Controversies and Debates
The Central National Issues
Words, meetings, reports, committees, data, evidence, due process, bureaucracy….
The problem is that what happens up there affects us down here. Many of us are full-on working at community level and don’t have time or inclination to be involved in national contexts. Others work full-on to influence national poliical and policy levels.
In this section we’ll be skimming the national contexts. More is found across the site. Our main purpoe here is to get a rough overview of main viewpoints and activities around gambling harms.
Viewpoints, Interests and Demands
The section below gives bare outlines of key viewpoints, areas of interest and demands for change. Some work exclusively in one or two areas, others work across the issues.
Concerns about product design, that features of products are ‘addictive by design’.
Concerns over targeting of young people.
Advertising should be banned or restricted.
Social media marketing should be curbed.
Stopping enticements such as ‘free bets’ and VIP schemes.
Gambling industry should not ponsor or have any relationship with sport.
Increased powers to prevent clustering of gambling outlets in deprived areas.
Industry should pay a compulsory 1% levy on profits to be used by government to fund research, education and training. Current contributions from industry are voluntary and many argue that their funded treatment and education programmes provide the industry with cheap public relations.
Gambling should be seen as a risk industry and treated with the same stringent regulatory demands as tobacco.
The normalisation of lotteries and scratchcards should be investigated.
Working with Industry
While there are many who are happy to work with industry to work to minimise harm, others push for a total separation from industry. Industry promotes itself as working hard to reduce the small number of people affected negatively by gambling and points toi ts voluntary funding of research, education and treatment. Beneficiaries of such funding promote their successes in education and treatment.
Others believe that research, education and treatment are grossly underfunded and/or require stringent expert academic evaluation. There is a growing momentum from many stakeholders to expand research, education and treatment on a properly funded and completely independent basis.
Raising awareness of range and intensity of harms, cutting across sectors: health, family breakdown, children, suicide, crime and justice, employment, education.
Disputing official framings and estimates of harm. Resisting binary opposite of ‘problem gambler’ and happy consumers. Reframing spectrum of harms. Awareness of levels and intensities of harms to each individual.
Stressing the voices of Experts by Experience in raising awareness of harms.
Harms as a public health issue.
Harms as needing treatment and support funded by government with full understanding of severity and incidence of harms.
Striving vigorously to challenge perception of the origin of harms in a ‘pathological’ individual.
Locating gambling industry as knowingly targeting most vulnerable.
Locating gambling harms in community, national and international settings as arising from nature of global economic and business practices.
It is vitally necessary to understand that rather than framing one homogenous ‘population’ we see the sub-populations such as women, BAME, LGBQT, religious groupings, young people, prisoners, those with learning disabilities or mental health disorders, people faing the effects of social inequality, poverty and injustice. Within such groupings individuals vary widely and certainly shouldn’t be identified solely on the basis of their categorisation, it is clear that in general different groups have differing relations to gambling and policy needs to recognise and act on this fully.
There is an ongoing need to educate and train and raise awarness among frontine workers, including GPS, practice and community nurses, secondary and teriary mental health workers, Third Sector workers and organisations, social workers, debt cunsellors, crime and justice bodies, teachers, youth workers.
In Scotland, far more services are required, state funded, and operating as far as possible in integrated community hubs.
All NHS patients should be screened for gambling as they are for tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.
Individuals should be screened for underlying mental health disorders such as bipolar, and for co-occurring substance and behavioural issues.
Health leads should be aware of mental health disorders arising from gambling harms, especially depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. The correlations between gambling and suicidal ideation, attempts to complete suicide, and completing suicide are extremely high.
Staff need to be aware of ‘affected others’ such as family and tailor treatmment and support accordingly.
Addiction is an extreme of the spectrum of gambling harms. The number of people harmed is far greater than those who become addicted. However, addiction is a precise state that requires specialist input. In general, mental health organisations from the NHS to the Third Sector give little attention to addiction despite estimates that 10% of the UK are at risk across all addictions. In policy documents, health advice, and government priorities, gambling is rarely mentioned.
The 2005 Gambling Act is not fit for purpose especially in the context of the rapid growth of the digital environment.
The Gambling Commission is ‘toothless’ in the words of former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith.
The Gambling Commission acts retroactively rather than proactively.
The Gambling Commission is badly structured. It would be better to replace it with a new Ombudsman and a system bringing in oversight, research and policy from ministerial departments relating to health, education, business and culture.
