Motion to Regret

Part of Gaming Machine (Circumstances of Use) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 – in the House of Lords am 6:26 pm ar 23 Mawrth 2015.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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.