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Sports Minister Resigns

Gerald Gouriet QC

In May this year, Tracey Crouch, the ‘Minister for Sport and Civil Society’, made the long awaited-for announcement that the maximum FOBT stake (Fixed Odds Betting Terminals) is to be reduced from £100 to £2. The Government believed (she said) that the move will “reduce the risk of gambling-related harm” and “help stop extreme losses by those who can least afford it.”

The Government’s position (at the time…) was summarised by the then DCMS Secretary of State, Matt Hancock, in these words:

“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.”

Last Monday (29th October) Philip Hammond made the budget-announcement that the cut in FOBT stakes will not take place until a year from now – October 2019.

Yesterday (November 1st), Tracey Crouch resigned from the government, giving as her reason the “unjustifiable” delay in implementing the cut.

The Government has said that the gambling industry needs to be given 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

FOBTs have undoubtedly been the repository of large sums of money wagered by many a vulnerable person who can ill-afford to lose – and therefore can ill-afford to gamble. But other gambling choices, by other vulnerable people, must surely attract the same opprobrium. FOBTs seem to me to have been the scapegoat for a much broader problem. They have been an easy target for the press, of course, who have focused attention on “roulette machines in betting shops”,  whilst turning a blind eye to other gambling opportunities with no less potential to wreak misery amongst a minority of players.  The somewhat lazy, and certainly sensational, journalists’ demonisation of FOBTs as “the crack cocaine of gambling” may have had traction with the general public, but the public are not told that the phrase was coined by Donald Trump, no less, in an attempt to discredit a rival gambling product - and it has been deployed to describe every new gambling product since, including scratch cards.

Whether or not gambling-related harm will in reality be reduced by slashing FOBT stakes 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.

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 couple of years.

Gerald Gouriet QC