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21 January 2011

Government plans to increase fruit machine stakes

Many fruit machines in arcades and bingo halls could have their stake levels doubled following proposals brought forward by the Government. This follows a doubling of both stakes and prizes for a different category of machine in 2009. The Evangelical Alliance is joining with other church groups and recovering gambling addicts to urge the Government to maintain the current limits.   

During the passage of the Gambling Act in 2005, the Government adopted revisions from their original plans to ensure adequate protection of vulnerable people, in particular children and compulsive gamblers. These included strict restrictions on the number of machines in a variety of location and limits to stakes and prizes. In 2009, serious concern was expressed that changes were being considered, and then subsequently adopted, in response to the economic concerns of the gambling industry and without sufficient attention to the protection of the vulnerable.  

The group of machines that are currently under consideration are the highest value machines that can be placed in arcades and bingo halls, while a different set of machines are allowed in betting shops that already have much higher limits. One of the arguments advanced by the arcade's industry body is that it is necessary to have higher limits in order to maintain their competitiveness and prevent customers from going to betting shops instead. Paradoxically, they suggest that this increase is necessary to prevent a drift to the harder forms of gambling available in betting shops.   

A further argument advanced is that, in the current difficult economic environment, the Government should take appropriate measures to support businesses. This was the core argument advanced in 2009 and one which was accepted by the Government. The consultation document that the Government has published, and to which the Evangelical Alliance will be responding, sets out the case for doubling the stake limits. The document also presents the Government's inclination to accept the proposals, even though it concludes by saying that they do not have a preferred position.  Following a meeting with the government minister responsible for gambling, the Alliance is concerned that the consultation is little more than a fig leaf to cover the clear intent to implement a promise made to the gambling industry before the election. 

During the previous consultation a number of churches and Christian organisations came together to suggest that the proposals were reckless and did not follow the precautionary principles of the Gambling Act. A key point made was that regardless of the economic needs of the gambling industry it was wrong for these to take priority over the protection of the vulnerable. In the midst of a consultation that largely parrots statements and reports provided by the various gambling lobby groups, the Government acknowledges that projections of increased economic activity used to justify previous increases have not so far proved to be accurate. There will be an increased interest in gambling issues over the coming months as the Gambling Commission publishes the latest prevalence study next month. This will show how many people are gambling, what forms this gambling takes and how many people are classified as problem gamblers - information that will have an important impact on policy-making in coming years.