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Roulette in betting shops? It's all political spin

ADVERTORIAL: The Fairer Gambling Campaign warns against the dangers of addictive betting machines.

Gambling machines known as B2s were introduced into UK betting shops in 2001, at which point they were referred to as Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs). At that time UK betting shops were unregulated, and bookmakers avoided restrictions on gambling machines by claiming that FOBTs were used to "bet" on events occurring on software located outside the shop.

During the first decade of operation, the growth of FOBTs can best be described as explosive. From nothing ten years earlier, the amount won by FOBTs in the year 2010-11 rose to £1.3 billion, far surpassing the £0.8 billion won by UK casinos. This is indicative of the presence of addictive content. FOBTs have now become so lucrative that operators are opening multiple shops in single locations to saturate communities with these money-spinning machines.

FOBTs proved a major focus for the Select Committee Inquiry into the effectiveness of the 2005 Gambling Act, with Richard Caborn, a previous Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) Minister, admitting: "something had to be done [about FOBTs] but the government was powerless [prior to 2005]." The UK Government had the power to ban FOBTs altogether (as the Irish authorities have) through the 2005 Gambling Act, but there were a few political hurdles preventing such action:

1. The Government wanted to sell the Tote betting shops, which were enjoying large profits from FOBTs

2. The Government was receiving high amounts of tax revenue from FOBT profits

3. The bookmaking lobby had, and still has, many influential friends in politics

Local authorities are required to "aim to permit" licensing of betting premises, with one licensing condition being that the primary activity be over-the-counter betting. Certain bookmaker’s accounts show only 20% of turnover in shops is now on betting, with 80% coming from FOBTs. This means that shops are in breach of their licenses, but The UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) is "comfortable" with this situation.

Breaking the Code

In November 2003, the DCMS, Gaming Board of Great Britain, and Association of British Bookmakers (representing around 85% of bookmakers in Great Britain) agreed a Code of Conduct as a theoretical control over FOBTs.

One stipulation of the new Code was that the only casino-type game allowed on FOBTs would be roulette. That rule was quickly broken, and
blackjack and other games soon started appearing on FOBTs. Now the operators want to move the Code’s goal posts again, this time by increasing
the number of machines allowed per shop from 4 to 6.

At that time the Code was agreed Tessa Jowell was in charge of the DCMS, and stated that FOBTs would be "on probation." The logical assumption
is that because the UKGC oversees licensing, it also has the role of monitoring FOBT probation. The UKGC position is, however, that: "whether the machines are on probation or not is a matter of DCMS policy".

During the drafting of the 2005 Gambling Act, FOBTs were reclassified as gaming (rather than betting) machines. This meant there was no need to maintain the illusion of "betting" on external events, and that result generating software could be located within the machine itself.

2005 Gambling Act Licensing Objective 1 - Prevention of Problem Gambling

At a recent hearing of the aforementioned Inquiry, a question about problem gambling related to FOBTs prompted the responsible Sectary of State, John Penrose, to ask for "firm evidence [that FOBTs cause problem gambling], not anecdote or concern". The Fairer Gambling campaign believes Mr Penrose should consider the following points :

1. If FOBTs are on probation, and the UKGC is responsible for enforcing the objective to prevent problem gambling; why is government and UKGC not already engaged in obtaining the evidence it needs? Surely there needs to be a method of assessing whether the objectives of the Act are being met?

2. If government wants proof "beyond reasonable doubt" and is of the opinion that academic research will not deliver this; is government implying
that no evidence level would be adequate?

3. The New Statesman has published a blog on the subject for a number of years, amassing thousands of posts. To take one recently publicised
case, David Armstrong of Norwich admitted that his FOBT addiction had cost him £100,000 over the past 4 years. Due to the sheer volume of these cases, they are not mere anecdotes - they are real people with real problems.

4. The British Gambling Prevalence Survey (BGPS) 2010 showed a 50% increase in problem gambling since the previous survey in 2007. It identified 18 gambling activities, and highlighted 5 activities as having the highest prevalence of problem gambling. Of those 5 activities, the one at which participants engaged in the least number of other gambling activities was FOBTs, showing that FOBTs are the primary driver of UK problem gambling.

5. Further, the BGPS showed that compared to the other 17 activities, FOBTS have:
a.) The joint highest ratio of use by 16 to 24 year old gamblers
b.) The second highest ratio of use by unemployed gamblers
c.) The highest ratio of use by the lowest income quintile gamblers
d.) The third highest ratio of at-risk high-time and high-spend gamblers

6. Astoundingly, the average win per FOBT per hour used (not per hour accessible) is over £30. However the BPGS identified gamblers losing only £7 per hour as high-spend gamblers. Put simply, the BGPS, whilst correctly identifying the trends, is only revealing a fraction of the reality of problem gambling.

7. For casino roulette, the amount the players lose as a percentage of the amount of player funds used (the retention percentage) is 15%. For FOBTs, the UKGC does not obtain the retention percentage and the bookmakers don't make it public. Given that roulette is the main game (over 90% of play) on FOBTs, FOBT roulette is over 3 times faster than casino roulette, and FOBT players have generally lower funds than casino players, the FOBT retention percentage could be as high as 50% or even 75%. A high retention percentage on a high volume activity is clear evidence of addictive content.

