Bishop of St Albans: Ministers must act quickly and reduce the FOBT stakes, ending this 'terrible social blight'
Every week that the implementation is delayed means more lives are ruined and more families are devastated, says the Bishop of St Albans.
On 17th May Tracey Crouch, the Minister for Sport and Civil Society, announced that the government had decided to reduce the stakes on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) from £100 to £2.
The announcement came after years of campaigning when members of all parties and both Houses, many of whom belonged to the All Party Parliamentary Group of FOBTs, joined forces to bring about the change. Many of us were relieved and jubilant that the government had decided to take decisive action because of the damage that these machines were causing
Two brief stories illustrate this. In September 2016 a BBC Panorama programme featured Wendy Bendel telling the tragic story of her partner who committed suicide after a twenty year-long battle against gambling mainly on FOBTs. Then in November 2017 Jack Richie, a young man from Sheffield committed suicide by jumping off a building in Hanoi after running up large debts gambling on FOBTs. Recent newspaper articles have estimated that there are around two suicides a week in the UK due to problem gambling, often associated with FOBTs.
Behind these personal tragedies are some salutary facts. Research shows that FOBTs are far more likely to be found in areas of social and economic deprivation where people can least afford to lose large amounts of money. The latest figures from the Government’s Independent Gambling Commission (August 2017) showed that unemployed adults were more likely than any other group to play machines in bookmakers.
When I submitted a series of freedom of information requests to Police Forces around the country it revealed that there were crime hotspots around many betting shops, caused by people attacking the machines on which they had just lost huge amounts of money or committing violent acts against the staff. There is also evidence that due to the large amounts of cash which are being put into the machines, they are being used by criminal gangs for money laundering.
There is overwhelming evidence that FOBTs, which the media has dubbed the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’, can draw people into compulsive patterns of behaviour which in some cases can be destructive.
In the past few weeks the jubilation of the 17th May has turned to frustration as it has been announced that the change will not be implemented for two years. It is widely presumed that a deal has been struck between the Treasury and the gambling industry. FOBTs earn the industry around £1.8b annually and producing £400m tax for the Treasury. However, you have to set against this the analysis undertaken by the Centre for Economics and Business Research which estimated that the problems caused by FOBTs cost taxpayers around £210m a year.
It has been argued that the industry needs time to make the changes, despite the manufacturers saying that they only need eight weeks to adjust the FOBTs to take the new level of stake.
Every week that the implementation is delayed means more lives are ruined and more families are devastated. My question in the House of Lords this week asks the minister to act quickly and bring a terrible social blight to an end. I hope he and his colleagues will do the right thing and act now.
The Rt Rev. the Lord Bishop of St Albans has been a member of the House of Lords since 2013.