I know how addictive and harmful fixed-odds betting terminals are – they nearly cost me my life. Since 2012, I’ve been campaigning for a reduction in the maximum stake, which is the amount the machines allow you to bet in one 20-second spin.
Permitting the current stake of £100 on easily accessible machines in betting shops has been an unmitigated disaster. Machines in all other venues on the high street are capped at £2 a spin, but bookies introduced higher stakes by exploiting a loophole in the law, which allowed them to claim these weren’t machines but “betting terminals” – as the server determining the result of each spin is located outside of the premises, similar to a race or sporting event.
Labour’s Gambling Act later legitimised fixed-odds betting terminals, or FOBTs, calling them “B2 machines”, but capped the number allowed in each betting shop to four. So what did the bookies do? Opened more shops in clusters, leading to the phenomenon of an operator opening two shops within a stone’s throw of each other.
In London, each machine generates around £1,500 profit a week, so for every betting shop there is £6,000 is sucked out of communities every week by those machines alone. Alarming when you consider that there are more than twice the number of betting shops in deprived areas compared to the most affluent.
The government today announced a consultation on reducing the maximum stake, offering options of a cut to £50, £30, £20 and £2. This will run for 12 weeks, with a final decision due in the new year.
It is the roulette and casino games on FOBTs that are the most addictive, as they are played up to five times faster than the live table game in a casino. A reduction to anything other than £2 a spin would mean roulette remains on the bookies’ machines, a game which entices players into staking up from the minimum of £1 a spin to the maximum of £100 every few seconds.
The impact of higher stakes goes beyond simply the speed with which people lose money. While one fifth of FOBT users wagering up to £2 a spin were identified as problem gamblers, this rises to two fifths for those who gamble at £20 a spin or more. Stake reduction has been shown time and again to be the most effective means for protecting players.
However, it’s not just gamblers who have experienced harm, but staff in betting shops who have lost their jobs due to automation driven by FOBTs. The bookies have driven down wages in the betting industry, made thousands of staff redundant while opening more shops, and forced the ones who are left to work alone.
This carries huge health and safety risks, particularly when staff are told to “interact” with customers who have lost more than they can afford. There has already been a murder of a betting shop worker and a serious sexual assault since operators moved to a policy of lone working.
Paddy Power’s CEO has noted the toxicity of FOBTs, calling for a reduction in the maximum stake to “less than £10”. As £10 is not an option, presumably Paddy Power will be joining the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, the Labour Party, 93 councils, the Royal Society for Public Health, the Church of England Synod and the All Party Group on FOBTs in backing a £2 cap.
Matt Zarb-Cousin is a former spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn, now spokesperson for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling