The Liberal Democrats have pledged to restrict the proliferation of betting shops on Britain’s High Streets following a debate on gambling at the party’s conference in Glasgow.
Blaming the Labour Party for the explosion in the High Street bookmakers, Ealing councillor Jon Bell highlighted the extent of the problem scarring his West London borough, telling attendees that of the 83 betting shops in Ealing, 18 were situated in the constituency’s most deprived areas.
"Ealing local party submitted this motion because the recent proliferation of betting shops is causing problems for local residents," he told the conference on Tuesday, adding that the shops took advantage of a legal loophole on fixed odds betting, which helps bookmakers maximise their income.
"Tony Blair's Gambling Act, which allowed these machines and made it practically impossible for councils to control them, limited each betting shop to four terminals, so the operator simply opens more shops with a maximum of four machines each," he said.
Bell was flanked by Communities Minister Don Foster, who said the "high stake” machines were collectively taking more than £1billion a week, before urging the party to act.
"As Liberal Democrats, we should give councils the power to address the concerns of community leaders in London's China Town and those of local communities right around the country,” Foster said. “This motion proposes a way of achieving it, and I hope that we can persuade our coalition partners to agree to act on this, or in any other appropriate way.
"But by supporting this notion today we are sending a very strong signal: that Liberal Democrats will give councils the power to address the concerns of local communities caused by this problem of clustering of betting shops."
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Another older, female member took to the stage to argue for her party to come together to condemn the "evil" practice. She said: "There are young people who can ill-afford to go and get sucked into the demon of gambling, which it is. It's as much a demon of addiction as drink, and we don't let people drink and drive even if they want to. We try and stop people smoking, why shouldn't we try and stop young people getting caught in this vicious cycle of gambling?"
She attacked the "faceless bureaucrats who subvert the planning system and who overrule what local government knows is right, I think. Once again thank god for Don. And please support this motion."
Although the motion was passed by a majority of members, not everyone agreed with it. Twickenham and Richmond volunteer Chris Gee said the motion was not liberal and that the party should act on evidence, not on prejudice. He also attacked retail guru and so-called Queen of Shops Mary Portas's review.
Gee said: "We are a liberal party. We should make sure we protect the vulnerable, but we should allow them to get on with their lives. Lib Dem Party policy should be underpinned by facts and evidence, not opinions and prejudice. Two of the three things on our membership cards - the values we seek to balance are those of liberty and those of community. If the public in your community don't want betting shops they won't go to betting shops."
He said the eight million people who visit betting shops every year also helped to support the local economy. On the Government-backed Portas Review into Britain's High Streets, he said the chapter on betting shops was as thought through and as well-informed as the controversial report on employment law by Adrian Beecroft. "You know - the one where the Tories wanted us to be able to fire people at will," he said.
He added: "Are we going to make our party policy based on what a TV celebrity says? Shall we make it based on what Jeremy Clarkson says for our transport policy?" Gee also said that the number of betting shops had remained steady since the turn of the century, rubbishing claims that they were on the rise.
While a £2 limit on fruit machines in pubs, bingo halls and amusement arcades limits problem gambling, fixed odds betting terminals make it possible for gamblers to place bets of £100 every 20 seconds - greater than rates of play at casinos.
The Portas Review said gaming outlets were a "blight" and having an adverse impact on local retailers.