The Commission’s ability to ensure consumers are protected from these new risks is constrained by factors outside its control, including inflexible funding and a lack of evidence on how developments in the industry affect consumers. The Commission is unlikely to be fully effective in addressing risks and harms to consumers within the current arrangements.
The change that stopped use of credit cards for gambling was welcmed – along with the actions of some banks to control gambling spending.
Many campaigners now want to see affordability checks which the industry says would be an intrusion of privacy and penalise many ‘safe’ gamblers.
There are also limits on a ‘soft cap’, for instance a maximum weekly gambling spend of £100
The Machine Zone’s Facebook page is an archive of items referring to gambling debates. In general the stakeholders include a wide range or individuals and organisations drawing attention to the need for change. These include media publications (and the Daily Mail in particular has been vociferous and intent in publicising gambling harms), academics, politicians, churches, think tanks, medical and public health statutory bodies, frontline health and care staff, celebrities, sports bodies and athletes, and most of all those harmed by gambling.
For those who may be interested in exploring some of the views of such actors:
Pub Health Scot Gamb 2020 Public Health Scotland
WHO global World Health Organisation
RCP report on gambling addiction Royal College of Psychiatrists
Online-report-Final-June162020 All Party Parliamentary Group, Gambling Harms
Lancet Lancet Commission on Gambling
Out of Luck Citizens Advice Bureau
Advisory Board for Safer Gambling Online-harms-advice.ABSG Advisory Board for Safer Gambling
Res Reupublica Online-Gambling-Addicted-to-Addiction Res Republica
Social Market Foundation Gambling-review-and-reform-August-2020 Social Market Foundation
Productivity Commission evidence-and-social-policy-gambling(1) Productivity Commission
Gambling-regulation-problem-gambling-and-protecting-vulnerable-people Centre for Social Justice
Sir Humphrey:… Now in Stage Two you go on to discredit the evidence … You say it leaves some important questions unanswered, that much of the evidence is inconclusive, that the figures are open to other interpretations, that certain findings are contradictory, and that some of the main conclusions have been questioned. …
Minister Hacker: But to make accusations of this sort — you’d have to go through it with a fine toothcomb?
Sir Humphrey: No, no, no. You can say all these things without reading it.
The Gambling Industry and Its Supporters
The industry consists of many companies, although some of the bigger ones are conglomerates. The industry complies with the law but has fallen foul at times on regulatory conditions, and operators have been fined. The industry positions itself as supplying a legitimate range of products to the leisure markets. It points out that it makes thousands of jobs, provides essential funding for racing and football clubs, and contributes substantially to the treasury through taxes. It also states that it is in continual progress to make gambling safer for customers, and its record of providing funds for treatment and education. On social media the industry spokespeople sometimes refer to campaigners as ‘anti-gambling’, ‘hysterical’ and ‘prohibitionists’. Since ‘the industry’ consists of many companies and people its general direction, determined and stewarded by the Betting and Gaming Council it may be hidden that some actors and actions within the industry address and limit harmful practices which continue in the industry as a whole. Some who heve had successful gambling company careers may campaign themselves against what they see as unfair industry practices. Most prominent here is Derek Webb and the Campaign for Fairer Gambling.
There is a tension in government between the treasury department’s need for revenue and other parts of government demanding changes which would lead to a loss of revenue. Some individual MPs support the industry, often on th grounds of business freedom and persona responsibility; other MPs are fervently antagonistic to many aspects of the industry. As ever, parliament is replete with lobbyists from many industries including gambling.
More broadly in society there is an ideological position often associated with ‘libertarianism’ which resonates with the focus on business freedom and personal responsibility. The state is here accused of interfering where it has no place. While agreeing, as the industry does, that gambling harms should be addressed, it is believed that heavy-handed regulation may impede the freedoms, choices and enjoyment of the vast majority. A prominent holder of this position is Christopher Snowdon who writes here that:
The measures proposed by some activists, such as slowing down games and limiting prize money, are not so much designed to help problem gamblers as deter anyone from gambling by sucking the fun out of it. That is not what regulation is supposed to do, and it carries risks of its own.
The 2005 Gambling Act Review
The Westminster Department of Culture, Media and Sport has invited views and evidence about the current Gambling Act and where it needs bringing up to date. The process of submitting material ended on 31 March 2021. Thereafter there will be a a review period. The request for submissions was by a document which contains many specific questions for focus. It can be seen here.
Above we looked at some of the views of main stakeholders and proposals being made to change gambling regulations and industry practices. We’ll link to some submissions that are in te public domain, and follow closely any developments in the review process.
