Budget 2018: Wright’s wrong about delaying stake reduction on FOBTs
The Campaign for Fairer Gambling is calling for swift introduction of changes to stake levels for fixed odds betting terminals announced by the government in May. It states: "The implementation date must be no later than April 2019, and if that’s not announced in either the Budget or imminent legislation, then the government risks losing both a vote in the House of Commons and any moral high ground on gambling reform".
This week Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright, faced intense questioning from the Select Committee on why there’s been such a delay in implementing government policy on FOBTs, which is to reduce the maximum stake to £2 a spin.
After a gambling review that commenced in October 2016 and concluded in May 2018, the government promised that the timeframe for implementation would be 9-12 months. This, as Julie Elliot on the Select Committee pointed out, takes us to May 2019 at the latest. Yet Wright refused to commit to this timeframe, instead reciting bookie rhetoric about delayed implementation “reducing job losses” – a claim Iain Duncan Smith dismissed as “rubbish” when the Guardian reported on the likely date being October 2019.
Perhaps if Wright had overseen the gambling review and read the submissions, like Tracey Crouch and his predecessor Matt Hancock, he’d know that FOBTs have been destroying jobs both within the sector and in the wider economy for the past 17 years. As Clive Efford pointed out at the Select Committee: “The betting industry are very quick to plead in favour of their staff while at the same time they are replacing them with self-betting machines and are single-manning shops. Perhaps when you are next negotiating with the industry about how long this is going to take to implement, you might want to make those points.” Mr Wright could only respond with: “Point taken.”
When the government announced they would cap the stake at £2 a spin, it received widespread acclaim, praise from opposition parties, and wall-to-wall positive coverage in the media – a rarity for this government! Former Culture Secretary Matt Hancock was correct to describe FOBTs as a “social blight”, taking the side of the many people who have got addicted or have experienced harm as a result of these machines. But having revealed the right policy, Wright is now wrong to give the bookies 18 months from the date of that announcement to rake in a further £2.7 billion from FOBTs before the stake is cut.
That’s because Wright apparently believes every word the betting industry tells him. He disclosed to the select committee that the bookmakers told him they would need “9-12 months” from when the legislation goes through Parliament to enact the changes. This is an utter nonsense, and the FOBT suppliers admitted this to the All Party Group on FOBTs. The changes could be made in a matter of weeks, and in any case. as Iain Duncan Smith also told the Guardian: “Once that decision was announced, there was no way back. The idea they have to wait for the statutory instrument is complete rubbish. If they haven’t made the changes, it’s hard luck on them. They’re just playing for time, but there are people who are suffering.”
Playing for time, indeed. Not just time to rake in as much £100 a spin roulette revenue they can, but also time to find other loopholes in the law they can exploit in the same way they did when they introduced FOBTs. Dynamically Animated Real Event Betting System (DAREBS) from Inbet Games was described at a recent industry event as having the potential to provide bookmakers with the “same profit-making capacity” after the £2 FOBT ruling comes into force.
Instead of operating off a random number generator, DAREBS determines the result of each roulette spin based on live events – such as airplane positioning in real time. So, under current regulations, bookmaker Howard Chisholm argues, “it’s a self-service betting terminal, not a gaming machine” and therefore stakes cannot be cut back.
A sector that intends to flout the spirit of the law in this way, constantly pushing the regulatory envelope, and generally behaving as though possessing a betting license is a right rather than a privilege, does not deserve any concessions such as those the government is planning to give them. The implementation date must be no later than April 2019, and if that’s not announced in either the Budget or the imminent legislation, then the government risks losing both a vote in the House of Commons and any moral high ground on gambling reform.