Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
I welcome the consideration that colleagues in the other place have given to this matter. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group on fixed odds betting terminals, which are affectionately known as FOBTs. As many colleagues know, I have campaigned on this issue for more than a year. Sometimes I feel that it has taken over my life. There are 35,000 FOBTs located in high street bookmakers up and down the UK. These high-stakes, casino-style games are in low-supervision environments and are easily accessible to those who are most vulnerable to gambling-related harm. In Wales, there is a growing problem with FOBTs in local communities. According to the latest statistics, more than £50 million was lost on FOBTs in Wales in 2015.
The Lords amendment is welcome, but it does not go far enough. Powers should be devolved to the Welsh Assembly to allow local authorities to deal with existing clusters of betting shops in deprived areas. The most effective way to do that would be to reduce the maximum stake playable on a FOBT to £2, but the power to achieve that is not included in the Bill. There are growing calls for a reduction in the maximum stake, with more than 93 local councils across the UK, led by Newham Council, having now petitioned the Government to reduce the stake to £2.
The all-party group has concluded its inquiry into the machines. We found beyond reasonable doubt that the maximum stake on a FOBT should be reduced to £2 on a precautionary basis, in line with the objectives of the Gambling Commission. The full findings of the report are due to be published shortly, and we have been encouraged by the willingness of Ministers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to work with us on this issue. I very much hope that they will respond positively by reducing the stake and properly regulating FOBTs. I eagerly await the result of the current stakes and prizes review.
These machines are directly linked to problem gambling, with four out of five FOBT gamblers exhibiting problem gambling behaviour at stakes in excess of £13 a spin, compared with one in five when stakes of £2 and under are involved. FOBTs cause significant economic and social problems. In particular, they lead to increased incidents of money laundering in bookmakers, as the gambling activity is largely unsupervised and it is therefore relatively easy for fraudsters to use it as a way to clean their money. They are also leading to more problems as players take out payday loans to sustain their FOBT usage. Increasing crime levels have also been reported, with betting shops now accounting for 97% of all police call-outs to gambling venues. Up to September 2014, there was also a 20% increase in police call-outs to betting shops. There has been a clustering of betting shops on Britain’s high streets, with a 43% increase in the number located in towns and city centres. This is destroying the health and vibrancy of our high streets.
The most effective way to limit the harm of such machines is to reduce the stakes, which are currently set at up to £100. A substantially lower stake would bring FOBTs into line with machines in other low-supervision environments such as adult gaming centres and bingo halls. The Gambling Commission itself says that if stakes were being set now, it would strongly advise against £100 stakes on a precautionary basis. A lower stake of £2 is the level that the previous Government said would bring adequate public protection. I encourage the Government to support amendment (a) to the Lords amendments, to devolve powers to Wales and to allow local communities to tackle the problems caused by FOBTs. Such a proactive move not only would recognise the danger of these addictive machines and establish good practice to protect our communities from it, but would be a positive step towards ensuring that we, as a society, take our moral responsibility seriously.
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