Motion to Regret

Gaming Machine (Circumstances of Use) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 – in the House of Lords am 6:25 pm ar 23 Mawrth 2015.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Moved by Lord Collins of Highbury

That this House regrets that the Gaming Machine (Circumstances of Use) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 do not appropriately address the problems of gambling addiction, and offer no significant protections for vulnerable people from getting into debt. (SI 2015/121)

Relevant document: 27th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 6:26, 23 Mawrth 2015

My Lords, I start by recognising that this is not the first debate that we have had recently on this issue. We had a Question for Short Debate tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, which I participated in, and we have had a number of Oral Questions on fixed-odds betting terminals. Those reflect not only the concern in this House on this issue but also the concern in our communities.

I start my contribution by making no apology for repeating some of the arguments that I have made in those debates. After 15 years of fixed-odd betting terminals on our high streets at £100 a spin, we are still no nearer to a conclusive answer as to whether they are safe to operate in local betting shops. The response of the Government has been to come up with a £50 cap without any evidence that it would protect vulnerable people from getting into debt or developing a gambling addiction that ruins their lives. Although the Prime Minister promised to get to grips with this issue, it is now a full 12 months since the Government announced that they would do this—in fact, six months later than was foreshadowed in their announcements. Your Lordships’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee questioned whether the Government could have brought forward the regulations more speedily, especially as, from the words of the Prime Minister, they appeared to accept the need to act.

Irrespective of headline-seeking comments, the difficulty with the proposal is that the Government still cannot explain how they came to decide that £50 will deal with problem gambling or limit the hardship that such high stakes may cause. In these circumstances, many will see this as a bit of a sham rather than firm action. I suspect that in many people’s minds, if there is one thing worse than inaction, it is the pretence of action. The limit relies on the betting industry to apply it. Also customers will be able to bet above £50 on a single play with permission from betting shop staff. The Campaign for Fairer Gambling also claims that its sources in the bookmaking industry have informed it that at least one of the corporate operators is already advising staff to encourage the use of debit cards now that players are being forced by the Government to remote load their money on to the machines from the counter if they wish to access higher stakes. Not only that, but guidance is also being issued to encourage playing two machines at the same time, which would allow players to gamble £100 a spin, circumventing the new law.

Many questions are being asked about the Government’s decisions by the organisations concerned about the proliferation of FOBT machines—a term that I will use throughout the debate—and their impact on problem gambling. Some, such as the Local Government Association and councils from across the political spectrum, are calling for stricter controls. Concerns are also being expressed from within the gambling industry itself. Simon Thomas, the owner of the Hippodrome Casino, stated that betting shops,

“have fast, high stakes machines with little supervision”, something that I raised in an Oral Question to the Government earlier this year.

Many of these shops are in areas where there are already clusters of betting shops and the driving force for locating them in the same place is the profits that are to be made from having more and more FOBT machines. The betting industry has argued quite strongly that jobs are at risk if it is not allowed FOBTs. If that is the case, why has the number of employees in betting shops been decreasing while net takings from FOBTs have increased?

Local authorities have a statutory duty to uphold the licensing objectives, which are to ensure that gambling is fair and open, is not associated with crime and does not harm the young or vulnerable. As we have heard in previous debates, 93 councils believe that FOBTs are in breach of all those objectives so have joined the

London Borough of Newham in calling for the maximum stake to be capped at £2 a spin. During the passage of the 2005 Act, my right honourable friend Tessa Jowell expressed concern about the gambling industry becoming “overly dependent” on growth driven by these machines and about their role in problem gambling. On the decision to have a limit of four machines in each betting shop, she said,

“there was no certainty that these machines would remain, because we were absolutely clear that we could not know at that stage what their effect was likely to be”.

It is in response to that cap that bookmakers have opened up multiple premises in clusters to facilitate more machines, as a fixed-margin product guarantees bookmakers a return.

