Gambling on the DUP
An alarming report this week has highlighted the extent of problem gambling across England, Scotland and Wales. It revealed that 2 million people were either addicted or at risk of becoming addicted to gambling. For reasons not explained Northern Ireland was excluded from the survey but we already know that Northern Ireland has the highest prevalence of problem gamblers in the UK.
The aspect of the report which has gained most attention is the number of problem gamblers using Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs), now a staple in bookmakers shops. Latest figures show 11.5% of the people who use machines in bookmakers are problem gamblers, up from 7.2% in 2012.
FOBTs are gaming machines on which punters can bet up to £100 per spin every 20 seconds with pay-outs capped at £500 a time. In January of this year an All Party Parliamentary Group at Westminster held an inquiry into them.
Derek Webb, founder of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, told MPs that they are the most addictive form of gambling and that there was plenty of evidence to support this claim.
He added: “The ABB [Association of British Bookmakers] CEO, Malcolm George, claims that betting shops are the safest places to gamble on the high street. This is absolutely false. They are probably the most dangerous legalised gambling venues anywhere in the developed world.”
The MPs heard evidence of users committing suicide and a series of claims about the impact the machines have had on young and vulnerable people in particular, as well as broader impacts on mental health and families and communities.
Evidence was also cited that machines were used by criminals as a safe means of laundering money.
There was a further suggestion that, despite their widespread use in Northern Ireland, they might be illegal here. This claim is based on the fact that the Gambling Act of 2005 was never introduced in Northern Ireland, where gambling is still covered by 1985 legislation.
Members were presumably unware of the fact that this issue was raised here back in 2013 when the then Department for Social Development referred to the use of FOBTs as a grey area. It declined to state whether they were legal or not saying that was a matter for the courts. In the interim they continue to proliferate in bookies’ shops, 900 at the last count.
Meanwhile at Westminster it appears that the Treasury is just as addicted to the tax take from gambling as the punters are to the machines themselves. Revenues are estimated at around £400 million per annum – a fact that the Daily Mail has claimed has led to government stalling on calls to reduce the maximum stake that can be made from £100 to £2.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that many of the most vociferous opponents of FOBTs are rival operators in the gambling industry who have seen their incomes fall as the bookmakers’ have risen. This has led to accusations that the campaign has been cooked up by vested interests.
Whatever allegations their critics in British political circles might aim at the DUP, being in hock with gamblers is not one of them.
One of the most vocal and passionate campaigners against FOBTs is the Strangford MP Jim Shannon.
Last year he said during a Westminster debate: “The lack of regulation of FOBTs has meant that they have clustered in areas of high social deprivation. They can prey on the young and vulnerable. There is strong evidence that the high stakes on FOBTs in the low-supervision environment of a bookmaker have led to increased problem gambling.”
And he shared this insight into the problem of money laundering: “Using the proceeds of crime to fund a gambling addiction, or cleaning the cash obtained from a crime, is common. The most common use of FOBTs since they landed on the high street is for getting rid of dyed notes obtained during robberies on armoured vans, cash machines and so on. The notes are sprayed with an irremovable dye that is an immediate alert as to their origins. They are therefore not exchangeable. However, they are still identified as legitimate currency by note accepters on gaming machines. The machine with the highest cash transaction capability and ticket pay-out facility would be the preferred option for laundering, and that is the fixed odds betting terminal.”
Mr Shannon has researched the area thoroughly and can expect the full support of his party in pressing for immediate changes.
The DUP’s position is also significant because it is completely immune from one of the charges often levied against campaigners for change by bookmakers.
If anyone has any doubts about how pernicious FOBTs are they should read this fascinating piece by a US journalist on how the slot machine industry has evolved and the techniques it uses to keep punters “in the zone” when they are playing.
Gambling addiction destroys lives. It is also estimated to cost the public purse £1.6 billion per year: in mental health service, police costs and welfare bills.
If the DUP does force the government to take robust action on FOBTs this would be an important contribution to our collective well-being and they should be lauded for it.
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