Labour ramps up the pressure on FOBTs as Paddy Power breaks ranks

Posted On: 
4th October 2017

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling sets out the on-going debate over fixed odds betting terminals following announcements at the Labour conference.

Credit: 
PA

 The shifting political centre of gravity means that Tom Watson’s announcement in his Labour conference speech on Tuesday, and in an op-ed for the Mirror, that he would introduce a statutory levy on the gambling industry to pay for treatment, is taken all the more seriously. Most news outlets covered the announcement.

There are as many problem gamblers in Britain as drug addicts, yet the resources allocated to gambling addiction nationally are around half those allocated to drug and alcohol services – per local authority! A statutory levy would likely spell the end of the cosy relationship that currently exists between the industry and GambleAware, and influence over the research agenda. This is a view shared by Professor Jim Orford in a column for the Guardian.

As Professor Orford says, prevention is always better than cure, which is what Sian Griffiths argued in a blog for the British Medical Journal, advocating “whole population measures” to reduce gambling related harm. It is this argument, for reducing the maximum stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals to £2 a spin, that Campaign Consultant Matt Zarb-Cousin made on Channel 4 News last week in debate with Malcolm George, the CEO of the Association of British Bookmakers.

During the debate, Mr George claimed that betting shops are the “safest places to gamble”, before it was pointed out that 97% of all police call-outs to gambling premises are to betting shops.

Eric Baptista, whose story was featured on a BBC 5 Live programme, received a 12-month suspended sentence for smashing up FOBTs after William Hill refused to bar him.

Rachel, a former employee of William Hill, claimed on the show that violent outbursts directed at FOBTs were a daily occurrence, and that protective measures – such as panic buttons – were of little use.  Neither was protective glass, as customers could wait for employees to leave the store before attacking them. Rachel feels that the bookmaking now revolves around FOBTs, motivated by pure greed.

Evidence for this was provided by a story in the Guardian about a problem gambler who took out payday loans over the phone in a betting shop so he could load credit on to the FOBTs.

It was only a matter of time before a bookmaker broke ranks and supported a crackdown on FOBTs. Breon Corcoran, the CEO of Paddy Power, wrote to gambling minister Tracey Crouch stating: “We now believe that the issue has become so toxic that only a substantial reduction in FOBT stake limits to £10 or less will address societal concerns. I am confident we could operate our retail business successfully and profitably under such circumstances. Other well-run operators should be able to do the same.”

The Local Government Association, acting on behalf of the 93 councils that have demanded a reduction to £2 a spin under the Sustainable Communities Act process, echoed this call, while also advocating for more restrictions on gambling advertising due to concerns about protecting individuals and communities.

Matt Zarb-Cousin appeared with reformed problem gambler Jason Haddigan on BBC Sunday Politics South (40 minutes in), where Conservative MP Caroline Nokes agreed that there was a “strong case” for reducing the maximum stake to £2 a spin, indicating a growing cross-party consensus on the issue.

The bookmakers must be ruing taking the advice of Lord Bell formerly of the now disgraced firm Bell Pottinger all those years ago, as told by Private Eye. If they had accepted the truth about FOBTs and reduced the stake voluntarily to £20, they might not be facing such a backlash now, with a reduction to £2 looking more and more likely.

Campaign founder Derek Webb made precisely this point in an interview with the Financial Times, which featured prominently in the paper on Saturday. Henry Mance, political editor of the FT, moderated a ResPublica event at Conservative conference.

The panel members included James Noyes of ResPublica, one of the report authors, Howard Reed of Landman Economics, Chris Philp, Conservative MP and PPS to the Treasury, and Derek Webb. Chris has written a foreword to Respublica’s report, which will be published soon, adding weight to the Conservative case for reducing the maximum stake on FOBTs to £2 as spin – a case made previously by the Centre for Social Justice.