Research by the Responsible Gambling Trust, an organisation about which we will no doubt hear a lot more, has identified a link between social deprivation and the use of machines. In England, two-fifths of all bets were placed in venues in the most deprived areas. However, this reflected the distribution of bookies, with 38% of the branches in the most deprived areas of the country. Those with lower incomes were more likely to start to play machines in a bookmaker’s than those with higher incomes. Higher stakes impaired decision-making quality—the impact was stronger at £20 stakes—but the quality of decision-making was also compromised at £2 stakes. Stake size influences gambling behaviour when combined with other factors such as speed of play, volatility and social interaction.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has told us that this Government are committed to localism and greater local decision-making in planning. If that is the case, would the Minister care to explain why this does not apply to betting shops? The position of this side of the House is to require betting companies to seek planning permission if they want to open a premise that is not a former betting shop. Local authorities would in turn have the ability to ration and manage the number and location of these shops in their area. Labour would also modify the Gambling Act to give councils powers to review the betting shop licences in their area and retrospectively reduce the number of FOBTs in existing betting shops—for example, from four through to zero— in response to local concerns.

Critics of FOBTs have argued that what makes these machines addictive is the immersive nature of the games, which lulls people into losing more money than they intend, with the roulette wheel spinning so quickly and huge losses accumulated rapidly.

While I support the measures in the industry’s code for responsible gambling, such as increasing the time between plays, pop-ups that warn players how long they have played, gambled or lost and requirements to go to the cash desk to limit the amount they can insert into machines, none of them will be effective without sufficient trained staff—staff who are required to be in casinos but not in betting shops. Betting shop staff are on the front line when it comes to consumer protection, as these regulations are even implying, but single staffing is commonplace in betting shops. Does the Minister agree that staff would be in a better position to intervene and help gamblers if they were not made to work alone? Labour will expect operators with FOBTs to have at least two members of staff present at all times. If they fail to comply with this, we will make it a licensing condition.

One of the key issues cited for inaction on FOBTs is lack of evidence. The Government have continually referred to research commissioned by the Responsible Gambling Trust as a justification for their approach. However, the evaluation of RGT research by Professor Linda Hancock of Deakin University in Australia and Shannon Hanrahan, CEO of the Outcomes Group, highlighted the serious flaws in both its methodology and approach. It has been circulated, I suspect, to many noble Lords via the Campaign for Fairer Gambling. The RGT research focused on problem and at-risk gamblers and how they behave while playing FOBTs and failed to assess the impact of the features of FOBTs on inducing that particular playing style.

While the bookmakers continue to have such influence over the research agenda and the commissioning process, we will never, in the words of the Prime Minister, get to grips with this issue. Does the Minister therefore agree that the betting shop operators should be required to collect and provide standardised data on the use of FOBTs to allow independent researchers to analyse their impact to help inform future decision-making rather than the process we have at the moment where figures are grasped out of the air and regulations are brought forward without the firm evidence to back them up? Our communities are at risk from these machines. We need to act but what we should do is empower local communities to act accordingly. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Llafur 6:30, 23 Mawrth 2015

Too little, too late. Really, those four words say all that is perhaps needed tonight in the face of these regulations, but I will crave the indulgence of the House to speak a little longer.

I will start with “too late”. I really have nothing to add to the slightly tongue-in-cheek findings of the House’s Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which wrote in its report, which is before us this afternoon:

The House will be interested to see that the Government have now laid these Regulations. They will come into force only in April 2015, a full 12 months after the Government announced the need for the new requirement, and six months later than was foreshadowed in that announcement … We question whether the Government could have brought forward the latest Gaming Machine (Circumstances of Use) (Amendment) Regulations more expeditiously, given the concern about problem gambling which they address”.

The House should generally pay attention to the findings of its own committees, and that was a pretty severe condemnation.

In case noble Lords have missed the point, I will summarise it more succinctly. In our previous debate on FOBTs on 24 February, called by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I said that those who play these machines were practising onanism. The House will forgive me if I resort this evening to the vernacular: the Government have shown themselves to be a bunch of tossers over this one. That, then , is the “too late”.