To contextualise the current situation we now refer back to the review and subsequent legislation that followed debate about maximum stakes about fixed odds betting terminals in high street bookmakers. These machines, still in place with reduced maximum stake after campaigning, represent the introduction to the UK of high speed digital gambling.
cgFixed Odds Betting Terminals
Fixed odds betting terminals are machines which were introduced to high street bookies from 2000. Allowing maximum stakes of £100 these digital devices were high speed immersive experiences. Roulette is the most popular game on them, and punters can spin once every twenty seconds. Amidst Growing concerns about the seriously negative effects on many players, the machines became dubbed ‘the crack cocaine’ of gambling. As we witness today with campaigns over digital online gambling using mobile devices, ‘a casino in the pocket’, there was a sustained effort by many individuals and organisations to have the maximum stakes reduced to £2, an effort which achieved its goal with regulatory change.
It’s worth digging into the archives to realise that much of the debate and argument from about 2010 is similar to a greatly amplified situation today about digital gambling in general.
This Machine Zone article from 2017 looks at fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs), during a period of debate and controversy about limiting the maximum stake from £100 to £2. Features of the machines in bookmakers’ are similar to those in online gambling products
Like Brexit or Scottish independence, the issue of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals arouses strong feelings and many opposing views. Although not as much in the public eyes as things like Brexit, our exploration of the FOBT debate gives a great insight in miniature of such important things as how decisions are made in parliament, the role of individuals and organisations in decision making, business ethics, addiction and mental health and much more. One thing is certain: evidence and data, facts and interpretations are disputed between different parties. Not least importantly we hope to provide information and links by which individuals can make informed decisions.
Our intention is that this site’s case study of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals provides insights into many other controversial issues which involve competing viewpoints. For example, what roles do food industries,government and individual choice play in the consumption of ‘unhealthy’ food? Where does responsibility lie? Is it with the individual, the product, the industries that provide the product or government?
Or is it a combination of several factors?
What is a Fixed Odds Betting Terminal?
Fixed odds betting terminals, or FOBties, are gambling machines that can be found in some casinos, and high street betting shop where only four machines are allowed. As their name suggests, they give a ‘fixed odds’ bet. We concentrate on roulette machines as these are the most popular. These are designed on average to yield a 97.3% payout to customers. The odds on a roulette machine are 35 to 1 per bet. The odds decrease in roulette the more numbers you bet on, or betting on colours, or odds and evens, or first, second and third dozens. Essentially, the chances of winning on a FOBT are the same as in real roulette in a casino. Some machines have a maximum stake of £100, though in recent years this has been voluntarily modified by the betting industry. The maximum prize is £500. There are other FOBTs which have a different licence and are limited to £2 stakes.
So why are they controversial?
Since their introduction to UK betting shops in 2002 there has a been a growing and intense series of protests against FOBties. In recent years this has gone alongside alarm about the spread of online gambling and advertising. There have been vigorous calls to limit the stakes or ban the machines completely from politicians, Church, health professionals, academic researchers, some senior figures from within the betting industry, unknown numbers of individuals who say that they have been destroyed by them, and the mainstream media. Of the latter, The Daily Mail has mounted a campaign against them, and other newspapers – national, regional and local – regularly have reports and features about them. The main television channels as well as regional channels have all produced programmes about them. Why?
Critics claim that the machines are addictive and unfair. While conceding that it is a relatively small number of users who run into serious problems, critics argue that the machines are proven to be harmful hard gambling products which are found in the more deproved and vulnerable urban areas, deliberately targeted at those most at risk.
Across this website are example os evidence and personal stories. However, the evidence is often challenged or rejected, and the stories of personal ruin are claimed below to be because of the individuals themselves and not the machines.
Some of the main oppositions to FOBties
The bottom line is the claim that the machines are unfair and potentially addictive. Critics cite the many stories of people who say their lives have been ruined by them. Researchers have argued that there is something in the design itself of the machines which is unfair. There are cases where the machines have been used for money laundering. There have also been claims that FOBties can induce violence, putting staff and customers at risk. Betting shops with the machines ‘cluster’ in the most deprived areas; sometimes the same company will have shops near each other to get around the four machines per premises rule. Many local councils have called upon government to restrict or ban them.
This website gathers some examples of the above.
What do the bookmakers say?
The main organisation that represents the betting industry is the Association of British Bookmakers. They argue firstly that most people who use the machines do so sensibly. In a 2013 report they say that there is:
”no evidence of a causal link between problem gambling and electronic gaming”:
The average amount spent by customers on a B2 gaming machine is around £11 per machine per hour.
