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20 December 2013

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.

By George Eaton

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.

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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.