Gaming machines have hit headlines recently after fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) were dubbed the crack cocaine of the high street because of their addictive qualities. Britons gambled £46 billion on betting terminals last year, an increase of almost 50 per cent in the last four years, and today parliament considers an amendment to regulations that would fix stakes and prizes from these machines.
FOBTs allow users to gamble up to £100 per game with a chance of winning a £500 jackpot. 85% of games played on FOBTs are electronic roulette whose game cycle is only 20 seconds. The size of stake and very short cycle makes this a particularly aggressive form of gambling that encourages fast, repeat visits. A local casino operator once took me to a Chinatown betting shop to see just how quickly cash can be lost. The £40 that he fed into the machine evaporated in under thirty seconds.
FOBTs now account for almost half of betting shops’ turnover. But with shops limited to only four terminals per site, the only way to make more from these money-spinners is to open additional branches. The result has been a proliferation of betting shops on the high street and, in my central London constituency, a growing cluster of bookies around Chinatown.
The Soho Society and London Chinatown Association have become increasingly alarmed. Betting shops have been pushing for later opening hours and more branches to target members of the Chinese community who work until the early hours in the area’s busy restaurant scene. Many of these people are vulnerable to becoming problem gamblers.
Local casinos and adult gaming centres are worried too. On the whole, they are very serious about their obligations to protect vulnerable gamblers and adhere strictly to established codes of gambling practice. With talk of their being granted parity with betting shops to operate FOBT machines, many are horrified that commercial pressure may lead to a proliferation of such terminals in mainstream outlets as well.
Campaigners against FOBTs believe the sting could be taken out their tail if maximum stakes were reduced from £100 to £2, in line with all other Category B machines. Nevertheless, following a government consultation on FOBTs which ended in October, the Department of Culture, Media & Sport has decided not to proceed with a precautionary reduction in stakes or prizes at this stage.
Instead it is calling for further evidence on whether FOBTs are harmful, which is due for publication early next year. This will be the time for government to judge whether these machines require further regulation and I believe it is fair to allow that process to go ahead. In the meantime, the government has asked the industry to monitor the effectiveness of new player protection measures that will start imminently and provide greater safeguards for players.
I do hope this window of evidence-gathering gives the government time to review its original decision. As the proliferation of these machines gathers pace, I suspect Ministers will soon find their position untenable. FOBTs are bad news for the high street and potentially devastating for problem gamblers. Let’s be ahead of the curve on this.