8. The Fairer Gambling Campaign made a written submission to the DCMS hearing referencing this evidence, but was not permitted to give oral evidence. This was not surprising, as a previous advert of the campaign had attracted one objection - from the politicians of the All-Party Betting and Gaming Committee.

2005 Gambling Act Licensing Objective 2 - Prevention of Crime Associated with Gambling

Operators are clustering betting shops in poorer areas simply to maximize FOBT profits. These premises are resourced with minimal staff on low wages, giving underage and non-sober gamblers easy access to the addictive content on FOBTs. There has been an escalation of crime in betting shops since the introduction of FOBTs. Robberies and assaults on staff are everyday occurrences and criminal damage on premises is often going unreported.

2005 Gambling Act Licensing Objective 3 - Fair and Open Gambling

An FOBT can take up to £100 per spin (every 20 seconds) compared to a £2 maximum on a slot machine in more highly taxed and heavily regulated casinos. FOBT players are not informed that the roulette result is determined before the virtual ball starts spinning or of the FOBT retention percentage. There is zero consideration of consumer protection.

Final thoughts

Politicians seemingly apathetic attitude is motivated by a desire to protect the bookmakers and the tax revenue generated on the back of legally questionable FOBT profits from problem gamblers in poor communities.

This is not the Big Society, and it's not joined-up government. FOBTs are being operated in breach of all three licensing objectives. If the Government is not willing to solve the FOBT issue that it has itself created, how can it be trusted to solve anything?

More information available at

Derek Webb is the proprietor of PrimeTable Games.

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Why is the government charging more women for selling sex but turning a blind eye to buyers?

Since 2013, the number of women charged for selling sex gone up while the number of men charged for buying it has gone down.

It’s no surprise that prostitution policy is an area rarely visited by our legislators. It’s politically charged - a place where the need to prevent exploitation seemingly clashes head on with notions of liberal freedom; where there are few simple answers, a disputed evidence base, and no votes.

There’s also little evidence to suggest that MPs are different from the rest of the population - where one-in-ten men have purchased sex. It is little wonder therefore that our report on how the law should change, published in 2014, was the first major cross-party intervention on the subject in twenty years.

Some take the view that by removing all legal constraints, it will make the inherently exploitative trade of prostitution, safer. It’s not just me that questions this approach, though I accept that - equally - there’s no consensus that my preferred measure of criminalising the purchase of sex, while decriminalising the sale, would fundamentally change the scale of the problem.

Where all sides come together, however, is in the desire to see women diverted from the law courts. It is still possible for women (and it still is women; prostitution remains highly genderised) to go to prison for offences related to prostitution. Today, in 2015.

The total number of prosecutions for all prostitution offences in England and Wales has been decreasing since 2010, but not in a uniform fashion. This does not reflect a reduction in the size of the trade, or the violent nature of it.

There were once consistently more prosecutions for kerb crawling, profiting, and control of prostitution. But since 2013, there have been more prosecutions for soliciting or loitering than for profit from prostitution and kerb crawling each year.

In simple terms, offences committed by men with choice, freedom and money in their pocket are having a blind eye turned to them, while women are being targeted - and this trend is accelerating. In the law courts, and in prosecutions, it is the most vulnerable party in the transaction, who is taking the burden of criminality.

Take on-street sex buying as an example. In 2013-14 just 237 prosecutions were brought for kerb crawling, but there were 553 - more than twice as many - for loitering and soliciting.

There is a similar pattern in the 2014/15 figures: 227 charges for kerb crawling reached court, while 456 prosecutions were initiated against those who were selling sex. Just 83 prosecutions for control of prostitution, or ‘pimping’, were brought in that same year.

These are men and women on the same street. It takes a high level of liberal delusion to be convinced that prostitution is caused by a surge of women wishing to sell sex, rather than men who wish to buy it. And yet women who sell sex are the ones being targeted in our law courts, not the men that create the demand in the first place.

This situation even goes against the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) own guidance. They say:

“Prostitution is addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence Against Women strategy because of its gendered nature… At the same time, those who abuse and exploit those involved in prostitution should be rigorously investigated and prosecuted, and enforcement activity focused on those who create the demand for on-street sex, such as kerb crawlers.”

Why then, is this happening? For the same reason it always does - in our criminal justice system stigmatised, poor women are valued less than moneyed, professional men.

My debate in Parliament today raises these issues directly with the government ministers responsible. But to be honest, the prosecution-bias against women in the courts isn’t the problem; merely a symptom of it. This bias will only be tackled when the law reflects the inherent harm of the trade to women, rather than sending the mixed signals of today.

That’s why I welcome the work of the End Demand Alliance, composed of over 40 organisations working to end the demand that fuels sex trafficking and prostitution, advocating the adoption of the Sex Buyer Law throughout the UK.

This would criminalise paying for sex, while decriminalising its sale and providing support and exiting services for those exploited by prostitution. Regardless of these big changes in the law, I don’t see how anyone can support the current state of affairs where there are more prosecutions brought against women than men involved in prostitution.

The authorities are targeting women because they're easier to arrest and prosecute. It goes against their own guidance, common sense and natural justice.
And it needs to stop.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.