The betting industry should learn to live without its addictive and lucrative fixed odds machines says Jane Bradley
There is a game on my phone which I just can’t stop playing. It’s like a nervous tick, my fingers are drawn to it before my conscious brain even realises what I’m doing.
I play it when I’m waiting for the bus. I play it when I’ve got a couple of minutes waiting for my daughter to come out of ballet class. I’ve even been known to play it in the evening when I should have far better things to do with my time.
It’s a simple game - aiming a silver ball at tiny little orange and blue pegs. If I succeed, I move on to the next level. I’m currently on level 105.
My only saving grace is that I can only play five games at a time - if I am not successful in moving up to the next level that is - before I run out of lives. Then, I have to wait an hour or so before my lives are restocked - by which time, usually, I have found something more productive to occupy my time.
I could, of course, pay to “keep playing”, but I stand firm over that. However fun it is, I have not succumbed to handing over cash to be allowed to waste more time on a game I shouldn’t, as a grown adult, be playing in the first place. I know if I did, it would be a slippery slope to “just one more” and before I knew it, the month’s mortgage payment would have been frittered away.
I am not someone with a particularly addictive personality, nor am I much of a gamer - but even through this single gaming experience, I can see how people do get hooked on gambling.
This constant human need for “just one more” is why action needs to be taken on the so-called “fixed odds” betting terminals - slot machine games such as roulette, bingo and simulated racing games. They are dubbed the “crack cocaine of gambling” and experts have warned they have such high limits that someone on Job Seeker’s Allowance could lose more than a month’s worth of their benefit in less than one minute.
Near misses fuel the fire for the “just one more” and before they know it, hundreds of pounds have disappeared into the bookies’ coffers. Fifty years ago, it wouldn’t have been so easy. If you didn’t have the cash in your pocket, you couldn’t play - it was as simple as that. Now money is easy access: bank cards, funded by short term, high interest loans, meaning that extra funds are quickly and easily accessed.
At these fixed odds terminals, bets of up to £100 can be placed every 20 seconds, meaning a problem gambler could lose up to £1,500 in five minutes.
Scots MSPs have called for them to be banned - yet so far, they remain in place and talk of a change in the law, which just a few months ago seemed so likely, has gone quiet. Meanwhile, south of the border, the Westminster government is due to review the issue in the near future.
Some organisations, including Bacta - the trade association for the UK’s amusement and gaming machine industry - have demanded that a far lower cap is placed on the amount which can be gambled at a time.
There is talk of £20, compared to the current £100 - or even £10. This would hopefully curb gambling to a certain extent at least, allowing people to consider the amount of cash they are putting into these machines. Bookmakers have revolted over the idea, claiming that it will hit the industry, resulting in thousands of job losses. A separate study has shown that 77 per cent of betting shops share a postcode, meaning that they are tightly clustered together.
Yet surely, while I can understand the commercial concerns for those who have chosen to make their careers in the gambling industry, they need to look at the bigger picture of society.
Even economically speaking, there may be job losses in those industries, but the money that is saved - rather than frittered away into slot machines - will go into the wider economy, potentially creating jobs in other sectors.
One report, commissioned by Bacta but carried out by economic consultancy NERA, claims that at a £20 stake limit, no betting shops would be forced to close by the reduction in the stake level.
At a £10 limit, the study produced three scenarios - depending on how much money was diverted to over-the-counter betting - that range from no closures of betting operators to between four to 11 per cent of betting shops potentially being threatened.
Also, it claims, for every potential job loss, 3.5 jobs could be created in more labour-intensive sectors.
Yet whether this is true or not, in Scotland, a change is particularly necessary. A study released a year ago found that Scots are the most frequent gamblers in the UK, with more than a quarter of adults north of the Border admitting that they gamble at least once a week. Five times the numbers of adults in Scotland gamble compared to the 5 per cent of the working population in the south-west of England who do so.
It is a serious problem.
While for some people, gambling may be a bit of fun as an occasional flutter, for a large number or people it is not.
And the gambling industry needs to be honest about this - people who bet on the Grand National once a year do not keep the industry going. No, the lifeblood of the gambling sector is people who bet day in, day out - frittering away huge amounts of money in the betting shop on a regular basis.
John White, chief executive of Bacta, insists that the gambling industry “can and should learn to live without” fixed odds betting terminals.
He is right. They can and they should.