And 74% of B2 players play once a month or less which is hardly reflective of an addictive product. There is no evidence of a causal link between gaming machines and higher levels of problem gambling and the percentage of identified problem gamblers playing on B2 machines actually went down by 20-25% from 2007 to 2010…61
The ABB paper refers to the economic and social benefits of licensed betting offices.62 It claims that a reduction to £2 of the maximum stake on B2 machines would put 90% of betting shops and nearly 40,000 jobs at risk and result in the Treasury losing nearly £650 million in tax.
The idea of reducing the stake gathered momentum with a government working party which reported in January 2017. Of the report, the ABB said that it was:
“deeply flawed” and called for an inquiry by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards…
They said the parliamentary group had no proper standing; that its report merely reflected the views of certain MPs with an axe to grind; and that the report had been funded by rivals in the gambling industry, such as those in the casino, arcade and pub industries.
“We strongly believe that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should urgently investigate this all-party parliamentary group,” said Malcolm George, chief executive of the Association of British Bookmakers.
“This group of MPs has operated in secrecy, provided no transcripts of the evidence given to their meetings and operated throughout behind closed doors away from public scrutiny.”
He added that betting shops were already closing at the rate of more than 100 a year and if the findings of this report were implemented, it “could spell the beginning of the end for the High Street bookmaker.
The ABB declined to take part in a BBC Panorama programme about FOBties but submitted some statements, one of which pointed out that although FOBties have been on the high street for 15 years there is no evidence of an increase in problem gambling. The ABB repeated concern that rivals in the betting industries were working against them. The Head of Britain’s largest casino, The Hippodrome, took part in the programme, saying, “If you are making £30 million a week from a product on the high street that is insanely wrong you will defend it to the Nth degree.” The Association of British Bookmakers responded in a statement, “These accusations against our industry are malicious. Mr Thomas owns a casino and like many other campaigners he has a clear commercial interest in trying to undermine betting shop competition.”
The ABB point out also that they have an ethical commitment to tackling problem gambling, and donate large sums towards independent charities such as GamCare and actively support research.
The Totally Gaming website reported:
The Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) says that a petition signed by more than 325,000 betting shop staff and customers from across the country demonstrates how the British Public feel about betting shops, rather than how it is depicted in sensationalist headlines in the media.
A delegation of betting shop staff and Roar! Betting founder Dominic Ford delivered the petition to the Prime Minister’s house 10 Downing Street last week as the industry finds itself under great scrutiny.
ABB PR manager Peter Craske told TotallyGaming.com said the number of supporters willing to put their name forward in defence if betting shops was a strong message: “I think they show politicians the depth of feeling on an issue and we have been able to show the support for betting shops of 325,000 people, who choose to enjoy their leisure time with us.”
The petition was collected as part of the recent ‘Back Your Local Bookie’ campaign and called on the Government to support an industry that employs 43,000 people, serves six million customers and which has been trading on the high street for 55 years.
The ABB says more than 300 betting shops have been forced to shut in the past two years as a result of more regulation and higher taxes.
Customers and staff now fear there could be hundreds more closures if more unnecessary regulation is introduced by the Government.
Among the delegation at Downing Street was Vicky Knight, who works for independent bookie Jennings Bet and has signed the petition. She said: “The support we’ve had from our customers over the past few weeks for our campaign has been fantastic. They enjoy their local bookie and would be devastated, as would staff, if the Government took draconian action against bookies.
“We care about our customers and we are there to help the very small number of customers who get into problems with their gambling. Bookies cater for millions of people who enjoy over-the-counter betting and gaming machines (FOBTs), if we lose either of these, we are finished. And, without bookies, there will be even more empty shops and fewer reasons for people to come into town.”
ABB chief executive Malcolm George added: “Britain’s betting shops have been open for business on our high streets and in local communities since before The Beatles. They have a long record of ensuring customers can bet safely and responsibly and it is vital that the work of staff and the voice of our six million customers are not ignored.
“We hope politicians and the public will visit their local betting shop to see for themselves what a great community they are and talk to the staff and locals who enjoy their flutter at the bookies.”
Totally Gaming says: The petition is a good tool to pierce the hysteria surrounding betting shops at the moment, particularly regarding FOBTs which are currently being looked at in the latest Triennial Review of stakes and prizes. Bookmakers need to create a groundswell of grassroots support if they are going to get politicians to even give them a fair hearing.
