If you’re wondering why shares in Britain’s biggest gambling firms are up this morning you should take a look at the Government’s consultation paper on gambling. It has let the industry off the hook.
The Tories could have announced plans to end the UK’s hidden epidemic of problem gambling today by tacking the dramatic increase in the number of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals – the crack cocaine of gambling. Instead, it chose to launch yet another consultation, which will ask whether the maximum bet on these highly-addictive machines should be reduced from £100 to anywhere between £50 and £2.
Labour’s view is simple – only a £2 maximum stake will end the addiction, debt and misery that FOBTs can cause. Currently, punters can bet £100 every 20 seconds on machines that are purpose-built to maximise the buzz people feel when they play and encourage them to spend more when they lose.
The amount British gamblers lost on FOBTs went up from £1billion in 2009 to £1.8billion last year, a 73% increase. The Gambling Commission says that one in every nine people who play FOBTs become addicted. Bookies have got round restrictions on the number of terminals that can be put in one shop by opening several outlets on the same High Street – often in poorer communities where people can least afford to lose cash.
The industry’s response to the consultation was to say this morning that alcoholics don’t set our policy on drinking. That’s an incredibly crass and insensitive thing to say when you consider the price we pay as a society for problem gambling and the lives it ruins. The total cost to the taxpayer in spending on mental health services, policing and homelessness could up to £1.2billion a year. It leads to broken families and blighted communities. We said in our June manifesto we’d impose a £2 cap on FOBTs and we will be arguing every day for the next 12 weeks, when the consultation ends, for that policy to be implemented. The Tories have stolen enough of Labour’s policies recently and they are welcome to borrow another one.
FOBTs aren’t the only problem. The Gambling Commission estimates there are 430,000 gambling addicts in the UK – up by a third since 2012. The rise of internet gambling and the preponderance of ads on TV have helped to fuel that. I’m not opposed to gambling – I have the odd flutter myself – but we need a new Gambling Bill to properly regulate an industry that has changed beyond recognition since the last Act became law in 2005.
Labour is concerned about the number of gambling companies who advertise on football shirts – especially given that the game is watched by so many children. If we win power, we will take steps to end that. In the meantime, the clubs should consider act themselves. The government will also seeks views on protecting children, who have been targeted by unscrupulous advertisers who place gambling games aimed at kids online.
I’m disappointed the government has chosen to consult rather than act. The gambling industry, on the other hand, is clearly relieved, a fact which is reflected in share price movements this morning. Yet again, the bookies are the only winners.
Tom Watson is the deputy Labour leader, shadow digital, culture, media and sport secretary, and MP for West Bromwich East