Labour says gambling liberalisation was “mistake”

The deputy leader of the Labour Party has called the previous Labour government’s regulations on high-stakes betting terminals “a mistake” that is “ruining people’s lives”.

Speaking to Channel 4’s Dispatches current affairs documentary series Harriet Harman called for new laws governing fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) and told the programme that if her party had “known then what we know now” about the effect the clustering of betting shops offering FOBTs had on local communities “we wouldn’t have allowed this because it’s not just ruining the high street, it’s ruining people’s lives.”

Harman said: “I think we [the last Labour administration] were wrong, we have made a mistake and this result is the consequence and we need to do something about it.”

The 2005 Gambling Act introduced a limit of four FOBTs per retail betting shop in England and Wales, which allow customers to place bets of up to £100 every 30 seconds on touch-screen games, usually roulette, with the largest single pay-out capped at £500.  According to research commissioned by Dispatches, also revealed tonight, British punters lost more than £1bn in 2011 on FOBTs. Dispatches also suggested that poorer areas of the UK had a far higher concentration of betting shops – 12 per 100,000 people – than better-off areas, which only supported around five.

Harman’s apparent call for a restriction on the number of FOBTs allowed in high street betting shops however runs contra to the recommendation of MPs last month that the limit be removed altogether. MPs argued in their select committee report on the 2005 Gambling Act that only allowing four machines per shop had the “unintended consequence of encouraging the clustering of betting shops in some high streets”, by effectively encouraging bookmakers to open more shops to overcome the limit.

Industry lobby group the Association of British Bookmakers (ABA) said its members considered the same factors as any other retailer when deciding where to open new shops, telling Channel 4 that: “Up to 80% of new shops are opened in vacant units, providing jobs and investment that would otherwise be absent.”

The success of FOBTs, introduced from 2001, coincided with the steady decline in the number of bookmakers in Britain coming to an end, with the number of planning applications for new licensed bookmaker premises rocketing from just 39 in 2001, to 340 by 2004.

Double digit revenue growth from Ladbrokes’ FOBTs and a rise in the average number of machines in each of its 2,150 UK betting shops to 3.86 was instrumental in boosting the operator’s first-half profit, the company revealed last week. Net revenue from machines rose more than £28.1m, or 20.1%, compared to just 2.1% for over-the-counter betting revenue, with gross win per terminal per week reaching £947 during H1. Ladbrokes made approximately £360m from the machines last year, with William Hill’s larger retail estate netting it close to £420m.

Dispatches: Britain’s High Street Gamble will air tonight at 8pm on Channel 4.

Casino Choice journalist

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