Skip to main content

Fixed-odds Betting Terminals

Volume 561: debated on Monday 22 April 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

I am pleased to have secured this debate. I know from the number of letters, e-mails and, indeed, tweets I have received in the past few days that there is concern about the prevalence of fixed-odds betting terminals—or FOBTs, as they are commonly known—primarily in high street betting shops. A number of hon. and right hon. Members, some of whom are present, have also expressed concerns. Given that we have more time available than anticipated they will be able to make contributions, or if they want to intervene I will seek to accommodate them.

I will begin by clarifying my own position on gambling. Participants in debates such as this are often portrayed as being either pro or anti-gambling. I am not anti-gambling, nor do I seek to persuade the Minister of State to prevent people from being able to gamble in betting shops if they so choose. There are 32 such shops in my constituency—they exist across the whole country—and I received a briefing earlier today that informed me that they employ 152 people. Many people gamble for entertainment and in their own time—some occasionally, some regularly—on sport, in the casino, at bingo and in other forms, and they do so without any problems. Indeed, most years I place a bet on Fulham winning the FA cup. That one has not come in yet, and my annual visit to the bookmakers seems to be as much for their amusement as for mine. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), a fellow Fulham supporter, reminds me that in 1975 we came quite close. I was about eight months old at the time, so I do not really remember it, but I am sure that he had a bet that day.

The serious point is that my inclination and that of many Members of this House is to be very cautious about regulating how people choose legally to spend their money. That should be a matter for them and in most cases it is. There is also a danger in seeking to extrapolate policy from the worst cases of problem gambling. That does not mean, however, that the Government should simply ignore the issues and concerns that arise from the fact that between 2007 and last year, the number of FOBTs on high streets throughout Britain near enough doubled from 16,380 to some 32,000.

My interest in this issue began late in 2011, when I was approached by a constituent who in one month had gambled more than £25,000 on a single machine in a betting shop in my constituency. He approached me not because he had accepted that he had a gambling problem caused by the use of the roulette game that he played, but because he was convinced that that game was rigged. At that point, he had not thought that he had a problem. I am pleased to say that he has now accepted that he has a problem and is involved in a number of groups to deal with it. A feeling that the game is rigged is often the first indication that somebody has a problem that is getting out of control.

When my constituent approached me, I was astonished that somebody who was not a bored millionaire professional footballer betting on the horses or a property tycoon at the casino could lose that amount of money in such a short space of time at the local betting shop during the day on a single machine. What I had not appreciated is that we are not talking about machines with a £1 or £2 spin like the fruit machines in a pub, on a ferry or in a chip shop. B2 machines, as they are known, are casino-content terminals with high stakes, fast play and randomly generated results. The maximum stake is £100 per spin. It is possible, therefore, to stake £300 in a minute. In the extreme, that means that it is possible to stake up to £18,000 in an hour.

The anti-gambling lobby says consistently that gamblers can lose up to £18,000 per hour on these machines. Will my hon. Friend comment on the likelihood of that?

My hon. Friend anticipates my next point. Even if somebody played at the maximum speed for an hour, it would be highly unlikely that they would lose every single time. I suspect that the odds of losing £18,000 in an hour are pretty long. However, this is not just an idle way to use up some spare change, with the anticipation of winning a few pounds. Many people who use these machines lose a significant amount of money in a relatively short period.

I am sure that many Members have received cards via betting shops from the “Back your local bookie” campaign, which has made points about the economic value that bookmakers contribute. Betting shops often invite Members to go along and have a go on one of these machines. They will put it in demo mode and one can press a button and see that it is all very straightforward and fine. However, I have chosen to be an unannounced visitor to betting shops in London and in my constituency. What I have seen is quite alarming. People sit on the machines for a prolonged period, playing continuously and obviously staking significant amounts of money. Other than on weekends such as the grand national weekend or the Scottish grand national weekend, there is next to nobody betting over the counter. Many shops are staffed by a single individual. Other than overseeing the premises, it appears that there is relatively little for that individual to do. The machines do the work, take a lot of the money and, as the published figures demonstrate, deliver half the profit of high street betting shop chains.