More important, however, is the “too little”. Again, I set out my views on this in the excellent debate on 24 February, and I will not repeat tonight all I said then. I hope that noble Lords have realised just how small the impact of what the Government are proposing will be. An exceptionally hard-crafted impact assessment of the measures shows that on the department’s central estimate it will reduce FOBT spend by 1.4%, which is about six months’ growth. Therefore, the six months we have been waiting for the Government to get round to doing that has totally dissipated its effect. This is fig-leaf government. It is saying, “Oh dear, there seems to be a lot of pressure to do something about this—what are we going to do? Oh dear, we’ll spend a year thinking about it. Oh dear, we’d better bring something before the House before the election”. It really does not measure up in any sense to the seriousness of the problem.

I have got very bored with hearing Ministers and bookmakers saying, “We haven’t got the evidence”. There seems to be quite enough evidence to proceed on a precautionary basis—which is the argument the Government give for these regulations: that they are precautionary. However, given the scale of the problem, this is a pretty pathetic precaution by any standards.

I said in the last debate that a consensus had grown up among campaigners that a £2 limit would be the right figure. That may turn out to be too harsh, for reasons I will give later. However, the figure, when the Government finally get round to taking a serious measure on this, should be nearer to £2 than to £100. Indeed, it should be nearer to £2 than the £50 that is embedded in this order.

One thing that has gone completely unnoticed since our last debate is that the Government have now, deliberately, made it very much harder for them to do anything about this—or at least they plan to make it very much harder. I do not know how many people noticed the announcement by the Chancellor in his Budget speech that the Government would go for a “racing right”. That has been one of the most curious episodes that I have ever seen in government. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport produced two different possible futures for the levy, published in the autumn, despite the fact that the Chancellor had said once before that he would quite like a racing right. To be fair, the Government then published a consultation on the racing right. What do the Government do when those three consultations were just terminating? Without waiting for the department to summarise the results or to find out what those best informed about them wanted or what the public wanted, the Chancellor of the Exchequer—who cannot have much time in his busy portfolio to give attention to racing matters—announced that there would be a racing right.

How does that relate to the FOBT question? Doing anything serious about FOBTs will cost bookmakers money. It will cost them a substantial sum of money—a lot more than 1.4% of their FOBT revenue. But at the same time as the Government are dithering over that, they have suddenly decided to impose an enormous new charge on the betting industry to pay horseracing. The impact assessment on the racing right suggests that on a low yield the costs will not increase but that on the highest yield—50%, which is in the impact assessment—it will cost the bookmakers an extra £390 million a year. If you add a similar bill, as you easily might, for curbing FOBTs, what will be the result? Will it not be the mass closure of betting shops, the removal of a local facility that many people appreciate, shops rotting on the high street because nobody will take them over, and a huge loss of jobs among betting shop staff? That is the Government’s prospectus for the betting industry.

There is a consolation here—that the racing right has not only not yet come about but may well never come about. As the Conservative MP Philip Davies and I argued in our response to the consultation on the racing right, as presently conceived it seems to us unlikely to survive the test of competition law in Britain, let alone to survive the state aid test that would be applied by Europe. The Chancellor, to put it kindly, has not thought through not the idea of the racing right, which has something to be said for it, but the idea of a racing right that gives British racing a monopoly of its product and enables it to ask whatever price it may choose, never mind the effect on the betting shops.

I close by saying that here we have two things that the Government could do that will cost the bookmakers money—and what is the priority? Doing something to FOBTs would no doubt at some stage cost jobs and shops, but it would stop the bookies from picking the pockets of hard-working people—and, as has been said in this debate already, very often those of poorer people—with all the social costs that are involved in that. But the racing right picks the same people’s pockets not to deal with a social evil but to subsidise some hugely rich owners of racehorses and some very rich trainers for their holidays in the Bahamas, as well as some very rich jockeys gallivanting about the country in their helicopters and some ludicrously rich breeders, who exist only because of the practice of banning artificial insemination in horseracing. Strangely enough, in this bonanza feast, the one lot of people who do not benefit by a penny, in my long experience, are stable staff, who are still exploited very badly. So that is it—deal with the FOBT problem or help all these very rich people at the expense of poor people. I know which I would put first.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 6:45, 23 Mawrth 2015

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, although I agreed with only a fraction of what he had to say. Nevertheless, it was very thought-provoking.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, reminded the House that a month ago I initiated a debate about the unsatisfactory nature of the Government's current policies towards FOBTs. Nothing has made me change my mind in the mean time. If today’s Motion goes to a vote, however, I shall not vote with the Opposition. After all, the Opposition have tabled a very half-hearted Motion. But I shall take the opportunity today once again to express the strong dissatisfaction of these Benches with these measures, and our intention, if we are in a position to do so, to go much further after the next election.

