Miliband steals a march on Cameron by promising crackdown on fixed-odds machines

The Labour leader's pledge to give councils the power to act against the "crack cocaine of gambling" will increase the pressure on the PM to intervene.

After doing battle with the banks, the energy companies, payday lenders and landhoarders, Ed Miliband is turning his attention to betting firms. For months, MPs of all parties, led by Tom Watson, have been pushing for action to curb fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), machines that allow people to gamble up to £300 a minute (leading them to be dubbed the "crack cocaine of gambling"), warning that they "take money away from those who can least afford it". 

In response, Miliband will commit Labour today to passing legislation to give local councils the power to revoke or reduce the number of FOBTs and to changing planning and licensing laws to allow councils to contol the number of betting shops in their area. Bookmakers, who make £1.5bn of their £3bn in-store revenues from the machines, will also be required to introduce longer time breaks between plays and pop-up warnings to gamblers.

Here's what Miliband will say in Kilburn today:

In town and cities across Britain today, you can see how the old bookies are being turned into mini casinos. In the poorest areas, these are spreading like an epidemic along high streets with the pawn shops and pay day lenders that are becoming symbols of Britain’s cost-of-living crisis.

In Newham there are 87 betting shops with an estimated 348 machines and across the five Liverpool constituencies there are 153 betting shops with around 559 FOBTs. This has huge consequences for our communities, causing debt and misery for families, and often acting as a magnet for crime and anti-social behaviour.

But currently, there is almost nothing that can be done to stop the spread of FOBTs. Laws passed restricting betting shops to a maximum of four of these betting machines has meant more betting shops in clusters sometimes open from 7.30am to 10pm at night.

The time has come to give local communities the right to pull the plug on these machines - the right to decide if they want their high streets to be the place for high stakes, high speed, high cost gambling. 

But he will stop short of meeting campaigners' demand for the maximum fixed-odds stake to be reduced from £100 to £2, telling the Mirror: "That’s something we should continue to look at and we will continue to assess the evidence as it comes in."

Miliband's intervention will, however, put greater pressure on the coalition to act. The Lib Dems have long supported action to restrict FOBTs and to reduce the maximum stake, with Nick Clegg photographed with campaigners at his party's conference. Having pledged at PMQs to take "a proper look" at the issue, David Cameron is currently awaiting the outcome of a study by the Responsible Gaming Trust into whether the machines are addictive before deciding whether to intervene.

There are some Tories who will undoubtedly advise Cameron not to follow Miliband's lead and to avoid playing on Labour's "turf", but on this occasion he would be wise to do so. As I noted, it is not just Labour MPs but Tories too (among them Peter Bottomley, Stewart Jackson, Zac Goldsmith and Charles Walker) who have been calling for action, alongside the Daily Mail, which takes a socially conservative line against the machines. If he is to avoid being seen as indifferent to the harm they are causing, Cameron can't afford to allow Miliband to own this issue. 

Betting firms make £1.5bn of their £3bn in-store revenues from fixed-odds machines. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Expressions of sympathy for terror's victims may seem banal, but it's better than the alternative

Angry calls for "something to be done" play into terrorists' hands.

No sooner had we heard of the dreadful Manchester Arena bombing and before either the identity of the bomber or the number of dead were known, cries of “something must be done” echoed across social media and the airwaves. Katie Hopkins, the Mail Online columnist, called for “a final solution”, a tweet that was rapidly deleted, presumably after she remembered (or somebody explained to her) its connotations. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wanted “a State of Emergency as France has” and “internment of thousands of terror suspects”, apparently unaware that the Nice attack, killing 86, happened after that emergency was declared and that nobody has been interned anyway.

It cannot be said too often that such responses play into terrorists’ hands, particularly if Isis was behind the Manchester bombing. The group’s aim is to convince Muslims in the West that they and their families cannot live in peace with the in-fidel and will be safe only if they join the group in establishing a caliphate. Journalists, striving for effect, often want to go beyond ­banal expressions of sympathy for ­victims. (It’s a mistake I, too, have sometimes made.) But occasionally the banal is the appropriate response.

Pity begins at home

Mark Twain, writing about the “terror” that followed the French Revolution and brought “the horror of swift death”, observed that there was another, older and more widespread, terror that brought “lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”. The first, he wrote, we had been “diligently taught to shiver and mourn over”; the other we had never learned to see “in its vastness or pity as it deserves”.

That is true: more children across the world die each day from hunger or disease than could ever be killed in a terror attack. We should not forget them. Nor should we forget that the numbers killed in terrorist attacks in, for example, Baghdad far outnumber those killed in all European attacks of our times combined. In an age of globalisation, we should be more cosmopolitan in our sympathies but the immediacy of 24-hour news make us less so.

When all is said and done, however, pity, like charity, begins at home. We naturally grieve most over those with whom we share a country and a way of life. Most of us have been to concerts and some readers will have been to one at the Manchester Arena. We or our children could have been present.

Cheers from Highgate Cemetery

What a shame that Theresa May modified the Tory manifesto’s proposals on social care. For a few giddy days, she was proposing the most steeply progressive (or confiscatory, as the Tories would normally say) tax in history. True, it was only for those unfortunate enough to suffer conditions such as dementia, but the principle is what counts. It would have started at zero for those with assets of less than £100,000, 20 per cent for those with £120,000, 50 per cent for those worth £200,000, 99 per cent with those with £10m and so on, ad infinitum. Karl Marx would have been cheering from Highgate Cemetery.

Given that most people’s main asset – the value of their home – did not have to be sold to meet their care costs until death, this was in effect an inheritance tax. It had tantalising implications: to secure their inheritance, children of the rich would have had to care for their parents, possibly sacrificing careers and risking downward mobility, while the children of the poor could have dedicated themselves to seeking upward mobility.

The Tories historically favour, in John Major’s words, wealth cascading down the generations. In recent years they have all but abolished inheritance tax. Now they have unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, who knows?) conceded that what they previously branded a “death tax” has some legitimacy. Labour, which proposes a National Care Service but optimistically expects “cross-party consensus” on how to finance it, should now offer the clarity about old age that many voters crave. Inheritance tax should be earmarked for the care service, which would be free at the point of use, and it should be levied on all estates worth (say) £100,000 at progressive rates (not rising above even 50 per cent, never mind 99 per cent) that yield sufficient money to fund it adequately.

Paul Dacre’s new darling

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, is in love again. “At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you,” proclaimed the paper’s front page on Theresa May’s manifesto. Though the Mail has previously argued that to make old people use housing wealth to fund care is comparable to the slaughter of the first-born, an editorial said that her honesty was exemplified by the social care proposals.

On the morning of the very day that May U-turned, the Mail columnist Dominic Lawson offered a convoluted defence of the failure to cap what people might pay. Next day, with a cap announced, the Mail hailed “a PM who’s listening”.

Dacre was previously in love with Gordon Brown, though not to the extent of recommending a vote for him. What do Brown and May have in common? Patriotism, moral values, awkward social manners, lack of metropolitan glitz and, perhaps above all, no evident sense of humour. Those are the qualities that win Paul Dacre’s heart.

Sobering up

Much excitement in the Wilby household about opinion polls that show Labour reducing the Tories’ enormous lead to, according to YouGov, “only” 9 percentage points. I find myself babbling about ­“Labour’s lead”. “What are you talking about?” my wife asks. When I come to my senses, I realise that my pleasure at the prospect, after seven years of Tory austerity, of limiting the Tories’ majority to 46 – more than Margaret Thatcher got in 1979 – is a measure of my sadly diminished expectations. l

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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