SPECIAL REPORT: Is the game up for betting shop gaming machines?
Lancashire leaders have welcomed news of a crackdown on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBT), as the Gambling Commission recommends the maximum stake is cut to prevent problem betting. When the review was first launched, we spoke to key figures in Preston about whether changes were needed on our high street...
There are 24 bookmakers and 87 FOBTs in Preston and over £125m has been lost gambling across Lancashire since 2008.
Terry Kilgariff, a member of Preston’s Gamblers Anonymous and a self-titled compulsive gambler for the last 40 years, said: “I was very cynical about this review at first because the government makes significant amounts from betting companies in tax revenue, but I definitely welcome the reduction in stakes down to somewhere between £2 and £50. Any reduction is a good thing as it will reduce problems.”
The 60-year-old, who has tried to take his life twice in the last four years as a result of his addiction, added: “For people on FOBTs, it’s not about the money but about the anticipation and thrill of the bet. £2 stakes would reduce the damage to these people.
“Since FOBT’s came about gambling on phones and computers has taken over, leaving punters able to gamble every minute of every day.
“It’s not like playing with real money – it’s so easy and accessible – which is why it’s so dangerous.”
Preston MP Sir Mark Hendrick also welcomes a change. The Labour MP said: “I’ve been complaining about these machines for years and I welcome the changes in decreasing the stakes. £100 per spin is ridiculously high and even £50 is too high in itself.
“Preston is a working class town with people with modest incomes. The further stakes go down the better.”
For one bookmaking business, Paddy Power Betfair, which has a Paddy Power shop on Fishergate in Preston, has listened to concerns regarding FOBTs and called for a reduction to £10 or less.
Company chief executive, Breon Corcoran, said: “We now believe the issue has become so toxic that only a substantial reduction in FOBT stake limits to £10 or less will address societal concerns.
“I am confident we could operate our retail business successfully and profitability under such circumstances. Other well-run operators should be able to do the same.”
But the Association of British Bookmakers, the leading trade association for betting shops on the UK’s high streets, said: “Independent analysis has suggested very significant shop closures and job losses if stakes are materially reduced and, as Paddy Power Betfair concede, this would do little to help problem gamblers.”
In 2013, Preston Council put betting shops under the microscope. This included writing to the government to ‘demand urgent action’ for a ban of gambling machines in betting shops.
Former deputy leader and cabinet member for planning and regulation, Coun John Swindells, was part of the 2013 campaign.
Four years on, Coun Swindells said: “It was back in 2013 that Preston joined the growing number of councils who were asking for the ability to restrict the stake and the number of betting shops clustering in the city centre.”
Coun Swindells added: “I would welcome any reduction in the stakes in betting on FOBTs and sincerely hope the figure of £2 is the one that the Government legislates for – not the £50 they consulted on.
“I also welcome the rather belated response by Government in seeing the need to reduce the stake on FOBTs.”
Leader of Preston Council, Coun Peter Rankin, added: “We at Preston have discussed this at length since 2013, doing all we can to address the problem, including trying to work with neighbouring local authorities and the Betting Commission.
“Councils have also requested greater powers from the Government to refuse applications for more betting shops. This would help in areas, like Preston, where fewer betting shops would be welcome.”
And while progress is being made from the point of view of FOBT critics, this is just the start of what some think should be a greater examination of the UK’s gambling industry
Spokesman for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, Matt-Zarb Cousin, said: “The Campaign for Fairer Gambling would like to see stakes and prizes for online gambling brought into future reviews. Issues such as advertising, the lack of independent gambling research, and the insufficient funding for treatment are also priorities.”
What does the Gambling Commission say?
Fixed odds betting terminals, or FOBTs, are gaming machines which allow people to play virtual games at a terminal in the betting shop, including roulette, blackjack, and poker. Each shop can have a maximum of four.
Depending on the game, players can stake a maximum of £2, known as ‘category B3 games’, or £100, known as ‘Category B2 games’.
Between 2002 and 2012 over 34,000 FOBTs were introduced with profits reaching over £1.4 billion, according to the Campaign for Fairer Gambling.
The Gambling Commission has this week said the stake limit should be £2 on FOBT slot games, such as fruit machines, and £30 on non-slto games like roulette.
It also suggested game limits per session, tracked play and player limits in the report.
Gambling Commission chief executive Neil McArthur said: “We’ve put consumers at the heart of our advice - advice which is based on the best available evidence and is focused on reducing the risk of gambling-related harm.’
“In our judgement, a stake cut for fixed-odds betting terminals alone doesn’t go far enough to protect vulnerable people. That is why we have recommended a stake cut plus a comprehensive package of other measures to protect consumers.”
The Commission recommended on Monday (March 19) the stake limit for FOBT non-slot games, including roulette, should be set at £30 or less - while traditional slot games like fruit machines should be capped at £2.
Currently punters can bet up to £100 every 20 seconds on the machines, which are found in high street bookmakers. The Government has been reviewing FOBTs amid concerns they encourage gambling addiction, with punters a player to theoretically gamble away £18,000 an hour.
A final decision by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the recommendations is due in the next few weeks.