Gambling used to be an event - a trip to the dogs with friends, or a Saturday night sat in front of the National Lottery. But easily accessible, high-stake fixed odds betting machines (FOBTs) have turned gambling into a daily habit, and led to an increase in gambling addiction across the country.
These machines, often described as the crack cocaine of gambling, are designed to encourage rapid and repetitive betting, allowing punters to gamble £100 every 20 seconds on games like Roulette – that’s five times quicker than in a casino. In my own borough, a staggering £485 million has already been gambled on FOBTs. Because these machines are largely unsupervised, much of this revenue will have come from vulnerable people such as those with gambling addictions. This is a direct transfer of money from the pockets of people in Haringey to the offshore accounts of big bookmakers. Much more needs to be done to prevent people gambling away their life savings in the space of an afternoon.
International news from the FOBT suppliers
Good odds - The progress of the Responsible Gambling agenda
Support for action on FOBTs across the political spectrum in party manifestos
FOBTs are also behind the massive proliferation of betting shops in recent years. The machines now account for almost half of bookmakers’ profits. Because current laws only permit four betting machines per shop, bookies are opening new shops a short distance apart in order to maximise the profits that FOBTs are hauling in. It is the reason why, in constituencies like mine and many others like it, local cafes and shops are being turned into Betfreds, Ladbrokes and the other betting shops that now litter high streets across the country.
I’ve seen first hand the damage that these machines are doing to people in Tottenham. I’ve also received emails from people around the country describing how they lost hundreds of thousands of pounds to these machines as the bookmakers stood back and watched the pounds roll in. Problem gamblers don’t just face financial loss – FOBTs also leave a trail of broken relationships and lost jobs in their wake.
It is for these reasons that I have spent the last few years campaigning for a change in the law to reduce the maximum stake per spin on a FOBT from £100 to £2. This is not a radical idea. In fact, it would simply serve to bring FOBTs in line with all other gaming machines in the UK. But it would have a huge effect in protecting gamblers from the dangers of these machines.
Rather than stepping in to protect punters, the Coalition has repeatedly refused to take serious action on FOBTs. Instead, it has sought to profit from gamblers’ losses by increasing the tax on FOBTs by from 20 to 25 per cent. This does nothing to tackle the amount of money people can gamble, and if anything, incentivises the bookmakers to make even bigger profits. Whoever forms the next government should take much more significant action to regulate FOBTs.
I’m pleased that the Labour Party manifesto includes a commitment to giving local councils the power to ban FOBTs from betting shops if they cause anti-social behaviour. It would go some way to undoing the damage caused by the 2005 Gambling Act, which enabled the proliferation of betting shops. Local people, and their representatives, need to be given much more of a say over the type of shops that dominate high streets. Some have already taken a lead in this area. After noting police officers were called out to bookmakers a staggering 179 times per week, for example, Newham Council fought to roll back the proliferation of FOBTs. Under a Labour government, Newham and local authorities across the UK will be able to repel the invasion of fixed-odds betting machines in their community.
If I am elected as Mayor of London I would seek to give local communities even more control over local matters, and would lobby Government to introduce better regulation of FOBTs. Like the rest of the country, Londoners want to live in a fair society, where the vulnerable are not preyed on by commercial interests. They also want to have a say over the fabric of their local high streets, rather than standing powerlessly by as cafes, pubs and restaurants are turned into betting shops, pawnbrokers and payday lenders. For the sake of these exploited by FOBTs and local communities who want their high streets back, we must continue to fight against these addictive gambling machines that are having such a devastating impact on people’s lives.