I am very pleased that my noble friend Lady Jolly is responding to the debate. Given that it is extremely likely, without giving away any confidences, that we will enshrine a much bolder pledge in our manifesto, I hope that she can square the policy circle as a government

Whip and a Liberal Democrat Peer. Perhaps the Government are displaying their real embarrassment by using three separate spokesmen on the three recent occasions when we have debated or had a question on this subject. I see that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has said that he believes that fixed-odds betting terminals can be dangerously addictive and allow bookmakers to prey on the vulnerable in our society—and he has called for the maximum stake to be cut to £2. This is rather at odds with the current position of the Conservative Front Bench.

The noble Lord has explained, as I did a month ago, what these machines are. FOBTs, technically known as B2 gaming machines, offer high stakes and fast play, allowing users to bet up to £100 every 20 seconds. Figures published this month by the Campaign for Fairer Gambling show that £1.5 billion was lost by gamblers on FOBTs in Britain during 2014. As the noble Lord, pointed out, most of that money comes from some of the UK’s most deprived communities. That highlights the need for an urgent solution to this serious problem.

The £100 stake on FOBTs is more than 40 times the EU average. Combined with the fast pace of play, this makes them particularly dangerous, leading to high levels of problem gambling. The speed of roulette on these machines is more than five times as fast as roulette in a casino, yet they are in lightly regulated high street betting shops—more than 9,000 of them across the country.

We rehearsed all those points in the debate last month, and I highlighted the fact that the local authorities which see the problem on the ground and use the Sustainable Communities Act—93 councils from all three major parties—have called on central government to take this action because of the anti-social behaviour, crime and problem gambling that the machines are causing in their local areas. The Local Government Association has called for a reduction in the £100 stake on FOBTs to £2.

As we have heard, the Gaming Machine (Circumstances of Use) (Amendment) Regulations are designed to introduce a requirement which prevents individuals staking over £50 on a B2 gaming machine, or FOBT—whichever expression your Lordships prefer—unless they load cash via staff interaction, or use account- based play. In response to Parliamentary Questions the Minister, Helen Grant MP, has claimed that this will end unsupervised high stake gambling on FOBTs. But that is not the case. The measures set out by the Government do not address the critical harmful element of the machines, which is the £100 per play maximum stake.

The measures are deficient for the following reasons. First, this is not a stake reduction. After the regulations are passed the £100 stake will still be available, so the machines will still be able to cause harm to problem gamblers and communities. The regulations are not the answer. Only a stake reduction to £2—the maximum stake offered in all other high street adult premises—will prevent the machines causing harm.

Secondly, there is no evidence that bookmakers are serious about tackling problem gambling. The proposals are predicated on the notion that bookmakers want to prevent problem gambling—but Professor Jim Orford estimates that more than 40% of the profits from FOBTs come from problem gamblers, and there is evidence that bookmakers are actually targeting deprived areas. For example, one chain was recently accused of targeting ethnic minorities, who are more vulnerable to gambling addiction, after the

Independent revealed that 61% of its shops were in the 40 boroughs with the highest ethnic minority population.

Thirdly, the measures in the regulations will be extremely easy to circumvent. Reports from betting staff suggest that some operators are training staff to inform customers how they can play two FOBTs at the same time. This is particularly concerning for customers who have already identified themselves, and for those signed up to a loyalty card, as they will be accessing stakes of £200 a spin. Any rules around signing up for betting shop loyalty cards can be circumvented quite easily. In betting shops, customers are asked only for a name, a date of birth and an email address or mobile phone number. It is easy to fabricate the first two and create a bespoke email to receive the necessary code. That is all people need, and they can then carry on staking £100 a spin. As no checks are made, this is hardly a rigorous process that would deter likely problem gamblers, who may create many such accounts.

