Odds on morning after

I find that yesterday’s papers are where you find the gems … and the dross.

Yesterday The Times had a story:

High St ‘clusters’ of betting shops face clampdown

On line that became:

High streets ban for ‘clusters’ of betting shops

As far as I can see, the rest remains unchanged:

The proliferation of high street betting shops is to be curbed with ministers ready to give town halls powers to block “clusters” of bookmakers.

David Cameron is also convinced that greater restrictions are required on casino-style fixed-odd betting terminals (FOBT) to “minimise harm” and prevent the spread of problem gambling.

Inevitably, it has to be the former Labour government’s fault:

Successive governments have relaxed the regulations, notably Labour in 2005, when it said that gambling should be viewed as an entertainment.

Where that falls down is:

  • FOBTs only originated in 2002.
  • In 2005 they were still a disaster waiting to happen.
  • At the time of the 2005 Gambling Act, both Labour and Tories had been under pressure from the betting industry to permit their introduction. John Whittingdale, for the Tories, seemed an outright enthusiast:

For 30 years, the UK industry has been a model of responsibility. It has been largely free of organised criminal activity and the level of problem gambling is much lower in this country than elsewhere. It was for that reason that the previous Conservative Government felt able to introduce measures to liberalise the rules…

The Government’s attitude towards fixed-odds betting terminals remains uncertain. Will those machines be treated like other category B machines and allowed in adult gaming centres and bingo halls? Having listened to the Secretary of State’s speech this afternoon, that concern will grow because she appeared unwilling to accept the agreement between the Association of British Bookmakers and the Gaming Board…

  • In 2005 the then Minister of State at the Department of Culture, Media & Sport, Richard Caborn, said:  “High stake slot machines, including FOBTs, remain on probation and we will continue to adopt a cautious approach. Government will not hesitate to act should there be sound evidence of harm.”

Change and decay in all around I see…

Since then it has all got very gory.

There are now over 33,000 of these FOBTs across Britain. Since the limitation is “number of machines per premises”, the betting businesses have increased their penetration by multiplying the number of betting shops. Incredible as it sounds:

... bookmakers are categorised as “financial services”, so converting a former bank or estate agent into a betting shop requires no planning permission. When applications are required to change use, such as when a shop has become vacant, councils are reluctant to turn down bookmakers in case they are taken to court.

Now to my puzzlement about the other numbers in that Times piece:

The number of betting shops has grown only slightly since the recession, by about 600 to 9,000. However, it is the clustering on the high street that many councils and residents detest. Newcastle city centre has 16 within a few hundred yards. Overall, bookies account for 9 per cent of high street floor space, up from 4 per cent in 2008.

Presumably that depends on when the “recession” is supposed to have begun. Even so, an increase of 600 is over 7% — but a leap from 4% to 9% of high street floor space is more than a doubling. The numbers, as they say, don’t add up.

Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!

Around the turn of the year Labour — and the estimable Tom Watson in particular — had a fit of the vapours over FOBTs:

We’re in the grip of a new addiction – high-speed, high-stakes gambling.

What’s fuelling this destructive habit is the fixed odds betting terminal(FOBT), a machine that allows people to bet £100 every 20 seconds for 13 hours a day.

These digital roulette terminals are making millions for the gambling industry, and making losers out of those who can least afford to lose.

And there’s also growing evidence that they’re turning bookies from places where people have a flutter on the horses into criminal dens linked to money laundering.

That’s why I want FOBTs curbed and the government to get a grip of this disgraceful situation. David Cameron must stand by his pledge to me at prime minister’s question time that the government will take a “proper look” at FOBTs.

This was all to the considerable distress of, for one, Freddy Gray in The Spectator, who instantly saw it all as a political plot:

A FOBT ban could be terminal for high-street bookies – and great for a Labour donor

The Daily Mail likes to call FOBTs the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’, which makes them sound much more fun than they are. Campaigners claim that gaming companies use FOBTs to prey on ‘the most vulnerable’, by which they mean the feckless poor.

