New rules to tackle ‘crack cocaine of gambling’

THE SCOTTISH Government is poised to back a crackdown on controversial fixed-odds betting terminals after a damning report showed £200 million a year is spent on them in Scotland’s biggest city.

Huge sums of money are put into 800 machines in 200 betting shops in Glasgow every day. Picture: PA
Huge sums of money are put into 800 machines in 200 betting shops in Glasgow every day. Picture: PA
Huge sums of money are put into 800 machines in 200 betting shops in Glasgow every day. Picture: PA

The machines, branded the “crack cocaine of gambling”, are normally found in bookmakers’ shops, offering gamblers a bet on games such as roulette or simulated horse or greyhound racing.

A council study found more than £500,000 a day was being ploughed into about 800 machines in 200 betting shops across Glasgow.

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Council chiefs are now calling for regulators to commission detailed independent research to establish the impact of allowing “casino-style gambling” on Scotland’s high streets.

New guidelines are set to be unveiled next week, making it more difficult for shops with the machines to get planning permission to open.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We have listened to the concerns on payday loan and betting shops and will respond to them in the new Scottish planning policy which will be published shortly.”

Ministers staged a summit meeting attended by a range of experts earlier this year, and a report on its finding is to be published.

Bookmakers insist that staff are now trained to deal with problems and, for the first time, players are able to limit the amount of time they play and the cash they spend.

The machines are more likely to be located in poorer areas, dominated by low-paid work and high unemployment, the respected NatCen Social Research body has found.

Studies found that players typically staked more than £12 on each spin on the terminals.

Glasgow City Council’s cross-party “sounding board” study is believed to be the first in Britain to attempt to gauge the impact “high-speed” gambling machines have on a city and its communities.

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It stops short of calling for fixed-odds betting terminals to be banned but recommends a new approach to regulating gaming and urges regulators to commission research to establish their full impact.

A fixed-odds betting terminal allows players to bet on the outcome of various games and events. In the UK, the minimum amount wagered per spin is £1 and the maximum bet cannot win more than £500 at any time.

Councillor Paul Rooney, chair of the cross-party sounding board and Glasgow’s city treasurer, said: “I’m not against gambling, but the industry is regulated for a reason – to ensure that when gambling takes place in our communities, it is within a safe, sustainable and responsible environment.

“In the case of fixed-odds betting terminals, that principle has failed.

“More than a dozen years after machines appeared on our high streets, neither the industry nor its regulators are able to identify to what extent, if any, the intense speed of play, the ability to win large prizes with relatively low stakes, and the opportunity to increase stakes rapidly influences problem gambling.

“In the meantime, Glasgow has become home to more than 200 street-corner casinos, without our communities ever having had the opportunity to consider whether they want them.”

Punters in Glasgow lose around £31m each year, with bookies taking around £1.5 billion from fixed-odds betting terminals across Britain – more than from horse racing, dog racing and football betting combined, the study found.

The issue recently came under the spotlight at Holyrood when MSPs called for a crackdown on the terminals in a debate secured by Nationalist MSP Stuart McMillan.

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He said last night: “Fixed-odds betting terminals blight communities across Scotland with absolutely disastrous consequences. These machines – dubbed the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’ – have particularly devastating effects on deprived communities.”

The machines were introduced to Britain – unregulated – early in the millennium and were eventually classified as category “B2” gambling terminals in 2005, when ministers introduced a limit of four terminals per premises.

The games do not give gamblers the opportunity to apply any degree of skill in their play, with wins and losses resting entirely on chance.

A study published earlier this year indicated that £4.4bn was being bet on the machines by Scots.

Mr Rooney said councils in Scotland should be given the same power that local authorities in England and Wales will soon have, to use the planning system to halt the “clustering of betting shops” in high streets and town centres.

A spokesman for the Association of British Bookmakers pointed to a 2013 independent health survey for Scotland, which showed about 70 per cent of Scots gambled in one form or another but less than 1 per cent had a “gambling problem”.

That figure has remained stable since 1999, the spokesman said.

He added: “Betting shops want everyone to bet responsibly which is why, as well as staff being trained to help people getting into difficulty, for the first time anywhere in the world gaming machine players can now set their own limits for the amount of time they play or the amount they spend.”