To stake more than £50, customers need to load cash remotely via staff intervention. For those who identify themselves at the counter, staff are suggesting that they are being trained to encourage debit card use. Bookmakers say that this will be more convenient for the customer—but it is also more dangerous, as debit card deposits can exceed a daily withdrawal limit from an ATM. This also allows gamblers to bypass the psychological check of actually putting cash into a machine, potentially making losses worse.

Fourthly, £50 is still far too high and unsafe. Fifty pounds per spin is still very large, allowing people to bet £150 per minute. It is significantly higher than the £2 maximum stake on all other UK machines and the roughly £2.20 EU average. Notably, the maximum permitted stake on gaming machines in Germany, Spain and Italy is less than £1. Fifty pounds per spin is not safe, and it is dangerous for the Government to imply this with their proposed measure. According to recent Responsible Gambling Trust research, 80% of those betting an average of £13.40 or more exhibited signs of problem gambling. Why are the Government not reducing the stake to at or below this level? So far, despite claiming they are taking a precautionary approach, the Government have failed to give a clear rationale.

Fifthly, requiring betting shop staff to police machine use will be dangerous and ineffective. The rise of single staffing in betting shops makes this measure all the more dangerous. The presence of automated FOBTs has led to staff cuts in betting shops, who are down from roughly 60,000 in 2009 to 52,000 in 2014, meaning that shops often have only one person working at a time. This fall in staff numbers comes despite the rise in the number of betting shops from 8,800 in 2010 to 9,000 in 2014. Asking staff to refuse to reload the cards of players who have just lost large sums has the potential to provoke already angry gamblers and lead to confrontation. There are also reports that staff are currently incentivised to increase machine use, with this often linked to pay. This situation creates a very clear conflict of interests, reducing the likelihood of staff intervening.

Sixthly and finally, the Government are introducing a policy that will benefit bookmakers. Signing up more players to online accounts means that the operators can encourage customers to gamble on their new online platforms as well. This will improve profitability for the bookmakers even further.

The RGT research described loyalty card customers as a “more engaged” sample, and loyalty cards encourage this engagement with offers of free bets. Player tracking is therefore not intrinsically a means for protecting players and can in fact promote addiction.

These regulations will make the situation worse by allowing the Government to refrain from substantive restrictions on the maximum stake, and FOBTs will continue to operate at £100 per play, causing harm to vulnerable people in the most socially deprived areas of Britain. There is clear evidence to show that the public support restrictions on FOBTs. The YouGov survey showed that only 4% of the public would oppose a ban on FOBTs, with 58% of those who gamble more than once a month in favour of an all-out ban. The Gambling Commission has stated that in interpreting the available evidence it will take a precautionary approach, including where evidence is mixed or inconclusive.

The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said:

“These measures are on track to start in April, and will, I think, make a real difference. The sensible thing to do now is to see how they bed in before thinking about further action. That is a fair and reasonable approach”.—[Hansard, 24/2/15; col. 1640.]

On the contrary, the stake should be reduced on a precautionary basis until there is evidence that it can be safely increased above the £2 level, and the onus should be put on the bookmakers to demonstrate that effective measures can be put in place before being allowed to offer games at above £2. After the general election, my party will do this if we are in a position to do so.

Photo of Lord Donoughue Lord Donoughue Llafur

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I enjoy speaking after the person who spoke before me. There is no greater pleasure in this House than watching a Liberal Democrat spokesman in conflict with his representatives on the Front Bench. Sadly, that pleasure will shortly cease.

I had proposed to make a rather tediously long speech this evening. Fortunately, I shall break with the normal tradition of this House of repeating everything that has been said previously and instead say briefly that I agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said. He has described the situation fairly, impressively and comprehensively.

