Tory MPs blast Government over delay to tackling FOBT ‘scourge’
Angry Conservative MPs have hit out at the Government for delaying a major clampdown on Fixed-Odds Betting Terminals.
Chancellor Philip Hammond announced in this week's Budget that the maximum stake punters can bet on the machines will be reduced from £100 to £2 from October next year, six months later than expected.
The delay has prompted speculation that culture minister Tracey Crouch, a fierce opponent of FOBTs, is on the brink of resigning in protest at the move.
PoliticsHome has been told that Ms Crouch has previously threatened to resign on two occasions over the Government's approach to FOBTs, although that is denied by sources close to the minister.
She held talks with Government chief whip Julian Smith this morning and is expected to decide on her future later today.
Answering an urgent question on the row in the Commons, Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright said Ms Crouch was doing an “outstanding job”, but refused to be drawn on whether she was about to quit.
Mr Wright also denied that the Government was delaying the FOBT crackdown, insisting that the changes were initially touted to come in in April 2020.
Stressing that the Treasury needs to replace the money which will be lost by reducing the stake limit, he added: “But it was also right to consider planning to reduce the effect of job losses of those working in betting shops on the high street and allowing time for that planning to take effect.
“It also has to be recognised that right though this change is, money for public services coming from the use of FOBTs has to be replaced or public services will have less funding.
“The Chancellor has decided to that with an increase in remote gaming duty and it is right that that happens at the same time as the FOBT stake change.
But his comments were met with frustration by fellow Tories, with former Cabinet minister Iain Duncan-Smith branding the terminals a “scourge”.
“It is not too late, for the sake of those people whose families and lives have been destroyed and there may yet be more, many more to follow them.
"I urge my right honourable friend to think again and to bring forward the date so that we may end this scourge.”
Health Select Committee chair Sarah Wollaston added: “The tragedy of lives lost to suicide has to be our absolute priority here and there is good evidence and I would urge him to think again and bring this in.”
Her committee colleague Andrew Selous cited claims by health experts that gambling addiction was at the root of why many patients are in debt and feel vulnerable, adding: “We have to put a high cost on the loss of human life.”
Meanwhile David Jones hit out at the minister for claiming the policy had not been delayed.
“He is engaging in pure semantics when he says that a period of time from April next year to October is not a delay when every member of this house can see that it is a delay,” he said.
Shadow Culture Secretary Tom Watson said MPs had been led to believe that the change would be rolled out at the beginning of the next financial year, in April 2019, when the minister confirmed in a meeting that ministers would move to bring forward legislation this autumn.
“This is extremely disappointing, not least because his predecessor implied that April would be the date too. Research showed that half of people struggling with problem gambling have had thoughts of suicide," he said.
“An estimated £900m will be pocketed by the bookmakers because of this delay.
“What this amounts to is a betrayal of the promise made by his two predecessors as Secretary of State.
“It’s a betrayal of the government’s own three-year review that was meticulously conducted by [Ms Crouch] and when the government has itself admitted the social blight of FOBTs it seems to me incomprehensible and inconceivable that the government would delay a policy supported by many people on both sides of his house and in both chambers.”
His Labour colleague Carolyn Harris went on to praise Ms Crouch for her role in the policy being brought in to combat the "dreadful machines".
“To say that I am incandescent along with other members across this House, including I would argue the Minister for Sport, who if she does resign will be a great loss to the frontbench because her integrity and bravery surpasses anyone else I see in here today.”
“What is happening to the families who are losing children? What is happening to the children who don’t get Christmas presents because of an addictive parent? What happens to the people who go to foodbanks because they have an addiction to these machines?
“Don’t give me warm words, give me action, April 2019. We cannot lose anymore lives because of these dreadful machines.”