Bookmakers are flooding areas of high unemployment with high stakes gaming machines. Tom Foad reports

FOBT. Alex Segre / Rex FeaturesDubbed ‘the crack cocaine of gambling’ Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) are on the political agenda with Ed Miliband recently promising that Labour would empower councils to ban the machines from high streets.

But what is a FOBT? Nestling cosily in the corner of your local bookmakers, what to some are nothing more than glorified fruit machines are actually high stakes mini-casinos that are capable of taking bets of up to £100 every 20 seconds critics claim.

Providing around 50% of profits for high street bookies these machines are big business and the betting industry has up until now been reluctant to hand over a machine for independent testing.

Cambridge University tried to get hold of a machine in 2012 and had their request turned down, but after mounting political pressure and with the culture minister Helen Grant demanding a terminal be handed over, the industry has finally caved and agreed to provide one to Lincoln University through the Responsible Gambling Trust.

Conflict of interest

What is seemingly a success for campaigners has also led to concerns that there may be a conflict of interest. The Responsible Gambling Trust is industry funded and controlled by the betting industry and the director for commissioning at the RGT is Jonathan Parke. The concerns are due to the fact that Jonathans brother is Adrian Parke, a leading academic specialising in gambling at Lincoln University and will lead the research into the machines.

Matt Zarb-Cousin from the Campaign for Fairer Gambling said:

“Cambridge University requested a live fixed-odds betting terminal for research, but the bookmakers refused. Yet they are happy to supply one to Lincoln University through the Responsible Gambling Trust as it is a charity controlled by the betting industry.”

More controversy surrounds the subject as two Bradford MPs have clashed with anti-gambling campaigners, with criticism aimed at Gerry Sutcliffe (Lab, Bradford South) and Philip Davies (Con, Shipley) for springing to the defence of the betting industry and accusing campaigners of inflating figures to support their argument.

Gerry Sutcliffe MP, a trustee of the RGT has been accused of not taking the problem of FOBTs seriously when he asked why campaigners were not focusing on other gambling related issues, but he did agree FOBTs could be a “problem”, but insisted proper evidence was required before measures were introduced.

Philip Davies MP, who in 2012 was exposed for accepting gifts from bookmaking organisations, was one of 4 MP’s who signed an Early Day Motion saying Parliament should be concerned by the campaign which is being waged against FOBTs

Targeting the poor

Accusations of bookmakers targeting deprived areas, resulting in problem gambling and anti-social behaviour has led to campaigners and MP’s such as Graham Jones, (Lab, Hyndburn) to call for precautionary measures to be introduced such as a reduced maximum bet or a slower rate of play.

All such measures have been resisted by the betting industry and Government ministers; Helen Grant stated that the Government were waiting on the research conducted by the Responsible Gambling Trust before taking action.

Campaigners point out that the 50 constituencies with the highest unemployment in the UK have 4554 FOBTs taking over £5.5 billion per year; but the 50 constituencies with the lowest unemployment have 1054 FOBTs that take less than £1.5 billion.

Is this a clear indication that bookmakers are cynically targeting deprived areas, preying on the vulnerable and exploiting the poor? Campaigners think so, but the betting industry claim this is a matter of footfall in those areas, and nothing else.

Research by The Campaign for Fairer Gambling shows that the average amount a player puts into a FOBT each time they play is £55, with 1 in 5 putting in over £100 per time. What is also worth noting is the average spin amount, while the average overall is a jaw-dropping £17 per single spin, for the poor and the unemployed this average stands at £19.

Areas such as Newham offer us some insight into the scale of the problem; the London Borough ranked third most deprived area in the England has 82 betting shops, which is a staggering six shops per square mile.

It is now a common sight in poorer areas for betting shops to stand side by side with Payday Lenders and Cash Converters, providing what some might see as a bleak epitome of austerity hit Britain.

Campaigners also say there is a link between the machines and anti-social behaviour, with reports of over 100 machines being smashed up per week; the damaging of these machines by users, presumably after a loss, has become so endemic that betting shop employees have reported being told not to call the police when these incidents take place.

Being such a large part of the Bookmakers business FOBT profits are now going to be linked to betting shop employees’ wages. Betfred Employees were told in December 2013 that they could ‘top-up’ their wages by increasing profits made on FOBTs; a move that was roundly criticised by The Campaign for Fairer Gambling.

Councils want more powers to combat the increasing number of betting shops, and campaigners and MP’s are calling for precautionary restrictions to be put in place, but with seemingly vested interests clouding the issue, will anything meaningful happen to restrict the far reaching impacts of these machines? Or, as the old cliché goes, will the bookies be the only real winner in the end?