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FOBT stake to be reduced

Government to cut maximum FOBT stake from £100 to £2

Tracey Crouch, the ‘Minister for Sport and Civil Society’, announced today that the maximum FOBT stake (Fixed Odds Betting Terminals) is to be reduced from £100 to £2. The Government believes that the move will  “reduce the risk of gambling-related harm” and “help stop extreme losses by those who can least afford it.”

The DCMS Secretary of State Matt Hancock has said:

Faced with the choice of halfway measures or doing everything we can to protect vulnerable people, we have chosen to take a stand. These machines are a social blight and prey on some of the most vulnerable in society, and we are determined to put a stop to it and build a fairer society for all.”

When asked the question on the Today Programme this morning (May 17), the minister refused to say when the measure will be put into effect. Changes to the FOBT stake will have to be made by secondary legislation, which will require parliamentary approval. The Government says it will also engage with the gambling industry to give it sufficient time to implement and complete the technological changes. Sufficient time might be in order, too, for the Treasury to recover from the shock of a massive hole in its revenue.

The British public loses around £1.8bn each year betting on the machines, according to figures released by the Gambling Commission.  (We do not know, however, what proportion of those losses can be attributed to a £100 FOBT stake.) An interesting comparison might be with the sum the British Public loses annually on the National Lottery. The actual loss figure is elusive – neither the Gambling Commission’s website nor a Google search has so far led me to it – but we know that some £6.3 billion was staked last year, and Camelot tend not to give it all back in prizes.

Whether or not gambling-related harm will in reality be reduced by a reduction in FOBT stake remains to be seen. The counter-argument is that a problem gambler will always find an outlet for his/her addiction, and the accessibility of the Internet offers an easy route to every bit as much harm – if not more – than is being done to those who stake more than they can afford on FOBTs in betting shops.

Bookmaker William Hill has warned that the decision to limit the maximum FOBT stake could see around 900 of its shops trading at a loss, with closures to follow. It would be interesting to know, in absolute numbers, how many problem gamblers will be ‘saved’ by this measure, and how many betting shop workers will lose their jobs.

The somewhat lazy, and certainly sensational, journalists’ demonisation of FOBTs as “the crack cocaine of gambling” has had traction with the general public, notwithstanding the phrase was coined by Donald Trump to discredit a rival gambling product. But the much-repeated mantra, that “FOBTs allow users to bet £100 every 20 seconds”, does not seem to translate into hard evidence of staking at that rate.

I look forward to seeing the published figures after a year of ‘£2 FOBTs’. Of course, it is to be hoped that those who have suffered crippling losses in pursuit of easy money from these machines – and those who choose to follow in their footsteps – having one less temptation to resist, will keep their hard-earned wages for themselves and their families. Whether that hope is realistic or ‘pie in the sky’ we shall find out in a year or so.

Gerald Gouriet QC