Government should be commended for making the right decision on FOBTs
The Campaign for Fairer Gambling reflects on today's announcement on FOBT stake reduction; the culmination of a five year long campaign.
It’s been over 5 years since we established Stop the FOBTs, the campaign to reduce the maximum stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals from £100 every 20 seconds to £2 a spin. The Campaign for Fairer Gambling was founded by Derek Webb because the objectives of the 2005 Gambling Act were not being delivered: not all gambling is fair and open, many forms of gambling are associated with crime, and many more do harm to the young and the vulnerable. But in terms of these three metrics, FOBTs are the most significant aberration, which is why the government has taken the evidence-based decision to reduce the stake to £2 a spin.
Bookmakers, who operate around 34,000 FOBTs in just under 9,000 high street betting shops in Britain, have enjoyed 17 years of high stakes roulette on machines that retain an average of 20% of all the cash that’s put in. Last year they generated £1.8bn – a figure that’s grown year on year. But the bookmakers introduced FOBTs illegally in 2001, claiming that because the server that determined the result of each spin was based outside the premises, it was the same as betting on a horse race. The regulator ducked a legal challenge, and FOBTs were legitimised in 2005 Gambling Act, on the condition that only four per betting shop would be permitted. This is why there are so many betting shops in clusters on our high streets.
The most recent Health Survey found 43% of FOBT users to be either problem or at-risk gamblers, but an analysis of loyalty card data by Landman Economics revealed that this figure could be as high as 80%. But there is a more sinister reason why it has taken so long for government to act. The bookmakers’ lobbying had been assisted in previous years by control of the research agenda. Neil Goulden, the Chair of the Association of British Bookmakers, was also the Chair of the Responsible Gambling Trust, the industry-funded charity that was tasked by the Coalition government to carry out research into FOBTs. But instead of focusing this research on the impact of the stake and game content on the betting shop customer demographic, the research sought to determine whether “harmful and non-harmful patterns of play could be distinguished from the data”, completely ignoring the role of the stake and game content on inducing and exacerbating problem gambling.
The Gambling Commission’s failure to provide definitive advice to government on what the appropriate stake should be, opting for “£30 or less”, was a reflection of the flaws in the Responsible Gambling Trust’s research parameters. But international research has been clear that a low maximum stake is the most effective means of reducing harm associated with a product.
Thankfully, with today’s decision, it is clear the government has taken this evidence into account. But the price for the delay has been paid in ever increasing gambling related harm and family breakdown. The government must enact the stake reduction as soon as possible. There are too many people to thank for their part in the success of the campaign, not least the Minister Tracey Crouch, who has pushed for this review since her appointment in 2015. Carolyn Harris, who led the All Party Parliamentary Group on FOBTs, campaigns from newspapers such as the Times, the Sunday People and the Daily Mail, Randeep Ramesh’s coverage in the Guardian when FOBTs were relatively unknown, cross-party Parliamentarians, Newham Council leading 93 local authorities in campaigning for £2 a spin, and think-tank Respublica.
When Stop the FOBTs started, there was much more of a stigma associated with gambling addiction than there is today. While there is still a long way to go in terms of parity of esteem with other addictions, the success of this campaign has depended on demonstrating that “responsible gambling” is not just about the individual, but also the gambling industry’s responsibility to provide products that are safe, and not disproportionately conducive to harm. Fairer Gambling has given a voice to the people most affected by such products – the gambling addicts. The impact on the government’s decision today of problem gamblers courageously telling their stories cannot be understated.
This victory is theirs, and for everyone else whose life has been torn apart by a gambling addiction caused by FOBTs – a product that should never have been permitted in the first place. The government should be commended for making the right decision. Fairer Gambling will continue to campaign against harmful gambling products, and with renewed vigour.