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The heat is on for FOBTs!

As Oscar Wilde said: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.” I suppose that, to the extent that I tend to have Radio 4 on in the background at all times when I am at home, this saying is true of me. It does have its upsides, though: something made me sit up – and turn the volume up – on Sunday night. The opening of The Westminster Hour (Sundays, 10pm) announced that the presenter, Carolyn Quinn, and her panel would be discussing the proposed crackdown on Category B2 machines, which we all know as FOBTs.

Should you wish to listen, the programme is available here for the next month or so: (at 48 – 56 minutes) and it presents an extremely negative portrait of these machines, with any arguments advanced on behalf of the industry being roundly shot down in flames at every turn.

This feature was looking ahead to the close of the Government’s Consultation on the subject, initially launched on 31 October for 12 weeks, but which has been extended, so the closing date is now next Tuesday, 23 January. Quinn’s panel was   composed of Tory MP and rebel Nicky Morgan (the same Nicky Morgan who voted against same-sex marriage and subsequently stated publicly that she regretted her decision), the broadcaster, journalist, blogger and former Tory politician Iain Dale and the Labour Leader of the House of Lords, Angela Smith.

The proposal to reduce staking on FOBTs from £100 to £2, which is the focus of the Consultation, is primarily being driven by Tory MP Tracey Crouch, Parliamentary Under Secretary for Sport and Civil Society, whose remit includes gambling. As Iain Dale remarked, to even get the plan to consultation stage in the face of Treasury resistance is a remarkable achievement for a relatively junior Minister. Tracey won her Chatham and Aylesford seat from Labour in 2010 and was only appointed as a Minister (initially as Parliamentary Under Secretary for Sport, Tourism and Heritage) on 12 May 2015.

The programme centered heavily on an interview with Matt Zarb-Cousin, who describes himself as a former gambling addict who is an activist and has been an aide to Jeremy Corbyn. He is currently a spokesperson for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling. The interview described how he became rapidly addicted to FOBTs at the age of 16 and how he lost in the region of £20,000 in the space of 4 years, becoming suicidal as a result, before being bailed out by his parents.

He described FOBTs as “the most addictive form of gambling”, and the liberalisation of the gambling industry brought about by the Gambling Act 2005 as “one of the Labour Party’s biggest mistakes” which, in his opinion, has failed to produce the hoped-for regeneration of deprived cities and areas via what he called “super-casinos”.

He also criticised self-exclusion procedures, saying that they do not work as they depend on staff recognising individuals and preventing them from entering betting premises. He pointed out that self-exclusion procedures only deal with those “who are already very addicted, who have already lost way more than they can afford”. Instead, he said, the industry should focus on preventing harm and people becoming addicted in the first place – but he gave no specifics as to how he thought this might be achieved, other than looking to eliminate the most addictive products, namely FOBTs.

Zarb-Cousin dismissed the argument that bookmakers support the UK horseracing industry via the levy out of hand, saying that FOBTs actually undermine that industry by creating “a new generation” of gamblers who have no interest in form or odds or in betting on horseracing or other sports. This explains, he contended, the contribution to bookmakers’ profits from FOBTs being over 50%. He pointed to the distinction between the features of sports betting, involving “informed decisions” and intervals between events, and those of FOBTs, where gamblers can risk up to £100 every 20 seconds.

It is regrettable that the programme did not include any direct contribution from the industry – I do not know whether anyone from the sectors was invited to participate or not, but the result is that all the arguments against FOBTs went unchecked and this painted a very negative picture. Following Zarb Cousin’s interview, the discussion went back to the studio panel, who were in unanimous agreement that stakes should be reduced as proposed, as, in the view of participants, FOBTs “undoubtedly do damage to people’s lives”. The suggestion that there should be any consideration of personal liberty was dismissed by Iain Dale and, whilst Angela Smith conceded that there is clearly a problem with people gambling similar amounts online, it was abundantly clear that the knives are well and truly out for FOBTs across Parliament and among commentators.

Once the Consultation closes, the matter will go to the new culture Secretary, Matt Hancock, for a decision. Newmarket is in his constituency and he is known to be a race-goer, so it remains to be seen whether he is swayed by the argument that bookmakers support horseracing, or whether he shares Zarb Cousin’s view that FOBTs are undermining the sport. Either way, pundits are suggesting that this may well be his first significant announcement since he took up his new post.

The outcome of the Consultation is expected towards the end of March and we will, of course, report further then. In the meantime, I’m going back to my radio.

Anna Mathias