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The Pernicious Gambling Machines Ruining the Lives of Our Society's Poorest

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Twenty seconds. That's all it takes to spin a digital roulette wheel. Twenty seconds and you're on the road to financial ruin, relationship breakdown and despair.

These pernicious machines are destroying the lives of the poorest in society. Gamblers can bet £100 per stake on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) whereas fruit machines have a limit of only £2. When you're on the minimum wage, £100 is a lot to lose. These high stakes make FOBTs a major source of profit for the industry and it's why I want their use curbed. Many addiction charities and MPs agree.

Imagine my disbelief then to discover the government won't act. Last Thursday, the department for culture, media and sport sneaked out its response to a review of stakes and prize limits for gaming machines. The announcement stated there would be no action on FOBTs. Not even a reduction in the stake. Instead, the gambling industry has been left to introduce voluntary measures. While culture secretary Maria Miller was busy with the future of press reform, her mandarins were attempting to hide the fact ministers are too cowardly to take on the powerful gambling industry.

Britain's bookmakers must be laughing into their profits. Here was an opportunity to curb the betting industry's insatiable greed which is targeted at those who can least afford to pay.
In the end, ministers chose the weasel approach just as they did with minimum pricing on alcohol. It's what we've come to expect from this government. Make it appear you're being proactive while not actually doing much.

Inaction will cost us in the long-run. Gambling may not be recognised in the same way as some health issues like alcohol addiction. Risking your savings won't destroy your liver, at least not directly. But take a look at the Gamblers Anonymous online web forums and you'll get a shocking insight into how it corrodes family bonds and harms communities.

Here's one posting: "Last month I got to the point where I had maxed out my overdraft, my credit card and taken out several payday loans." Or this: "My fiance left me three months ago right before we were due to get married, I've destroyed her life and the people I love most, my immediate family." The site is full of references to the "dreaded" FOBTs which have been dubbed the "crack cocaine" of gambling addiction.

The concern is that bookmakers are feeding off the most vulnerable in society by clustering in the poorest parts of our country. These include towns like Rochdale in Greater Manchester, home to the Falinge estate which has 72% unemployment and was recently named the UK's poorest area for the fifth year running.

For every percentage increase in unemployment in an area, there's a 20% increase in the amount of bookmakers. And it's not because those on the margins of society love horses and dogs.

Wagers on FOBTs now surpass those of over-the-counter bets. Ladbrokes announced that £5.9billion was staked on these machines for the period January to June last year compared with only £1.2billion for over-the-counter bets.

Which is why bookies have shifted their business focus from offering bets on horses to installing digital roulette machines. Betting shops are no longer just the place for those who like a modest flutter on the 2.30 at Kempton. No, they have become haunts for young men who could be contributing to this nation's productivity. According to the Gambling Commission, there are now more than 33,000 FOBTs in the UK each generating an average weekly profit last year of £825. That's an increase from £760 in 2011.

A country with renewed national purpose should be curtailing the ability of unscrupulous bookmakers to leach the incomes of the weakest. Not fleecing the poorest, especially low paid young men.

There's another reason why the proliferation of FOBTs should be a concern for us all. The Campaign for Fairer Gambling claims there's mounting empirical and anecdotal evidence that FOBTs are driving the proliferation of betting shops, contributing to problem gambling, causing crime and violence in local communities, impacting on the working conditions of betting shop staff and being used for criminal activities such as money laundering.

Add to this the corrosive effect on families and communities of compulsive and addicted gamblers and you will see why many MPs think the DCMS was wrong not to reform the growth of Britain's betting industry.

So the Government was short-sighted not to act, to miss an opportunity to reduce the harm to the nation these hi-tech one-armed bandits can cause. At the moment, a punter can walk into a high street bookmakers and gamble away £100 every 20 seconds for 13 hours. This has the potential not only to destroy their life but also the lives of everyone else around them.

Around the Web

Fixed odds betting terminal - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

BBC News - Maria Miller set to freeze stakes on fixed odds machines

Betting shop roulette machines called Fixed Odds Betting Terminals ...

Clampdown on the 'crack cocaine' gaming machines: Payouts to be ...

Gambling addict calls for stricter FOBT laws