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16 January 2014

Government must act on betting shops and gambling machines

Government must act on betting shops and gambling machines

Last week parliament voted against taking action on betting shops and the gambling machines they house. A motion brought forward by the Labour Party was voted down by the government as politicians from both sides of the aisle accepted the need to take action to tackle machines which are in the dock as a major factor in problem gambling.

The Evangelical Alliance has been involved in gambling policy for over a decade and gave evidence to committees considering draft legislation in 2003 and a review in 2011. We have repeatedly noted concerns about the affect of gambling policy on those most vulnerable and opposed the introduction of super casinos as a false way of bringing regeneration.

Betting shops are a frequent sight on high streets and have moved closer to one another since the 2005 Gambling Act removed stricter requirements on their approval. Super casinos may have been stopped by vigorous campaigning, the act brought mini casinos to the street corner and the high street. While this is partly due to customer demand in certain locations, the demand is being stimulated by over reliance on gaming machines which are limited to four in each premises. This creates an incentive for chains to open multiple shops in close proximity even where over the counter betting would not justify the current rate or nature of expansion.

Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, or B2 Machines in the official classification, are usually virtual roulette machines and have little in common with conventional betting. The machines are an anomaly within the ranks of gambling machines because of their high stake levels, speed of play, and the frequency with which they are cited by people with gambling addiction. Up to £100 can be staked on each play and with a play lasting only 20 seconds a vast amount of money can be lost in a short space of time. Thousands of pounds can be lost in a short session, and the relatively high return rate can convince players they are doing well and nearly winning when they are losing money. The fixed odds mean that over time it is fixed that the betting companies will win and the players will lose.

What we know about problem gamblers suggests they gamble on multiple different forms of gambling, but that doesn't let FOBTs off the hook as some in the gambling industry have attempted to suggest. Detailed analysis of the 2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey by Prof Jim Ofordshows that problem gamblers contribute 23 per cent of all money spent on FOBTs, that's £300million each year. Further, 28 per cent of callers to the national problem gambling helpline citeFOBTs as part of their gambling activity (callers can cite multiple forms of gambling). Anecdotal evidence suggests this is the tip of the iceberg. The national problem gambling clinic suggests over half of patients coming to them have problems with FOBTs, with recent suggestions that it could be as high as 70 per cent.

The Labour motion called for a separate use class order for betting shops, at the moment betting shops are in class with banks and estate agents, so that when a premises is occupying a location previously used in this category no planning permission is needed to change the use. A separate use class, as used for sex shops and casinos, would always require planning permission. This, on its own, would be of limited affect as the major issue for local authorities is a lack of power to turn down applications when they want to. The criteria are drawn tightly which means often betting shops are allowed, or when they are refused allowed on appeal.

In the government's amendment, which was passed last week, they suggest local authorities already have sufficient powers. The powers they refer to are Article 4 directions, these allow a local authority to amend the permited developments in a certain area, and are usually used to protect areas of historic importance or conservation. They could be used to restrict the further development of betting shops but are a blunt instrument and give the local authority very little flexibility to respond to local concerns and the peculiarities of particular locations.

A better option would be Cumulative Impact Policies as are currently available for local authorities to use in regards to alcohol licensing. These enable local authorities to designate an area, usually where there is a high density of licensed premises, and within this area the presumption is to not permit further licenses. The extension of this policy to betting premises would enable betting shops to continue to open in areas where there are not already many, but would help address the present concern around clustering.

The government amendment also made great play of the research backed by the government and laudably called for action to be evidence based. Evidence based, can however, be a convenient excuse for inaction. Not because evidence should not stand behind policy, but because it is easy to call for more evidence when there is already plenty to take precautionary action. The research mentioned repeatedly by government spokespeople has been commissioned by the Responsible Gambling Trust and is looking at the nature of FOBT play. The scoping study published in December 2013 sets out the parameters of the likely research avenues and plays down the ease with which the final report will provide straightforward policy answers (p59).

The current research is also restricted to the internal dynamics of game play and does not consider environmental factors, such as the number of shops in an area or the socio economic conditions of the surrounding area. There is concern that FOBTs are used by those more likely to be in poverty, and the research will not come close to addressing these questions.

While further research is needed and must be commissioned, it is not going to take the difficult decisions for the government. The evidence already present suggests that FOBTs are causing harm and making money for the gambling industry from those with gambling problems. This is sufficient for the government to take preventative action, and if they are committed to a precautionary approach which they have at times claimed to be, then they would take action to protect those suffering harm from gambling machines rather than protect the interests of the betting industry.

Danny Webster, advocacy programme manager, Evangelical Alliance.