Further to their statements that there has been no increase in problem gambling since the introduction of FOBties, and that there is no evidence linking problem ga,bling with electronic machine, the ABB also point to the serious social and economic consequences of restricting them. In response to proposals to reduce maximum stakes to £2, a confidential report by KPMG (seen by The Times claims that
20,000 jobs would be at risk. The research also claims there would be a knock-on effect on the racing industry, which would miss out £100m from bookmakers in racing levy contributions and media rights, the newspaper reported.
It says that the £2 maximum stake would bring in £1bn per year less for the Treasury by 2020. The prediction is based on data from two thirds of Britain’s 8,700 betting shops.
A spokesman for Ladbrokes said a cut in stakes to £2 would “decimate the industry”.
Other contributions to the debate
We give a sampling of views and evidence,claims and counterclaims, throughout the site. The section on Evidence suggests some of the evidence that has been offered for and against FOBties being harmful or not.
One particular view is worth noting which is that the opposition to FOBties is based on there being no evidence for alleged links between FOBties and gambling addictions or harm. Some accuse those against the machines of hysteria or falling victim to the campaigning of various groups. Here is an example from the Institute of Economic Affairs, which is broadly an organisation that is committed to freedom in business. This briefing paper by Christopher Snowdon concludes: “The campaign against fixed odds betting terminals closely resembles previous moral panics about new gambling products and can largely be attributed to ignorance and misinformation: ignorance about how gambling works and misinformation from a small but well organised group of campaigners who make claims that cannot be supported by evidence.”
Media interest in gambling, and particular FOBT machines increased from about 2010 in radio, print and television coverage. The article below from Beat the Fix.com in 2017 gives a taste of the newspaper coverage, and covers some of the main views of stakeholders. The media are powerful actors in bringing about or resisting change. Then as now campaigners need to be aware of the best ways to use the national, regional and local media.
Newspapers, magazines and trade journals have featured the FOBtie debates extensively in recent times. Coverage increased as Parliament’s Working Party began to gather evidence in October 2016, and went on to publish its findings and conclusions in January 2017. There’s a brief summary of the report and the betting industry’s angry response here
Newspapers regularly allow space for comment columns. A recent such column, in The Daily Telegraph of 2017, was written by Jim Mullen, Chief Executive of Ladbrokes Coral. It is worth quoting in full as it covers so many of the contentious area of the debates and provides a concise summary of the main ‘lines of defence’ of the bookmaking industry:
Fixed-odds betting terminals have faced an avalanche of criticism from campaigners in recent years. Opponents have made wild claims that machines in betting shops have fuelled a surge in problem gambling, with unprecedented rises in the numbers facing problems.
Amid this flood of emotive criticism, the Government is now reviewing the future of the fixed-odds betting terminals – or FOBTs as they are known. Ministers are being urged by some to slash the amount someone can stake to as little as £2 a time.
First, the truth is that there simply hasn’t been a big increase in problem gambling. Independent studies over the last 10 to 15 years show that levels of problem gambling have remained very stable at well under one per cent of the gambling population. Two years ago, for instance, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport estimated that around 0.4 per cent of people in the UK could be defined as “problem gamblers.” Last year, the Gambling Commission calculated the figure was 0.5 per cent. These figures demolish the whole basis on which the crusade against FOBTs has been built.
Second, ministers must look carefully at the devastating impact a hasty response to these unjustified calls for action could have on the jobs of thousands of betting shop staff across the UK.
Betting shops currently employ 55,000 men and women across the UK, both in full-time and part-time jobs – and they are good jobs, with decent wages, holidays and benefits. That’s around 10 per cent of all the people employed in the UK’s leisure sector. Betting shops have a proud record of giving jobs to young people too – around a quarter of employees are aged 18 to 24. Ladbrokes Coral alone employs more than 20,000 people in around 3,500 betting shops across the country, including 6,000 under-25s and 1,000 apprentices.
Since the Seventies, the number of betting shops on our high streets has fallen by nearly half and City analysts predict more will close in future, with an estimated loss of around 6,000 jobs by 2020. But that figure would be more than three times higher if there is an unwarranted clampdown on FOBTs and staking levels
Since the Seventies, the number of betting shops on our high streets has fallen by nearly half and City analysts predict more will close in future, with an estimated loss of around 6,000 jobs by 2020. But that figure would be more than three times higher if there is an unwarranted clampdown on FOBTs and staking levels.
Despite the lack of evidence of a surge in problem gambling, critics of FOBTs want the limit on stakes to be cut from £100 to £2. The industry estimates that this would lead to an extra 15,000 job losses.
