In April we wrote how the
Conservative led coalition sneaked through its latest sticking plaster measures on FOBTs, avoiding a debate in the House of Commons. Well guess what? They have done it again. This time the government avoided comments in the House on its latest FOBT failings by declaring its position in a letter from DCLG Minister Marcus Jones MP, which rejected 93 councils’ demand that FOBT stakes should be cut to £2 per spin.
letter stated that the government does not support the proposalsubmitted under the Sustainable Communities Act and attempted to justify this by citing the measures they sneaked through with no discussion in April this year. The number of measures is exactly two and they were both announced a year previously during the Easter recess in April 2014. Again no discussion in the House – and no explanation for the one year delay in introduction.
The first measure is the requirement for a customer wanting to bet over £50 per FOBT spin to interact with staff over the counter or register for a loyalty card. What is not explained is that the only verified aspect of registering for the loyalty card in most betting shops is a mobile telephone number. For the bookmakers, this is the only detail they need in order to start their direct marketing of FOBTs and online gaming.
Although the estimated loss from vulnerable problem and at-risk FOBT gamblers is now running conservatively at £650 million per year, according to the DCMS economic impact assessment the negative impact on FOBT profits of this measure will be only £17 million a year, which also includes the structural costs of establishing card based play.
The suggestion by DCLG that “more time is needed” for this measure to “bed in” before “drawing conclusions as to effectiveness” is a perfect example of the farcical way in which this issue has been handled – it is government denial in action. In fact, the Campaign understands that stake per spin is actually on the increase in certain regions since the measures were introduced.
When casinos were liberalised under the 2005 Gambling Act and there was no longer a requirement for membership or ID to gain entry on each visit, there was never any assertion that this would result in more harm to the vulnerable. It is unfathomable as to how someone as intelligent as Sajid Javid MP, bought into the idea that one-off minimal verification for FOBT play would help in preventing harm to the vulnerable.
The second measure introduced in April returned betting shops to a separate use class thus requiring all new shops to seek planning consent from a Council. However, the Conservatives have created a major flaw and disjoint by not removing the “aim to permit” guidance which Councils have to operate under when reviewing a premise license application for a betting shop. A planning committee could say no to another betting shop in their town centre, but the Licensing Committee has to “aim to permit” it. It is very doubtful that DCLG could point to one new betting shop application that has been finally refused so far.
Clusters of betting shops, primarily in deprived areas and struggling high streets, include multiple shops that have been opened by the same operator. These have been driven by FOBT profits, the four FOBTs per shop allowance and the removal of the demand test – all of which has led to over 90% of the market being dominated by the big five corporate bookmakers. In Northern Ireland, where the demand test still applies, the majority of shops are independent and are not in primary locations.
The government measures do not do anything to retrospectively roll back the clustering of betting shops whereas reduction of the maximum FOBT stake to £2 is now increasingly recognised as a solution to shop clustering and a reduction in many areas of the current over provision of FOBTs.
The DCLG letter is critical of councils for not doing enough, but the blame should be laid at the door of the Gambling Commission. It does not do enough to provide information of crime on premises, a license refusal tool that councils could use. Damage to FOBTs and other shop facilities is not collated as it is not required to be reported. There is no identification of premises with both high volumes of cash and low retention percentages, likely indicators of FOBT money laundering. It even took a Campaign FOI to the Commission to learn that
97% of police call-outs to gambling premises are to betting shops.
Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham, correctly stated that the DCLG response was an insult to Councils. With FOBT addicts unable to nationally obtain NHS cognitive behavioural therapy the government is also continuing to insult FOBT addicts, their families and their friends.