I also recently spent a morning with the Hamilton Gamblers Anonymous group, who by definition are people with a gambling problem. I would not seek to suggest that everybody who gambles from time to time, or even a significant proportion of them, develop a problem, but from meeting that group, it struck me that there was a clear divide between the younger and older members. Many of the older members had developed a problem associated with gambling on horses or sometimes dog racing, or in casinos or on cards. All the younger members of the group had bet significant amounts of money on betting shop machines. Either that had been their way into gambling, from which they had developed a problem, or they had moved on to it from other forms of gambling in betting shops. I am sure that we have all heard stories about the impact on homes, families and children, with relationships breaking down because of a compulsive habit that people can indulge every day from 8 o’clock in the morning in the betting shop around the corner.

Is there not a bigger problem for individuals who have problems with gambling, in that they can sit at home gambling online 24 hours a day, often with bigger stakes than £100 every time? I wonder why the anti-gambling lobby and a lot of people do not focus on that potential problem rather than on what is happening in betting shops.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I would not describe myself as anti-gambling. Some industry representatives seem to take quite an arrogant and dismissive attitude to concerns that are expressed, but I would not call myself anti-gambling. He is right that people can gamble significant amounts on the internet in their own homes, but we cannot take comfort from the fact that significant amounts can be gambled on machines on the high street in a short period.

Does my hon. Friend agree that at least a betting office pays taxation and can deal with problems and give advice in-house, whereas gambling on computers is a whole new direction, with a lot of young people involved? No money comes back to the country, because it all goes offshore. Surely the betting offices’ argument is that they are having to do this because of the offshore betting that takes place elsewhere.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about where the profits of a lot of internet gambling go, but I would have more sympathy with his argument about high street betting shops if I could be more confident about the supposed self-regulation for people who have a problem. People have to sign themselves in and suggest that they have a problem, which misses out many people who have not yet accepted that they have a problem. That is related to a point that I will make later about the clustering of betting shops in particular parts of high streets, which suggests that the idea is to maximise the number of machines in close proximity so that people go from one to another. It is hard for betting shops and the big chains to deal with problem gambling as they encounter it when so much activity is automated; it is much harder than in the case of traditional, over-the-counter gambling.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on an issue that is incredibly important in the Medway towns and Chatham, where we have seen a proliferation of bookmakers on the high street.

It is wrong that people who raise concerns about fixed-odds betting terminals are considered part of the anti-gambling lobby. Surely it is our duty and responsibility as constituency MPs to look after the most vulnerable people in our constituencies, some of whom are drawn into gambling addiction because of the number of FOBTs in each betting shop.

I thank the hon. Lady, who makes her point well. It is easy to dismiss concerns as coming from people who are anti-gambling or who want to abolish it. I understand that that is not her position, and it is certainly not mine. She is absolutely right to highlight the fact that there has been clustering of an increasing number of betting shops in certain communities. I have evidence of that in my constituency, and there is a danger of people being drawn in. That is why I think it is the Government’s responsibility to monitor the situation closely. As the hon. Lady said, the impact on some people should be of concern to any individual constituency MP.

I am taking great notice of what my hon. Friend is saying as it is important not to characterise this debate as being either for or against gambling; it is not as simple or straightforward as that. May I put the record straight and say that not all online gambling is offshore? Indeed, the excellent bet365 in the adjacent constituency to mine is most determinedly remaining onshore in the face of competition—

Indeed, as my hon. Friend says from a sedentary position, the chairman of Stoke City is also the chairman of bet365. As well as putting that important point on the record, may I stress that other aspects in life are regulated, such as drinking? We are not for or against drinking just because we raise a concern about alcohol, but we are rightly expressing a point. It is important that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) has initiated this debate, and I look forward to listening to more of his speech.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is right to make that point about bet365 and the chairman of Stoke City, although I am not sure what odds he would have put on Stoke winning at the weekend and seemingly escaping relegation for another year, and near enough relegating Queens Park Rangers in the process, which I am not necessarily hugely unhappy about—I digress, Mr Deputy Speaker.

My hon. Friend is right to make a point about how this issue is sometimes characterised and how things are regulated. As I said earlier, my inclination is that we should not try to over-regulate individual behaviour. Where harm is caused, however, the Government need to take the issue seriously. The right level of regulation is always a balance that the Government need to strike on the basis of evidence, and I will come on to that. That, however, is a different position from a blanket opposition to gambling, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for intervening and allowing me to reiterate that point.

