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Tessa Jowell comes under FOBT fire at Labour Mayoral hustings

Tessa Jowell comes under FOBT fire at Labour Mayoral hustings

Campaign for Fairer Gambling | Campaign for Fairer Gambling

5 min read Partner content

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling assesses differences between the Labour candidates for Mayor of London, their views on fixed odds betting terminals and the proliferation of high street betting shops.

The recently published Annual Review from the Gambling Commission declared that the regulator had made “significant progress” in furthering their “three key strategic aims of empowering and protecting consumers, raising standards, and building partnership and understanding”. One particular politician, however, would not concur with the Gambling Commission’s self-appraisal.

At a recent hustings for the Labour candidacy for London Mayor, a question was asked about Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, their impact on betting shop proliferation in London, and whether legitimising these machines was a mistake. Dame Tessa Jowell responded first: “I was a Minister when the 2005 Gambling Act was introduced. It was introduced with two purposes, one to keep gambling crime free and two to ensure that gambling addiction did not increase as a result of all the additional opportunities that there were for people to gamble, particularly online which is dangerous... I set up the most powerful regulator, the Gambling Commission, which has the power to regulate in exactly the way that you want – and I want – the number of machines in betting shops on the high street. This government will not enforce the power the Gambling Commission has to limit the numbers.”

It is not surprising that the architect of the legislation chose to blame the regulator, but it is correct to state that both the Government and the regulator have the power to act by passing secondary legislation to reduce the maximum stake from the current level of £100 per spin. But, at present, the regulator is not fit for purpose as it interprets “aim to permit” in the 2005 Gambling Act as a duty to ensure the growth of the gambling sector above adherence to the licensing objectives. These are that gambling is fair and open, is not associated with crime and does not harm the young and vulnerable. Whilst Ms Jowell did not admit that it was a mistake to legitimise FOBTs, it was implied in her criticism of the Gambling Commission and of the Government’s failure to act.

David Lammy pointed out that it was the last Labour Government that got it wrong, and their mistake led to the proliferation of betting shops on high streets: “We should not just blame the Government. It was going on between 2005 and 2010, we were in government - we got it wrong.”

Diane Abbott said “the Labour Government in 2005 and the Ministers that drove it through,” should take the blame, and condemned Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. Ms. Abbott concluded: “It was wrong, it has been a blight on the high street, I voted against it and anybody who pushed through that bill cannot look Londoners in the eye and say they have always had Londoners’ best interests at heart.”

Sadiq Khan responded, stating that Labour has to accept what it got badly wrong, “and the deregulation of gambling shops was an example of where New Labour went wrong.” Mr. Khan referenced Newham Council’s Sustainable Communities Act proposal, supported by 85 local authorities and calling on the government to reduce the maximum stake to £2 a spin: “That way, rather than gambling away your weekly disposable income, which means your family is deprived of earnings, it should be £2 a spin.” Ms. Jowell nodded her head in agreement.

Christian Wolmar also agreed, saying: “I really can’t understand the mentality that allowed in these Fixed Odds Betting Terminals that enable you to lose several hundred pounds in a minute and a thousand pounds in three minutes,” before going on to question why Ms Jowell thought Super Casinos were a good idea.

Ms Jowell responded, arguing that “the powers exist to regulate every aspect of how betting machines operate. I’m afraid that it is this Government and the last Coalition Government, that refused to legislate to give effect to the controls that we at the time put in place.” Ms. Jowell said she “understands the frustration about the number of betting shops, but the power exists and it’s this government that simply has to pass a small regulation in order that these are reduced in number and everything about their operation is changed.”

Later in the discussion, Ms Jowell claimed that her motivation for passing the legislation was to limit the damage that gambling could do, and “the damage was being done, quite frankly, by people spending thousands of pounds online on unregulated sites in tax havens and becoming addicted in the privacy of their own bedroom.”

Mr Khan interrupted: “They are doing that now, though.” Ms Jowell responded, restating that “the Gambling Commission has the power to act.” Mr Lammy claimed he had “never heard anyone describe the Gambling Commission as having the powers – it does not. This is a legacy of New Labour. We got it wrong. You led it, you should own up to it, just as you praise the Olympics, which you got right – that is fair.”

Whilst Ms Jowell did not say it was a mistake to legitimise FOBTs, she did criticise the Gambling Commission and the Government’s failure to act.  Unfortunately, her legacy is £3 billion lost on FOBTs in London since the 2005 Gambling Act was enacted in 2007, and it is likely to be a weak spot if she is selected as Labour’s candidate for London Mayor.

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