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22 December 2015

Government will be forced to act on FOBTs both sides of the border

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling writes that the Government needs to act on fixed odds betting terminals because of local authority pressure and investigations by the Scottish Government.

Gambling

 

For the first time since the Sustainable Communities Act (SCA) became law, the Government will be forced to enter into negotiations where they will have to “try to reach agreement” with the Local Government Association (LGA).

The initial proposal for a reduction in the maximum stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) from £100 to £2 a spin was submitted by Newham Council, on behalf of 93 local authorities, making it the best-ever supported initiative under the SCA.

Ninety-six councils, comprising of Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem controlled authorities [including Exeter City Council], now support the proposal. They know that they are unable to ensure the licensing objectives of fair and open gambling, prevention of crime and prevention of harm associated with gambling cannot be upheld whilst £100 a spin machines are permitted on the high street. Despite its level of support, Newham Council’s initial submission was rejected by the Government.

The proliferation of betting shops on the high street and the associated clustering is driven by FOBTs, as bookmakers seek to circumvent the limit of four machines per premises by simply opening more. In Newham, this has led to the phenomenon of 18 betting shops on one street. Newham Council understand, alongside 95 other local authorities, that in order to deal with the issue of betting shop clustering the root cause must be addressed, and that is the staking capacity permitted on FOBTs.

FOBTs are the most addictive form of gambling, and now account for more than half of betting shop profits – topping £1.6bn last year. Under the previous Gambling Act, bookmakers were not permitted gaming, and so provided roulette on FOBTs illegally, claiming the random number generator was at a remote location and therefore the experience was akin to betting on a horse race.

The 2005 Gambling Act legitimised FOBTs as “Category B2” machines, but Dame Tessa Jowell, the Minister responsible for the Act, stated they were “on probation”, granting the responsible Minister the power to reduce the maximum stake to £2 a spin if evidence of harm emerged.

Number 10 recently blocked gambling Minister Tracey Crouch’s request for a review. Whilst a backbencher, Ms Crouch made some very sensible comments in the last Parliament in support of FOBT stake reduction. But now the Government will be forced to negotiate for a period of up to six months with the LGA, which has re-submitted Newham Council’s proposal under the terms of the SCA. The LGA has previously stated its support for a £2 cap, and the SCA requires that the government must “try to reach agreement”.

The Campaign looks forward to a constructive negotiation between the LGA and Government, which must act in good faith, take an evidence-based position and not allow the bookmakers’ lobbying to influence the process.

Meanwhile in Scotland, the Holyrood Local Government and Regeneration Committee having looked into FOBTs has concluded that they should be “banned from the high street”.

The report correctly explains that the relevant provisions in the Scotland Bill do not give the Scottish Parliament any powers to control FOBTs and betting shops as they only apply to new premises.

The Campaign congratulates the Scottish Executive on holding an evidence based public enquiry. As the Gambling Act requires local authorities to help deliver the licensing objectives, it is clear that Scotland should be granted adequate powers.

The Scottish people remember all too well the number of politicians who spent time arguing for Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom. Promises were made that enough power would be devolved to Scotland.

Will the Government continue to regard the commercial interests of the bookies as more important than delivering the Gambling Act objectives of “fair and open” gambling, preventing an association between crime and gambling, and the preventing harm to the young and vulnerable?

How could Westminster possibly justify continuing the FOBT status quo under the combined pressure of the SCA submission and the Scottish demands?

 

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