On the racing right, I heard about that with interest in the Budget. It was one of 27 lollipops thrown to different parts of the community. I urge the Government to keep quiet about it henceforward. The racing and betting industries have previously had this kind of solution put up, which was legally unsustainable. I am not a lawyer, fortunately, so I cannot say that with confidence, but I can advise the Government that if they read, for instance, the analysis of the racing right on the net, issued by Oswangs, the country’s leading and best informed lawyers in the racing and betting world, they will see that there are many serious legal questions to be asked. Oswangs concluded that it will not survive a legal test. Given our experience with bookmakers in the past, it will certainly experience that legal test.

This evening’s little operation here will fortunately end shortly. It is not very impressive, but everyone should read the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and they will learn the facts.

Photo of Baroness Golding Baroness Golding Llafur 7:00, 23 Mawrth 2015

My Lords, I, too, agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. He said what many of us have considered saying in the past, but he has done it far more effectively. The number of people who enjoy playing these machines is considerable, and they do so sensibly.

I have friends who travel around the world and playing these machines is their pleasure. They start in the evening with a certain amount of money and they play and play until they have lost it. Sometimes it takes them all night and they are there until five o’clock in the morning but that is their pleasure and why should we stop them doing it? Some of my friends won 2,000 Australian dollars playing in Australia. They decided to leave the money there and go out to try to get rid of it by playing in the same way as they did before. It is their enjoyment and their holiday. The prospect of the poorest people in our communities putting £100 into a machine every 20 seconds is ludicrous. It is beyond belief that they would sit there doing that, losing money. That is absolutely nonsense.

If you are a problem gambler, you are a problem gambler. You will gamble wherever you can—not necessarily on machines, but up in the bedroom, playing online. We cannot stop people who want to gamble from gambling. If they enjoy it, why should we be stopping them?

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Llafur

My Lords, I was not going to say anything but I have been provoked into it by my noble friends behind me. I never thought that I would find myself in such disagreement with them and I regret that they have taken that position.

Of course there are problem gamblers, and of course it is hard for them. We have heard of people who have spent all their money and got into debt simply by gambling away all that they have. Surely there is a responsibility on the Government to at least encourage people who are inclined that way to bet moderately, and not give them the facilities to bet large amounts ever so quickly.

I am not against gambling as such. I remind my noble friend Lord Donoughue of the day that he and I went to a race meeting at Listowel Races in Ireland. We had a great time.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Llafur

We had great craic. I was in the fortunate position that I was quite friendly with the then Irish Culture Minister quite some years ago—he is now dead, unfortunately. He was a very good judge of horses. For the first four or five races I put my money on the same horses he did and I was well ahead of the game. I lost him for the last race or two and I contributed significantly to the Irish economy. The races were 25 minutes or half an hour apart; therefore, it was possible to be quite measured about it.

The problem is the speed with which one can lose large sums of money on these terminals. Why are so many local authorities appalled by this? Why is there is a wish to keep the maximum stakes down to £2? Surely not all these people are absolutely against any form of gambling, but the local authorities realise that it can get out of hand.

Initially there were two Lib Dem Ministers on the Front Bench; I am afraid that the arrival of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has rather spoilt my story. How was it that they pulled such a short straw to be sitting there, shortly before an election, advocating a case that is against their party’s policy? I cannot understand that. How were they persuaded to do this? The mind boggles. They are smiling now, of course, but they both at one point looked very unhappy about the position that they were in. Their faces revealed what they thought about the whole business. They did not agree with my noble friends, of course.

It is a sad moment that we are putting forward regulations that cannot do much good at best and will do harm at worst. I do not think that the change advocated by my noble friend on the Front Bench would mean the massive closure of betting shops; it would just get betting into a sensible proportion. That is all we are asking. We are not saying that there should not be gambling and betting. It can be fun, but it should not get totally out of hand; I believe that this proposal does that.

Photo of Lord Donoughue Lord Donoughue Llafur

Does my noble friend not also remember that at that Irish race meeting, when the Irish Minister for Racing—the late, great Joe Walsh—put his bets on, the bookmakers did not even give him a ticket, unlike my noble friend or me? When I asked the bookmaker later why he did not give Joe Walsh a ticket, he said, “You do not give an Irish Minister for Racing a betting ticket”. Does he not think it would be a great advance in this country if British politicians and Ministers were treated with the same respect at our racecourses?