As the chief executive at Ladbrokes Coral, I will not stand idly by and watch as a group of campaigners who do not like betting machines force thousands of my dedicated colleagues out of a job and on to the dole. We are talking about losing 15,000 to 20,000 jobs. Jobs that will be lost in pretty much every constituency in our country.
Third, it is important ministers take account of the wider repercussions of an unjustified intervention. Horseracing, for instance, would lose hundreds of millions a year. The sport currently receives around £250m a year from the betting and gaming industry through a combination of media rights, sponsorship and the horserace betting levy. But if FOBT stakes are cut to £2, the amount of money available would plummet – horseracing would lose nearly £290m of funding over the next four years.
If FOBT stakes are cut to £2, the amount of money available would plummet – horseracing would lose nearly £290m of funding over the next four years Credit: Joe Giddens
The Treasury’s already stretched coffers will be hit badly too. My industry currently pays around £1bn every year in taxes but that figure will fall sharply if FOBTs are singled out for unfair punishment. Current estimates show that moving to a £2 stake would cost the Exchequer £1bn in lost tax revenue over the next four years.
There is also genuine concern that targeting FOBTs in betting shops will simply displace betting to riskier, unregulated environments. In contrast, my industry has gone to great lengths to promote responsible gambling. Our staff are trained to spot problem gambling behaviours and we enforce breaks in play to help people stay in control. We are also increasingly using technology to help monitor potential problem gamblers. We have a tough, industry wide code on the promotion and advertising of gambling and as an industry we are committed to doing more.
If this is a genuine call for evidence, then the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the betting and gaming industry. If ministers choose to ignore this evidence they will be gambling with the jobs of thousands of my colleagues, hardworking men and women who deserve a fair hearing.
Betting is a great British pastime. More people bet, and enjoy it, than visit National Trust properties. If we clampdown on FOBTs, hundreds of betting shops will vanish from our high streets
Betting is a great British pastime. More people bet, and enjoy it, than visit National Trust properties. If we clampdown on FOBTs, hundreds of betting shops will vanish from our high streets, and millions of Brits will no longer be able to pop down to their local betting shop to have a quick flutter. I’m proud of my industry – I started my career working Saturdays at my local betting shop – and I won’t let it go down without a fight.
I would urge ministers to pause and take time to look properly at the evidence. There is no link between FOBTs and a surge in problem gambling. There is no evidence that stake cuts on one product will do anything to solve the issue of problem gambling. In contrast, the threats to jobs, tax revenues and horseracing are very real. On that basis, ministers should reject these needless calls for a war on the betting industry.
This is an interesting piece of writing perhaps for students to study and comment upon, especially if contrasted with this opinion piece from The Guardian by a former betting industry executive, Adrian Parksinson who now works with the Campaign for Fairer Gambling.
Ten years ago, when I was working as a senior executive in the betting industry, I met John.
John was married, employed at a Morrison’s superstore in Manchester and would spend his days off in the betting shop bantering with his mates over the football, betting on the horses, playing fruit machines and wagering his money on sport.
When I caught up with John in 2009, he no longer discussed the football or the horses, nor did he have much time for banter. He was an outcast from betting shops across Manchester, his wife had left him and he had moved into a one-bedroom flat on his own. He still had his job, though was heavily in debt, and aside from paying his rent most of his wages were spent funding an addiction.
Not a drug addiction, but one that has been likened to it even by the bookmakers that operate them; he was hooked on the “crack cocaine of gambling”: fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs).
FOBTs are roulette gaming machines that allow players to bet up to £100 per spin, 50 times more than the maximum that can be bet on most fruit machines.
For more than 10 years I helped to develop and integrate FOBTs across betting shops in the UK. But in 2012 I turned whistleblower on FOBTs through Panorama, and have continued campaigning to see them restricted since.
John was one of the first victims of a FOBT-driven gambling addiction I came across. Other victims, such as a Bradford school teacher who blew £60,000 in four months, I was unaware of until they had been banned from the shops. The FOBTs I had put in these shops turned betting shop punters into pathological gamblers, and their losses became part of the estimated 23% of revenue that is derived from those with an addiction.
In the last 12 years, more than 33,000 of these high-risk casino gambling machines have gone into shops on Britain’s high streets. They are clustering on the high streets of some of the most deprived towns in the country. Allowing £100-per-spin gaming machines in easily accessible high street locations is not responsible gambling legislation.
