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24 January 2013

Government gambling plans

Government gambling plans

Following the culture, media and sport select committee report on gambling last June the government have finally issued their response. The government reject some of the suggestions that could have opened up dangerous forms of gambling to more people, but stop short of decisive action to tackle problem gambling.

The committee called for lifting the cap on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) in betting shops and allowing local authorities to set a limit of their own. Currently betting shops are allowed four FOBTs and an increasing proportion of their income comes from these machines, for some of the major chains this makes up more than half their takings. When the committee took evidence the Evangelical Alliance, alongside other church groups, called for stricter regulation of these machines.

In their response the government acknowledged the limited evidence available on whether FOBTs are responsible for a disproportionate amount of gambling problems and called for further research in this area. Such research is currently under way and we look forward to the results, however, the evidence which does exist provides significant concern about FOBTs and sufficient grounds to limit their availability. While they are only played by six per cent of gamblers they are cited in 28 per cent of calls to the problem gambling helpline. Furthermore, early results of the research into gaming machines suggest that they are found more often in areas with higher deprivation. The government rejected lifting the limit on machines in betting shops but did not suggest reducing the stakes which can be gambled or restricting their availability.

Recently greater attention has focused on the clustering of betting shops on local high streets. In some areas the same chain will have several shops within sight of each other, each taking up their maximum allocation of machines in order to maximise their income. Local councils find that despite their own reservations and the concerns of residents, applications for new shops are hard to oppose. This is because of a presumption to permit, and the threat of legal action from well funded companies if they turn down applications. The planning system is also rigged in favour of betting companies because their shops fall into the same category as banks and estate agents – so a high street can lose a bank and gain a betting shop without any planning permission required.

In other areas the government's response was more positive, recently published plans to change the regulation of online gambling should provide greater protection as all companies providing gambling products to anyone in Britain will have to be regulated by the Gambling Commission. At present only those based in the UK require such regulation, with many taking up the option of alternative regulation in an EU or other country on an approved list.

The government also proposed developing self-exclusion to provide stronger support for those with gambling problems. At present it is necessary to self-exclude from each and every gambling premises, and with the prevalence of gambling opportunities it is easy enough to find one which you haven't registered with. Introducing self-exclusion which operates more broadly, across whole companies or the gambling sector is a helpful step towards protecting those for whom gambling has a serious impact on not only their finances but also their welfare and family life.

While the government have announced measures to change the regulation of online gambling they have consistently stalled in other areas of reform. When the Gambling Act was passed in 2005 the then government promised a precautionary approach, however its subsequent actions and this government too suggest that the only thing they are precautionary about is taking action to address problem gambling.