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Llafur

I do not particularly disagree with my noble friend. I am tempted to go into all sorts of other anecdotes about our experiences together, but I had better not. I will just say this: when we were drinking some nice single malt whisky in a hotel in Brussels on one occasion, he accused me of being a Roundhead and said that he was a Cavalier. Does he remember that?

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Llafur

I am sorry that these regulations are being put forward. There is no need to do so in the dying embers of a Government. It will do harm; it will not do good. I very much regret what the Government are doing.

Photo of Baroness Jolly Baroness Jolly Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I stand before you as a government spokesman but also as a Liberal Democrat. However, I shall not bore noble Lords with the diets of Liberal Democrat raffles, which is the extent of my gambling.

I thank the noble Lord for bringing this Motion of Regret before the House, allowing us to highlight the measures that we are bringing in to improve the protection of gaming machine players. Allow me to begin by re-emphasising that the Government understand the public concerns around fixed-odds betting terminals—FOBTs from now on—and consider the future of their regulation to be unresolved.

Gambling has long been positioned in public policy terms as a mainstream leisure activity. Most people who gamble do so in this context: they choose how much they will spend. This is how they choose to use their leisure time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Golding, said. Generally speaking, they have fun so doing, but it is important to remember that all gambling—not just machine gambling—can and does cause harm for some gamblers, their families, friends, communities and employers. That is why we have intervened to regulate it.

To that end, I now turn to the Motion,

“that the Gaming Machine (Circumstances of Use) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 do not appropriately address the problems of gambling addiction, and offer no significant protections for vulnerable people from getting into debt”.

In April 2014, the Government announced their intention to take precautionary action in this area, with measures for new gambling controls and protections on track to come into force next week. The regulations in question today are designed to reduce the amount of unsupervised cash gambling on so-called FOBTs. We are introducing these precautionary and proportionate measures based on the available evidence. In addition, we have supported, and continue to support, independent research in this area and continue to oversee a cultural change on social responsibility.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about the independence of the RGT, which commissioned the research. The RGT is an independent charity and the research was commissioned from an independent and reputable provider, NatCen, a leading not-for-profit social research organisation. He also asked whether or not the industry co-operated and provided the information which the RGT asked for. There was an unprecedented level of openness and co-operation from the operators; it is the first time that bookmakers’ data have been scrutinised by independent researchers and also the first time that there has been access to loyalty card gamblers. This has resulted in the largest sample of problem gamblers ever taken in Great Britain.

All players using these machines will be required to use account-based play or load cash over the counter, forcing an interaction, when they wish to stake over £50. Making staff interaction a compulsory component of high-staking machine play ensures greater opportunities for intervention where patterns of behaviour indicate that someone may be at risk of harm from their gambling. In addition, account-based play allows players access to up-to-date and accurate information in the form of activity statements and real-time information about their session of play, which can help people maintain control. On that basis, we believe that these measures will help higher-staking customers benefit from more conscious decision-making, while increasing opportunities for interaction and intervention with appropriately trained staff, and therefore assisting customers to stay in control of their gambling behaviour.

Opponents of this measure call for a reduction in stakes on these machines to £2. We do not accept that this is justified or proportionate. The campaigners on this issue often fail to highlight two key points. The first is that problem gamblers usually gamble on a wide range of products. The idea that cutting the stake on one machine in one environment will somehow make problem gamblers see the error of their ways seems fanciful, as they are likely simply to take their business to the arcade or casino or online. The second is that not only do we find significant proportions of problem gamblers staking at lower levels but we find many of those staking at higher levels are doing so safely. The evidence points to a stake cut of this scale doing little to protect problem gamblers, and a lot to constrain the choice of normal leisure gamblers.

That is why we are pushing for better interventions that complement controls on the machines and the betting environment, with a greater focus on individual customers. The Government believe that this is a sensible approach that balances the commitment to reduce problem gambling and protect the vulnerable while, at the same time, protecting an enjoyable leisure activity for the vast majority of customers who visit bookmakers’ offices.

