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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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war