machines, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has said.
On Monday, the Gambling Commission announced its advice to ministers concerning fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), which have boomed in popularity in recent years.
Despite a vigorous campaign by the Church, politicians, and others, the Commission did not recommend cutting the maximum amount of money which can be placed per bet to £2. Instead, the Commission said that for most FOBT games the maximum stake could be set “at or below £30”.
Dr Smith said that this was too much. “Any stake on fixed-odds betting terminals higher than £2 simply does not go far enough to protect the interests of the most vulnerable, their families, and communities.
“When Ministers choose the stake for these machines, they must put the interests of those affected by them ahead of concerns about tax take or the powerful gambling lobby.”
The refusal of the Gambling Commission to recommend a £2 maximum stake has frustrated campaigners. Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party, said: “This is a deeply disappointing report from the Gambling Commission, which appears to have caved in to industry pressure. Ministers must not use this report as a cover to maintain the status quo.
“These machines are the heart of the UK’s hidden epidemic of problem gambling. The Government must cut the stake to £2 on all FOBT machines, including the highly addictive roulette-style games.”
The Commission did propose other measures to tackle problem gambling through FOBTs, which have been blamed for driving thousands of people into addiction. There was a “strong case” to make it mandatory for the machines to track gamblers’ play, and spot when someone may be slipping into a damaging pattern of betting, it said. Also, machines should be banned from allowing different types of games to be played in a single session.
Such a reform was backed unanimously by the General Synod in February last year (News, 17 February 2017), and, in September, Dr Smith received a letter from the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, assuring him that he would not scrap FOBT reform purely because it would hit tax revenues (News, 8 September).
Press reports had suggested that the Treasury was putting pressure on the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, which is conducting a review of FOBTs, to soften any changes to protect tax receipts from the machines.
Dr Smith said that he hoped that the Commission’s more cautious proposals would not be taken up by the Government.
“We desperately need a scheme of gambling regulation that is ordered, sensible, and has care for the vulnerable at its core,” Dr Smith said. “I hope ministers will be courageous and use the review to do the right thing and reduce the maximum stake to £2.”
Later on Monday, Dr Smith joined other parliamentarians at a special meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on FOBTs to continue to press their claim for a £2 maximum stake.