I was referring to the younger members of the Gamblers Anonymous group whom I met, and my concern has developed from those individual accounts. In recent weeks I have met those campaigning against a proliferation of these machines—people from a range of different organisations, both locally and nationally, who are concerned about their potential impact—as well as representatives from high street bookmakers. I have spoken to my own local authority, South Lanarkshire council, and received briefings from a range of organisations, including the Association of British Bookmakers. I believe the Government should be concerned about some of the issues that arose from those discussions.

As the Minister will be aware, and as I said earlier, it takes 20 seconds to complete a spin, and for each spin the maximum stake is £100.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He has already made this point but I think it deserves repeating. The £100 spin—50 times the normal limit—is an anomaly that allows people, very easily and conveniently, to walk off the high street and into a betting shop and gamble large sums of money. I popped into my local Ladbrokes last Friday evening to put an unwise bet on a dog at Romford—a tip given to me by the former Member for Hammersmith and Fulham—so I am not anti-gambling. The only four people in that betting shop were those playing on fixed-odds betting terminals. That is not what I expect a betting shop to be.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I, too, would be reticent about taking too much advice from a former Member for Hammersmith and Fulham in relation to sport.

Since the former Member for Hammersmith and Fulham is an Arsenal fan, that is right. The experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) in visiting betting shops mirrors mine in terms of where people are and what they are doing. It is the same at different times of the day.

On the limit, I am sure that the Minister will refer to the consultation, which recently closed. A range of organisations made submissions. The ABB briefing makes the case for the economic impact of changing the stake, but there is a social and economic impact in favour of such a change. I hope the Minister considers that carefully along with other representations. My hon. Friend was right to describe the stake as an anomaly. The machines are different from the fruit machines that we find in pubs, clubs and other places, and different from other gaming machines. I am not suggesting that everybody would stake that amount of money each time, but people can do so. They might have access to that amount of money for only a short period and it could be better used in other ways. If people have developed or are in the process of developing a problem, they might well stake that amount. I do not claim that every single machine user will bet £100 a go or £300 a minute. As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), I suspect that people doing so would win as well as lose. Suggesting that someone could lose £18,000 in an hour is extreme—it is possible but highly unlikely.

I am concerned both by what I have seen and by the research that I asked my member of staff to carry out ahead of the debate. It is very easy to gamble a lot of money very quickly. People almost do not realise the amount they are gambling and the speed with which they are doing it. The nature of the machines is that they encourage people both to chase their losses and to try to increase their wins. It is impossible to deny that people can play roulette on an FOBT in the bookies at four and half times the speed they can play roulette in a casino. The ability to get hooked, even for a short period, is apparent. That is the experience of those I have met who have gambled on FOBTs, partly because they are perceived by punters to be a good bet. Why would people not believe that? The machines tell people that there is a 97% payback, which is not that far from 100%. People therefore believe they have a good chance of winning. Why would they play a £70 jackpot machine in the pub when they can nip next door to the bookies and play for a £500 jackpot on a machine that they believe has 97% payout?

However, people only believe that there is a 97% payback. I asked representatives of one of the large bookmakers how those figures were calculated. They told me that the 97% payback is not what an individual will win, and that it is unlikely that someone playing for 10 minutes or half an hour will win at that rate. The 97% is an average taken from the cash inputted into all machines against the return as a whole. That confusion could be addressed relatively easily. Will the Minister therefore press representatives of the gambling industry to use a more appropriate and straightforward figure? The Gambling Act 2005 states that gambling should be “fair and open”. Surely explaining the chances of winning in a much clearer way, and in a way that is much less likely to be misunderstood, is the least we can expect.

Another aspect of the debate—this has been mentioned in interventions—is high streets. Those of us who live close to high streets and main streets throughout the UK have seen a number of betting shops opening in recent years. The most recent ABB briefing to MPs and its press release boast of the number of shops in the high street and their employment impact. A cluster of betting shops in one street or one part of a street has become a common sight. Sometimes, branches of the same firm are in very close proximity. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) has highlighted that previously. The Government’s review of the high street—the Portas review—drew attention to that point with a proposal for betting shops to be put in a distinct category. As I am sure many hon. Members are aware, betting shops are currently in the same bracket as banks and building societies, and there is no need to apply for change of use through the planning processes.

Many retail businesses, including estate agents and coffee shops, cluster together, and retailers will always seek to locate where they believe there is a market—supermarkets are notoriously focused on, and efficient at, doing so—so why is there a problem with betting shops?

