Fixed odds betting terminals – addictive or ‘harmless’ fun?
On Wednesday the government will may make another effort to “scrape the barnacles off the boat”. That’s the relentless campaign by David Cameron’s Australian spin-doctor Lynton Crosby to get rid of any niggling problems in government policy and activity which Labour and the Liberal Democrats might use against the Conservatives between now and the election.
In this case the measures relate to fixed odds betting terminals – or Fobties – the electronic gaming machines which were brought to this country in the early noughties and which have transformed the nation’s high street betting shops. Indeed, Lynton Crosby may know a thing or two about Fobties as the machines were introduced in Australia long before the UK.
By law each betting shop is only allowed four such machines, but on average they make £47,000 a year in profit. They now account for almost half the turnover of Britain’s 33,000 bookmakers’ shops, and generate £1.6bn in profit for the industry.
Critics sat Fobties are highly addictive, and certainly I found it very compulsive when I played on a machine a couple of years ago (fortunately I wasn’t gambling with my own money). The crucial aspect is the speed. Unlike betting on horses or dogs, where you have to wait several minutes between each race, with Fobties punters can accumulate huge losses very, very quickly.
£100 a spin
The maximum stake is £100 a spin, but you can bet every twenty seconds. Do the sums. In just a few minutes, if you’re unlucky, you can lose thousands of pounds – £36,000 an hour, in theory, and there are many stories of people losing several thousand pounds in one quick session.
And over time many have lost a lot more than that. Michael O’Grady from Middlesbrough reckons he’s lost £150,000 playing the Fobties over the last decade. But worse than this – his addiction to the machines has cost him his family, too. His wife and daughters have left him because of an addiction which was eating up the family budget, and causing distrust as O’Grady lied to his wife about what he was doing.
Today half a dozen staff from the bookmaking industry delivered a petition to Downing Street with a million names arguing against any further government measures which might threaten the betting industry. Ten thousand jobs are potentially at stake, staff said, as I spoke to them at the gates of Downing Street.
The problem for ministers is that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have seized on the Fobty issue, and denounced the machines as causing huge hardship. For Labour, it’s rather embarrassing as it was the Blair government which originally relaxed the rules to allow Fobty machines in Britain. The party’s deputy leader, Harriet Harman, has told me that was a big mistake. And it’s often Labour voters, in poor inner-city seats such as Harman’s in Southwark, who are suffering the most.
The Liberal Democrats are also on the warpath, and want the maximum stake cut from £100 a spin to just £2.
But the bookmaking industry insists such measures are unnecessary and will threaten their business. It’s harmless “fun” they say, and they point to various measures they have taken to promote responsible gambling. Bookmakers have to display leaflets in their shops from Gamcare, a charity which helps gamblers with problems. And bookmakers are also obliged to allow punters to “self-exclude” themselves – a process whereby they can submit a form asking bookmakers to ban them from their premises for a set period.
But betting shop managers to whom we’ve spoken – both current managers and past – say that such measures are often a sham. They say that the whole culture of bookies’ shops these days depends on the success of Fobty machines, and staff pay is heavily linked to the turnover of each shop. It’s simply not in the interests of staff to police the self-exclusion system. And where shops have scores of self-excluded former customers, it’s often difficult to remember who is excluded, or to recognise all their faces.
One current manager told us that shops often have only one member of staff on duty, and often feel intimated about confronting punters they suspect are betting too much, but who might react in a violent manner. “I’m not a social worker,” this manager told us.
Staff also tell of how unsuccessful punters often take out their frustration, by smashing up the machines, or by being aggressive or violent towards staff.
One current manager has told us Fobties “are the most addictive form of gambling I’ve ever come across”. A former manager, Sam Hollis, says people who play the machines are “completely different” to the sedate nature of traditional customers of bookies’ shops. “They get aggressive, they chase their losses, and it wouldn’t be uncommon for people to actually smash machines, throw chairs around, abuse staff, when they’ve lost a lot of money.”
Hollis has told the programme that when he ran a new Paddy Power shop last year the shop had no self-exclusion forms to hand out. In one shop where he worked staff were encouraged to visit rivals’ shops, watch who was spending large sums.
Paddy Power told Channel 4 News in a statement: “Paddy Power is a responsible operator that takes problem gambling extremely seriously and fully complies with its regulatory obligations [including] the ABB code on responsible gambling. We have thoroughly, fully and carefully investigated the allegations made by an individual who worked at Paddy Power for five months and are satisfied that they are completely untrue.”
This week’s measures are likely to be very much an interim package – giving local councils more power to block plans for new betting shops, and cutting the maximum stake per spin from £100 to £50 – though customers will still be allowed to go up to £100 again with special permission from the shop manager.
What everyone is waiting for is academic research due to be published later this year into the effects of Fobty machines, and exploring how addictive they are.
If that research shows Fobty machines are significantly more addictive than traditional forms of gambling then the pressure will be on ministers, before the election, to bring in a package of much tougher measures.
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