Mark made the following interventions in a debate about Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs)
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly pointed out, the size of the stake—up to £100—and the very short cycle make FOBTs a particularly aggressive form of gambling that encourages fast repeat visits. FOBTs now account for almost half of betting shops’ turnover in the UK as a whole. Given that shops are limited to only four terminals per site, the way to make more from that money spinner is to open additional branches. The result has been that betting shops have proliferated, particularly in the Chinatown area of my constituency. Local authorities are hamstrung by the “aim to permit” guidance under which they review premises’ licence applications for betting shops.
The Soho Society and the London Chinatown Chinese Association have become increasingly alarmed. Betting shops have been pushing for later opening hours and more branches to target people—particularly members of the Chinese community in my constituency, who work until the early hours in the area’s busy restaurant scene. Many of those people are particularly vulnerable to becoming problem gamblers.
Some 12 months ago, the Government accepted that FOBTs are a serious cause for concern and said that more evidence would be gathered on their negative effects. Unfortunately, there is still no sign of a definitive review. Several key questions need to be answered. Should £100 stake gaming machines be allowed in ambient gambling environments such as betting shops? Do those machines exacerbate problem gambling in betting shops? Would cutting the stake protect those who are vulnerable?
The regulator has a statutory duty to act to protect the vulnerable. It has suggested that a precautionary approach could be applied to reduce the stake. Campaigners against FOBTs want the maximum to be reduced from £100 to £2, in line with all other category B machines. I support that suggestion.
Gambling the world over has evolved within a fairly sensible, consistent structure. The hardest gambling is reserved to highly regulated venues such as casinos—my constituency has many—to which customers go with the expectation of experiencing a much harder gambling environment. Casinos have very high levels of player supervision and protection. Players tend to be occasional visitors, and casinos tend to be viewed as destination leisure venues that have more than just gambling on offer.
The Gaming Act 1968 put in place a regulatory pyramid. At the top, harder gambling was reserved to more strictly regulated venues. The lowest level of supervision was for soft gambling at seaside arcades, for example. The middle tier—the general, high street, ambient gambling, which we are discussing today—was expected to be fairly soft gambling with lower levels of player supervision. It is not, in my view, suitable for the kind of hard FOBT games that we see today.
B2 gaming machines are totally inappropriate for high streets across the country at the current level of stake. Until their advent, bookmakers had few issues with crime and attacks on staff. Since their introduction, police call-outs to gambling premises have rocketed, as frustrated users carry out damage to machines.
I understand that the instinct of this Government—a Conservative Government—is not to give in to nanny state urges. I make that sort of argument fairly regularly. However, it seems odd that at the self-same time as we are imposing a sugar tax and ever more draconian measures against smokers, we are allowing these high-stake gambling machines to proliferate in a loosely regulated environment. I ask the Minister to work with responsible operators in the gambling industry, of whom there are very many, to reduce the FOBT stake.