As chairman of the Association of British Bookmakers, the trade association which represents most betting shops in this country, I have grave concerns that the debate is being derailed and the evidence ignored, in some cases wilfully.
I believe passionately in betting shops and the people who work in them and I am concerned about the danger of real harm being caused to the sector, with little or no benefit to those most at risk.
The singular focus on betting shops, and on FOBTs, which account for just 13 per cent of gambling spend in the UK, is irrational and risks undermining efforts to reduce problem gambling. There needs to be a clear understanding of the facts in this complex area.
It is irrefutable that problem gambling has been statistically stable over the past two decades, at below 1 per cent. That’s not good enough, of course, and the entire gambling industry must redouble its efforts to get the currently stable level of problem gambling down.
But apocalyptic warnings of a huge rise in problem gambling are simply not true.
Those who press for a reduction in maximum stakes on FOBTs to as low as £2 argue that it would prevent, or reduce, problem gambling and related harm. Again, the evidence simply does not support the assertion that high stakes are a cause of problem gambling.
On the contrary, research has found that gamblers risk losing more money and are playing for longer on low stake machines in arcades than on FOBTs in betting shops. Evidence also shows that most problem gamblers use seven or more different gambling products. Cutting the maximum stake on FOBTs will simply move gamblers from one product to another, without any guarantee of support for those at risk.
Anyone stepping into a betting shop for the first time will find that, far from being dens of iniquity, they are well-maintained shops, run by professional staff who care passionately about the welfare of their customers and are trained to identify signs of problem gambling. Thanks to their efforts, high street bookmakers lead the way in promoting responsible gambling. Whilst there is still much to do, betting shops are world leaders in identifying and securing help for problem gamblers and are firmly committed to the responsible gambling agenda.
Make no mistake, if I thought for one moment that stake reduction on FOBTs would help prevent or reduce gambling harm, I would not oppose it. However, I do not agree that reducing stakes on FOBTs is the answer.
Tellingly, many respected voices have raised similar doubts. The social research institute NatCen considered that ‘focusing on one element of gambling alone – such as the reduction of stake size – will not provide a better prediction of problem gambling or decrease the rates of gambling harm.’
The Responsible Gambling Strategy Board, which provides independent advice to the UK Government, has cautioned that a £2 stake limit is not a proportionate response and could ‘create a variety of unintended and potentially harmful consequences.’
The economic consequences, in particular, will be severe. In the worst case scenario, around 4,500 shops will close with 21,000 jobs lost over the next three years, including 2,500 in Scotland.
Of course, those jobs will be spread over the country and so the closures will not attract the publicity of a steel works closing, for example. But the effect will be bigger.
The Treasury will lose more than £1 billion in tax receipts, struggling high streets will be deprived of valuable rental income and footfall, and industries like racing will suffer a massive loss of funding. There is a real risk of an outcome to this consultation process that results in massive economic upheaval but does nothing to reduce gambling-related harm. That would be a perverse price to pay if the effect is to displace problem gambling to venues that lack the most basic safeguards. The very people the government is determined to help would find themselves with less support as those leading the drive for responsible gambling are forced on to the dole.
Paul Darling OBE QC is chairman of the Association of British Bookmakers.