In April the coalition government proclaimed a clampdown on FOBTs, and introduced a range of measures, including players having to identify themselves to staff when they want to stake from £50 to £100. This is an arbitrary decision, which seems to imply that those staking under £50 are not at risk of succumbing to addiction.
It also looks as if the government will soon enable councils to prevent new betting shops opening under planning laws. This is not enough. On the few occasions when bookmakers have to apply for planning permission, their bank balances combined with an appeals procedure often ensure that a decision against them is reversed.
Planning powers are not retrospective and as Clive Efford MP, Labour’s gambling spokesman, said: “It is too little too late.” This has led one MP, Tom Docherty, to submit a private members bill for a cap on the number of betting shops.
But cutting betting shops is not the answer. The solution, in my view, is for greater powers to be given to local councils, for the government to agree a safer, acceptable staking level for all machines in high-street gambling venues and for FOBT bets to be capped at £2 per spin.
In many ways these heavily contrasting opinion pieces encapsulate most of the emotional energy behind the varying viewpoints. It should be noted, as you will find across this website, the bookmaking industry often claim that other sectors in the betting industries are campaigning against them for the purpose of commercial gain.
We suggested that you won’t have to search for long on Google before you find many media stories about FOBties. As well as opinion pieces such as those above, you’ll come across many articles which include stories of personal devestation in a broader context of the controversies. An article from The Times, 17 February 2016 (subscription required), is typical of these.
Fixed-odds betting terminals have spread like cancer, devastating communities in their wake, according to campaigners.
The machines, known as FOBTs, allow punters to place bets of up to £100 every twenty seconds on electronic games such as blackjack and roulette.
“The huge potential prizes per spin and rapid gameplay draw gamblers in but the high stakes can encourage players to chase their losses, snaring them in a trap that can lead to debt, family breakdown and crime,” said Matt Zarb-Cousin, of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling. “Regular players never win,” he added.
Last year bookmakers made a profit of £1.675 billion on the machines — almost £50,000 per terminal.
Calls to Gamcare, the organisation raising awareness of problem gambling, show that more than a quarter of problem gamblers are hooked on the machines, suggesting that there may be as many as 150,000 FOTB addicts in Britain.
The article goes on to highlight a further criticism levelled about the dangers inherent in the machines – that is the violence faced by staff. If you do your own searching you will come across mor ethan a few references to this issue. The bookmaking industry deny that their staff are in danger, and again you will find references to this via basic searches.
Desperate players vandalised one in five of the machines in frustration last year, a senior figure at the Gambling Commission said. In one incident in Blackburn, Sarfraz Patel, 38, flew into a “betting rage”, smashing five terminals after losing £1,000.
Betting shop workers are also at risk of extreme violence. In 2014 a gambling addict murdered a betting shop manager by hitting him repeatedly with a claw hammer. Shafique Ahmad Aarij, 21, hit Andrew Iacovou, 55, nine times before he robbed a Ladbrokes of £296. Aarij was a regular at the shop. Mr Iacovou lay undiscovered for 90 minutes as other gamblers played on.
The article also includes reference to the ‘clustering’ of bookmakers in deproved community. It personalises the open access in public spaces with the following:
Many bookmakers are now open from 7am to 10pm, maximising the amount of time punters can play the machines. Tom Medley, a recovering FOBT addict, said: “Something has gone wrong in the world when you can pop to the shop in the morning to pick up a loaf of bread and pint of milk and then pop next door to play roulette.”
The report includes a response from the Association of British Bookmakers:
The Association of British Bookmakers defended the machines and the £100 stake level. “The maximum stake on FOBTs is set by the government, not bookmakers. In fact less than 1 per cent of stakes on fixed-odds betting terminals are above £50 and the average stake on a fixed odds betting terminal is £5.13 during an average session lasting 11 minutes. The average loss was £7.”
It denied that there was an epidemic of vandalism against FOBTs, saying it is unaware of any statistical or other reliable evidence to support such a claim.
Frequently, in news reports and elsewhere (for instance in parliamentary debate) there is an appeal to evidence. We are using this particular news story as fairly typical of many similar reports. It is in such news reports that we, the general public, are presented with stories of personal ruin. The Times article concludes:
Tom Medley, 50, knows more than anybody the devastation that fixed-odds betting terminals can cause. Once a high-flying businessman, he has lost more than half a million pounds playing the machines. His addiction eventually also cost him his job, marriage and home.
Currently sleeping on his sister’s sofa, Mr Medley says his problems began when the machines started appearing at bookmakers in 2001.
