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17 October 2013

Government review on gambling prizes fails to tackle the problem

Government review on gambling prizes fails to tackle the problem

The Government review into the prizes and stakes of gambling machines raised the limits on many categories and maintained the current levels for machines that are currently causing concern.

The review, the first to be implemented on a new triennial basis, proposed a package of measures which dealt with all categories of gambling machines rather than each type in turn on an ad hoc basis which had previously been the case. The Evangelical Alliance and other church groups contributed to the review and urged caution against increasing prize and stake levels as changes to either or both of these can make machines more addictive, and therefore potentially more harmful.

B2 gambling machines, also known as Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs), are mostly found in betting shops and have a maximum stake of £100 and prize of £500. Because of the speed of play, one turn takes just 20 seconds, even with the relatively high return rate it is possible to lose a vast amount of money very quickly. The high return rate can serve as a lure to keep on playing, when you're getting some of your money back it's easier to forget that you're still losing. The government review acknowledged concerns around these machines but backed off taking action citing a need for further evidence. While important research is under way the government have not clarified what level of evidence is necessary to take action. There is a concern they are shying away from taking a difficult decision and hiding behind the need for proof, a need that seems constantly elastic.

Machines in Casinos will see their stakes rise, and this was partly a recognition that this is the most highly regulated environment for gambling, and as such higher levels were more appropriate than in other gambling contexts. Casinos have found their activity restricted because of the careful scrutiny of the location of premises, and the availability of high stake machines in betting shops. The solution in the government's plan is to increase the prize levels to make casino based gambling machines more attractive.

In 2009 the previous government doubled the prize and stake for Category C fruit machines – the sort found mainly in pubs – based on a request from the gambling industry for a significant increase to stimulate demand both from customers, and in turn in orders for new machines. The economic benefits of this change were never adequately quantified and in changes made to prizes for machines in bingo halls in 2011 the government said the economic gains had not materialised. It was therefore surprising to see the government cede to the industry's demand for a further change for fruit machines in pubs, this time raising the prize from £70 to £100. While claims of economic benefit were once again made there was little evidence that this was more than the same speculative exercise conducted previously.

In their response to the review the government made much play of requiring more substantial and credible evidence to inform regulation in the future, and suggested much of the evidence provided in this review was not sufficient. However, instead of rejecting the demands for change the government did the industry's bidding with a limp rider requesting better evidence in the future.

The only area where the government shifted from their original proposals was around Category D machines, these are machines that can be played by anyone, including children, and include both amusement arcade games such as coin pusher machines and crane grabs, as well as machines that look, act and behave exactly like fruit machines. Because they are fruit machines just with lower stakes and prizes. The review had initially suggested increases in most sub categories but decided to restrict the change to an increase in the prize level for coin pusher machines. This is a minor recognition of the potential harm that can be caused by encouraging gambling among young people, and particularly in forms that replicate adult gambling and could provide an easier transition into other form of more damaging gambling activity.

The Evangelical Alliance continues to work both with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Gambling Commission on these and related issues with the overriding concern of ensuring that gambling is regulated in a way that prioritises the protection of the young and vulnerable. It is essential that this perspective is clearly articulated to counter the tendency for policy to be made based on what the gambling industry wants to make themselves more money rather than doing the utmost to protect players.