The Minister is of course aware of the increase in the number of these machines in the past five years. As I have said, there are almost twice as many as there were just five years ago. I am sure he also knows that half the profits of high street bookmakers come from the machines and that there is a limit of four machines per betting shop. It is increasingly apparent that the opening of new betting shops is driven by the ability to have more machines. From the figures available, it is also apparent that clustering tends to occur in places with more social deprivation and lower overall incomes.

I do not believe that the Government should seek to determine on a national level whether there is over-provision of businesses in a particular area, but it should be open to local authorities and licensing authorities to do so. The case being pursued by Newham council is indicative not just of a community that feels it has enough betting shops and machines already, but of a wider frustration that all too often local authorities feel there is very little they can do to address their concern. I do not expect the Minister to comment in detail on that case as it is in the process of going through the courts, but does he think that it should be possible for local councils and licensing boards to have the flexibility to determine whether there is a need for further betting shops in particular communities and how many machines should be available in each betting shop?

The thrust of the campaign postcards we have been receiving in recent weeks is that machines make a contribution to the economy, keeping betting shops going and employing people in constituencies across the UK. The economic impact of betting shops is important, but it needs to be assessed in the context of the total impact on local economies. As the Minister may be aware, a recent study by Landman Economics found that the £1 billion in FOBT spend supports 7,000 jobs in the gambling sector, compared to 20,000 jobs if that expenditure were used elsewhere. Put another way, there could be 13,000 fewer jobs for every £1 billion spent through the machines. Money being used to gamble in local high streets may be good for the big chains and their overall profit margins, but the local impact can be less beneficial. More and more betting shops are employing fewer staff, as gambling through machines has less need for personal interaction.

The gambling industry groups are robust and sometimes dismissive in their response to those concerns. Their perspective can be summarised thus: something being popular means that it does not cause problems; look at all the people employed in betting shops and the shops’ contribution to the local economy; and everybody knows exactly what they are doing because lots of them have A-levels. That type of attitude highlights precisely why the Government should keep the impact of the machines under review and not leave the industry to act under its own initiative.

While the industry argues that there is no evidence to suggest that FOBTs are addictive, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a problem. The confusion in the Government’s own statements is apparent. In the consultation document I referred to earlier, they say that the causal link “remains poorly understood”. However, they also say that the association between high stake, high price machines and gambling-related harm is widely accepted, which makes the decision to end the gambling prevalence study all the more concerning. Will the Minister respond, in particular, to the point that research is required to determine the evidence on the likelihood of problem gambling? I am conscious that the people I have spoken to in my constituency are those with problems and that there are many who do not have problems, but the level of concern suggests that much closer attention should be paid.

My hon. Friend seems to be concluding his remarks and I want to ask this question before he does so. On the impact of gambling addiction on communities, the cost to the Government of families where there is an addicted gambler spending money that should be spent on the children is huge. The cost to the nation of such addiction is massive. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be in the Government’s best interests to have the best possible analysis of the impact of machines on addiction rates, so that it could guide their policies and ultimately, perhaps, even save some money?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about how we assess the cost to the public purse and the impact on communities. It is an argument often used in relation to other policy areas, such as early-years intervention and so on, that can save money. I hope therefore that the Minister will comment on the level of evidence required, and how wide-ranging it needs to be, in order to assess the scope of the problem and how it could best be addressed.

There is some evidence on the proportion of gambling that is problem gambling. I think the Minister will be aware of the Birmingham university study based on analysis of the 2010 British gambling prevalence survey. It is a valuable piece of work that starts to consider some of these issues, but it needs to be constantly monitored and updated. In 2007, when the Department for Culture, Media and Sport commissioned a scoping study on the impact of the Gambling Act 2005, it recommended that FOBTs be closely monitored because they contained features closely associated with problem gambling. Will he explain what his Department has done, and will be doing, to monitor their impact?

I am following this debate intensely. I am not a gambler, but constituents have indicated to me the problems specifically with these machines. Is my hon. Friend saying that we should revert to how things used to be and that these machines should not be in the bookies? If so, there would be fewer bookies, because, as he said, 40% of their profits come from the machines. But how would that address the computer issue, which I believe is a big problem? There is no regulation there at all. If we want to resolve the problem, we have to address the computer issue, as well as the machines. If we removed the machines, it would reduce profits by 40% and it might also prevent the clustering he is talking about.

