Stephen Timms MP: A new era beckons for betting shops: fewer shops, less harm
Former Treasury minister Stephen Timms MP writes about recent changes to gambling policy in light of changes he brought forward in Government twenty years ago. He writes that despite promising to behave responsibly, Bookmakers "simply let greed rip, fleecing vulnerable punters without restraint for years".
A week before Christmas, Parliament’s Tenth Delegated Legislation Committee met. Unusually, it afforded seasonal joy. We debated the Draft Gaming Machine (Miscellaneous Amendments and Revocation) Regulations 2018. After years of determined campaigning, led by my wonderful colleague Carolyn Harris, MP for Swansea East – with support from my local council, London Borough of Newham – and facing defeat in parliament, Ministers finally gave in to calls to cut the maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals from £100 to £2.
For years, shameless, irresponsible conglomerates clustered these vile machines cynically in poor communities, ruining hard working families. A magnet for crime, they also laundered crime proceeds. Tawdry and soulless on the high street, with one employee, they drove decent shops out, and repelled family shoppers. Some punters took their own lives.
A debate in the Commons five years ago exposed the problem. Stakes should have been cut then, and would have been if the Treasury had not been a beneficiary of the racket.
In the debate in January 2014, I recounted a walk along High Street North, East Ham. Crossing Barking Road from the town hall, there was a Paddy Power, then a Betfred just round the corner at 6 High Street North, and two more Paddy Powers – at number 20 and opposite at number 11. There was a Jenningsbet at 56 and, in Clements Road, opposite number 45, a Coral. The short walk to the tube station passed two more Betfreds, another Paddy Power, a Ladbrokes and a notorious branch of William Hill. Beyond the station were two more Paddy Powers and a Ladbrokes.
In the Committee, the Minister – whose admirable predecessor, Tracey Crouch, resigned when the Chancellor tried to delay the cut – claimed that only socially responsible businesses could take part in the betting industry. In fact, none of the firms have behaved responsibly.
A former manager told me of families and businesses ruined at his Paddy Power branch; of students gambling away their loans. In a typical day, he said, in his shop with its four fixed odds betting terminals – the legal maximum, and the number every shop has – you would meet half a dozen people whose lives had been blighted by addiction to the terminals.
My anger is tinged with guilt. Twenty years ago, at the Treasury, I reformed betting duty in response to gambling moving online. Major betting firms promised to bring back offshore operations, and so pay UK tax again; and duty reforms made low margin bets viable.
I didn’t know then about fixed odds betting terminals. But I did press industry executives to use the opportunity responsibly. They promised they would. In fact, given the chance, in due course they simply let greed rip, fleecing vulnerable punters without restraint for years.
The Association of British Bookmakers warned that a £2 maximum stake could halve betting shop numbers. I shall be dismayed if the number in East Ham falls only by half. Two of the fourteen shops have, thankfully, already gone.
The cut takes effect in April. Let’s never forget the lessons from this sorry, shameful saga.
Stephen Timms is the Labour MP for East Ham