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23 June 2011

Fruit machine stakes set to double

Churches have expressed concern that problem gambling may rise after changes were made to the rules governing fruit machines in amusement arcades.

The government have recently announced that they will double the stakes for a popular category of fruit machine from £1 to £2. At the same time the cap on the number of these Category B3 machines will be lifted and replaced with a requirement that they do not account for more than 20 per cent of the total machines.

This comes just months after official figures showed that the number of people classed as problem gamblers had jumped from around 300,000 to 450,000. In response to this finding, which came in the 2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey, the government minister responsible for gambling blamed the previous Labour government. John Penrose MP said: "The increase in problem gambling is a direct result of Labour's reckless Gambling Act."

It was therefore with considerable surprise that the Evangelical Alliance, along with other Christian groups, found their suggestion to maintain the current limits was rejected, with the government instead further liberalising the law.

The change was demanded by the gambling industry on economic grounds. They claimed that without changes to the regulations more arcades would close, and those that didn't would have no incentive to replace their machines so the manufacturers would suffer. The Alliance challenged this reasoning on two principle grounds. Firstly, a similar case had been made in 2009 when the gambling industry pushed for and received a doubling of both the stakes and prizes for the fruit machines found in pubs across the country. The government's consultation document that proposed the current changes addressed this claim and "notes that a similar increase in the maximum stake for category C machines introduced on 1 June 2009 does not appear to have increased revenue or machine manufacture to the extent predicted."

It is not in dispute that many sections of the gambling industry are struggling in the current economic climate. However, if the gambling industry is to win, through increased play and consequently increased manufacture and purchase of machines, then this requires increased expenditure, and necessarily loss, on the part of the customers. Therefore as well as questioning the accuracy of the industry's prediction the second reason for opposing the change was the suitability of supporting the industry through changes that would take more money out of the pockets of the poorest.

The Alliance regularly works with member organisations the Salvation Army and CARE as well as with the Methodist Church, the Church of England, the Church of Scotland and Quaker Action on Alcohol and Drugs. Through an informal partnership the group work to ensure that gambling activity is regulated so children and vulnerable people are protected and the damage that problem gambling causes is limited.

Since long before the passage of the 2005 Gambling Act the Alliance has been involved in pushing for a responsible approach to gambling that recognises the harm that it can lead to. The results for this year's prevalence study show that the changes introduced in 2005 have had negative consequences, and therefore it is the right time to look again at the regulatory system.

It is therefore timely that a new inquiry by the culture, media and sport select committee in the House of Commons will look at the implementation and operation of the Gambling Act 2005. The Evangelical Alliance, along with other Christian groups, will be contributing to this inquiry.