Miliband, a puritan at heart, wants to give councils the power to ban FOBTs. David Cameron, for his part, says that he wants to see ‘empirical evidence’ before he takes action, but he does believe that there are ‘problems with the betting and gambling industry’ and that it is his job to stamp them out.

And the Labour gain here is, precisely?

A FOBT ban on top of the new [Point of Consumption] tax could be a crippling double blow, even for giants such as William Hill and Ladbrokes. The most obvious beneficiary, however, would be Bet365, Britain’s biggest online operator. Interestingly, Bet365’s owners, the Coates family, have given the Labour party more than £400,000 over the last decade. I wouldn’t bet against them soon becoming Britain’s leading bookies.

Tom’s position was quite straightforward:

So how do we stop the growth of FOBTs, which continue to invade our high streets like Japanese knotweed and with the same destructive force? It’s simple. We reduce the maximum stake from £100 to £2. No other country in the developed world allows £100-a-spin machines on the high street.

Hmm: Knotweed doesn’t appear too frequently in the well-trodden streets of old York, but I’ll take Tom’s word for it. And in all truth, the official Labour proposal was very modest, even “localist” (which was, at least back in 2010, an essential principle of this ConDem arrangement):

Labour would empower local councils to ban fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) from high streets, Ed Miliband has confirmed.

The Labour leader claimed the FOBTs, which let gamblers bet £300 a minute or £18,000 an hour, were being targeted at poor people.

Councils would be given a range of powers including stopping the spread of FOBTs, reducing their number or banning them altogether. On a visit to Kilburn in north London, Miliband said: “In towns and cities across Britain today, you can see how the old bookies are being turned into mini casinos. In the poorest areas, these are spreading like an epidemic along high streets with the pawn shops and payday lenders that are becoming symbols of Britain’s cost-of-living crisis.

“In Newham [east London] there are 87 betting shops with an estimated 348 machines and across the five Liverpool constituencies there are 153 betting shops with around 559 FOBTs.”

“Illiberal”

By the way, The Spectator‘s position was unreconstructed as late as mid-March:

Ed Miliband and Tom Watson, among others, want to give councils the power to ban FOBTs. That seems fundamentally illiberal. But Watson is right to say that the government’s latest levy on FOBTs means that the Treasury will ‘profit from the problem rather than deal with it.’ Once a government starts making huge sums of money from a frowned-on thing — like booze, cigarettes, and gambling — it is hard to taken them seriously when they express concern about the impact. Taxing vices is not in and of itself a virtue. Quite the opposite.

Another indecisive Cameron decision

The Times story, from which this post has derived, was little more than a spoiler (including ‘borrowing’ the numbers). The Guardian had already splurged the ‘leak’:

Downing Street is poised to announce a crackdown on high-speed, high-stakes gambling machines, with fresh penalties for bookmakers if they fail to enforce new limits on playing times and betting losses, the Guardian has learned…

This week Cameron is due to announce a clampdown on the terminals, with a range of regulatory and planning powers to curb the clustering of shops. These moves come a month after the chancellor’s surprise 5% tax increase on the betting machines in the budget.

The prime minister’s personal interest in the matter has rung alarm bells in boardrooms. In the letter, Cameron questioned whether the industry limits were too high and asked the Gambling Commission, the regulator, to see whether they should be reduced.

He also proposed making the strengthened measures part of the operating licence – essentially making the new code mandatory rather than voluntary, as the industry had wanted.

Excuses, excuses

What remains unexplained here is why Cameron & co. resisted the reasonable proposals of Miliband, Tom Watson & co. at start of the year, but now seek to impose centralised regulation.

We are about to find it was all her fault, again:

The betting industry had been prepared for an announcement this week, but it has been delayed, possibly because Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary and minister in charge, is the subject of a ferocious row over her parliamentary expenses. Mr Cameron fears that the announcement would be obscured by questions about her future.

Remember, folks: when you through someone under a bus, make sure you attach as much baggage as possible.

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Filed under Conservative family values, Conservative Party policy., culture, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Fraser Nelson, Guardian, The Spectator, Times, Tom Watson MP, Tories.

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