It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that, in addition to these amending regulations, the bookmaking industry has itself made progress, with support from the Government and the Gambling Commission, to further assist gamblers who display signs of problematic behaviour. The betting industry introduced new measures, under its code of conduct from 1 March 2014, aimed at improving social responsibility measures towards problem gamblers.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about staff numbers. I will get back to him about these. I am sure that all noble Lords have briefings from the industry, but one thing that is included is training of staff in these measures.

While a step in the right direction, we support the Gambling Commission’s move to make the measures mandatory in its updated licence conditions and codes of practice—or LCCP—published in February 2015. We believe that the measures we are taking are sufficient to improve player protection on a precautionary basis. These moves, combined with the measures outlined in the Gambling Commission’s response following its consultation on the social responsibility provisions in its LCCP, are justified on this precautionary basis.

I should like to re-iterate that not only are the Government responsive to evidence that is produced concerning gambling-related harm but they have also made great steps in improving the quality of the available evidence through their positive engagement with industry. This remains an issue which I am sure all sides of the House treat with the utmost seriousness. Striking the right balance between protecting a leisure activity and helping those who have fallen into harmful habits and preventing others from succumbing is the objective of all sides of the House.

I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that I was without an official for the first eight minutes of this debate, but I will pick up on a few of the issues that he raised. The point that parts of the industry are now recommending that staff encourage people to play two machines at the same time and encourage the use of debit cards over cash causes alarm bells to ring, as far as I am concerned. Before we prorogue, I will write to the noble Lord to give clarification on that issue.

It is also worth mentioning to noble Lords that I am here today rather than the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, who should have taken the debate, because, unfortunately, he has a close family bereavement. I offered to do this and I was happy so to do.

Other areas of concern included single staffing. I take issue over the lack of evidence—there is a debate to be had about whether the RGT is independent, but many organisations are funded. For example, Alcohol Concern is funded by the drinks industry and it comes out with very hard-hitting reports as well.

I thank my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones for being robust, as ever.

I close by emphasising again the importance of taking these precautionary and appropriate measures based on the available evidence. As I said at the beginning of my speech, the Government consider the future of FOBT regulation to be unresolved. The next few weeks will see all parties articulate their view on this issue once Parliament dissolves and the election campaign plays out.

I thank noble Lords for their contributions. We all want to offer protection to those who are vulnerable. This SI was written after a consultation and any future Government will have the opportunity to assess its success at their earliest convenience and make the changes that they think appropriate.

I hope that I have covered satisfactorily all the questions put to me and that the noble Lord will be sufficiently reassured to withdraw the Motion.

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Llafur

I do not think that the noble Baroness has answered the question about the long delay raised by the House’s committee on secondary legislation.

Photo of Baroness Jolly Baroness Jolly Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I do not have that information, but I am happy to write to the noble Lord to let him know the reason for the long delay.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development)

I, too, thank noble Lords for this debate. It has been really important to raise these issues again. The concern is not just in this Chamber; it is in our communities. Nor is the concern just among people who do not gamble; the concern is among people who want to use their local betting shop as a community resource but are fearful of what they are turning into. That is the problem.

Of course, it is not just about activity on these machines in relation to problem gambling; it is about the way that they can be used and the pressures that this puts on staff. For the sake of clarity, I think that all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate have shared one absolute, common concern—that these machines are potentially dangerous and that we should have a precautionary approach.

The actions of the Government have been, in my noble friend’s words, too little, too late. I think that I said that if there is one thing worse than inaction, it is the pretence of action. Not for the first time, my noble friend Lord Lipsey and I agree on the fundamental issues, even if we occasionally disagree on other issues. As a co-signatory of the amendment that supported the horserace betting levy, I was very keen to ensure that the consultation on its future was full and frank.

I agree with my noble friend that it was wrong for the Chancellor to prejudge issues to make short-term political gain, but I fear that that is a problem with the coalition as we have it at the moment. When Labour is returned to government on 7 May, our focus will be on giving control to local communities to determine what is safe in their own areas. In the light of the comments I have made, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

House adjourned at 7.21 pm.