“Before that I used to bet on the horses but it was under control. Then I started putting a few quid in the machines but it quickly escalated. They sucker you in. You chase your losses and before you know it you are playing huge stakes.
“I was earning good money at the time but I kept losing. One day I lost more than £9,000. I just couldn’t stop betting and now I have lost everything.”
Mr Medley ended up borrowing money to feed his addiction. “Once I took out a £10,000 loan from Sainsbury’s. The money came through the morning I was playing in a charity golf day. I was due on the tee at 10am and by then I’d blown £3,000 . Two weeks later the money had gone and I still owe it. Nobody at the time had any idea. That is the thing about gambling addiction, you can get away with it for ages because nobody notices. You don’t look ill like a junkie.”
“People don’t understand it is an illness. My wife couldn’t cope any more and I lost her.”
This news story, similar to very many others, brings to the foreground the essential components of the controversies. Its ‘case study’, one of many such reported in the media, provides powerful insights into individual ruin. Beneath the statistics, politics, campaign and counter-campaign the media have highlighted case after case of human suffering. Whether such stories are to count as ‘evidence’ is contested by some.
Media and English students in particular may be directed towards analysis of the media texts, especially the use of language and the appeals to ‘human interest’.
Newspapers also report on the less immediate aspects of the debates around Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. Parliamentary proceedings are a huge source of news for all mainstream media, and this is the case too for coverage of politics in relation to FOBties. The following, in The Daily Telegraph draws attention to some MPs’ concerns that campaigns against the machines are commercially motivated and not based on objective evidence:
The All Party Betting and Gaming Committee has taken issue with a “materially misleading” publicity drive by Derek Webb, who made almost £15m in the casino industry but is now leading an attack on bookmakers.
Having dubbed the fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) in the shops the “crack cocaine of gambling”, Mr Webb took out advertisements at the Lib Dem, Labour and Conservative party conferences calling for a clampdown on the machines.
Adverts from the “Campaign for Fairer Gambling” read: “Pull the plug on bookmakers’ addictive roulette machines”, asking: “Which side is your party on? The bookmakers’, or society’s?”.
The MPs’ gaming committee has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority over what it sees as a highly “subjective” campaign in which Mr Webb persistently portrays opinions as fact.
A letter, signed by Conservative MP Philip Davies, co-chairman of the 20-strong committee, complains that Mr Webb’s adverts present information that is “without objective substantation, factually inaccurate, denigratory, omits material information and expresses subjective opinion as if these are objective claims”.
The New Statesman, the weekly political current affairs and cultural magazine devoted a complete insert on FOBties which you can download here. The contents indicate the issues that are covered:
The New Statesman is considering a ‘left of centre’ magazine. Its ‘right of centre’ counterpart is The Spectator. Here you’ll find an opinion piece about FOBTies which demonstrates the wide divide beneath opinions – a diide perhaps not so much based on ‘evidence’ but upon underlying values and political principles.
Local media regularly cover the controversy. It’s a ‘live issue’, involves human interest, has immediate ;ocal relevance and involves local readers the chance to give their views. The Liverpool Echo, for instance, sent a reporter into a betting shop to play a machine and report on his experience; meanwhile readers gave their own opinions:
Many readers on Facebook said addiction was a complex issue, and people would find another way to gamble if the machines were banned.
Meanwhile others had little sympathy for those affected, saying it was down to individuals to steer clear.
Beverley Shea said: “I don’t gamble myself. But if you take these machines away, they’ll gamble in other ways. It’s just like over eating, shall we take away all foods, destroy them because of it?
I’m an over-eater, banish it all I’d probably eat my fella and my family. You’ll always find a way.”
Kay Mckenna shared the same view, writing: “Crack down the machines all you want and they’ll go online and fine websites… people with gambling addictions need help just like a drug addict and alcoholic.”
And Trish Antonucci said: “The issue is addiction not the gambling machines….there will always be some sort of vice for an addictive personality … prohibition is not the answer .. deal with addictive personality.”
Martin Vale was one of those who said he had no sympathy with people who spent their money on the machines, posting: “No-one pushed him in the door, I’ve no sympathy for people who know what they’re doing, and then look for someone to blame.”
Lee John Barber said: “Everything starts with a choice, play them or you don’t play them, nobody force’s anybody to play them, grow up and take responsibility for your own actions.”
Finally, local news also covers local political debate around the issues. Here The Newham Recorder follows up on Newham Council’s campaign for fixed odd betting machines to have their maximum stake lowered from £100 to £2 with an item about the Mayor’s calling for further research on the economic impact claimed by the bookmakers’ industry.