My hon. Friend makes a point about the number of betting shops. He will be aware of the relatively recent increase in the number of betting shops in certain areas, which I contend is due, at least in part, to the ability to have more machines. The benefit of that is to the betting shops and chains—they are nearly all chains, and in some cases there is more than one branch of the same chain, but there will certainly tend to be one of each in close proximity. An assessment of their economic impact and their benefit to the local community, including from the jobs they provide, must be set against the negative impact of the problem gambling associated with the machines.

That does not take away from my hon. Friend’s point about internet gambling, which needs to be looked at again, but I think that collecting evidence on the extent of the problem and then giving more flexibility to local authorities and licensing authorities is a better way of establishing what is tolerable in particular areas. Otherwise, we get the clustering in particular areas where the problems tend to occur.

I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification, but I want to return to the main point. He started with the point that these new machines, which have been put in over time, are attracting people in off the streets and allowing them to make massive bets that they could not make before. If we took out the machines, or reverted to what is acceptable in clubs, pubs or other gambling establishments, where much less money can be spent, the logical outcome would be fewer betting shops. These are not betting shops as we know them, with betting on horse racing and football, if, as he says, people are going in to use the machines. If we eliminated the machines and reverted to what used to be the case, would we not reduce the number of betting shops?

Certainly, most activity in betting shops takes place on the machines, rather than on over-the-counter betting, and that seems to have led to a change in the number of people being employed. Not in all chains, but certainly in some, there used always to be at least two people, with people betting at the counter, but now there is often only one person. So these machines might already have had an impact on jobs. We need to look at the issue carefully, because these machines have a significant impact. That is not good for any community, no matter how many betting shops there are there, nor does the number in a particular area necessarily justify a high prevalence of machines or the high stakes that can be gambled each time.

Before I conclude—I am conscious that I have gone on much longer than would normally be allowed in such a debate—

I do not want to alarm other hon. Members, but I do not intend to speak for 55 minutes more, although the Minister may wish to do so.

I want to ask the Minister a couple of further questions about the vital research that, as I have said, needs to be done. I am sure he will refer to the research into all category B machines commissioned by the Responsible Gambling Trust and the time scale for that research. Obviously, he will look at it once it is completed—I think it is due to take 18 months, which is a considerable time—but I wonder whether he is aware of the concerns that have been expressed that the chair of the Responsible Gambling Trust is also the chair of the Association of British Bookmakers, which is the trade association that represents the industry. What reassurances has the Minister sought to ensure that the research that the Responsible Gambling Trust is undertaking is credible and that there is not a conflict of interest in the way it is undertaken? Is he also aware that the vice-chair of the Association of British Bookmakers is on the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board’s machines expert panel or that a special partner in a company that owns an FOBT supplier is also a member of the board? If so, does the Minister believe that that undermines the credibility of the research? What reassurance can he give that it will not and that the research commissioned by the Responsible Gambling Trust will be comprehensive and robust?

I make those points not because I wish to denigrate the reputation of any individual, but because the outcome of that research will be vital, as will be the research needed to understand the extent of the problem. This evening I have outlined anecdotal examples from my constituency, and I am sure many hon. Members present could do the same—indeed, some have done so in interventions on me. When the industry claims that there is no problem and no evidence to show that there is, it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that the research is done and the evidence provided, because despite all the claims that are made, we do not want more people to get into gambling problems much more quickly than they would otherwise as an unintended consequence of allowing new machines to be made available for people to gamble on.

I hope the Minister will take the remarks I have made this evening as I hope they came across—that is, as those of a concerned constituency Member of Parliament, not someone who is anti-gambling, who has the intent to close down every bookmaker or who would suggest that people should not gamble. People can gamble if they wish—I do occasionally, as do others. There is nothing wrong with that: it is a legitimate entertainment and leisure pursuit for many people—sometimes occasionally, sometimes regularly, as I have outlined. However, if we get into a situation where very many people have serious problems as a result of being able to gamble large amounts of money in a short period on such machines, that is something that the Government should address, as I hope the Minister will.

I rise briefly to offer some cross-party support for the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) and the concerns he has raised. I am not anti-gambling; in fact, I like more than a regular flutter, normally on the horses, not the football—I have much better sense than that. However, I have concerns about the proliferation not just of betting shops, but of the number of FOBTs in them. I am not one often to engage in tribal politics and I certainly do not want to do so on this occasion, but that is clearly a consequence of the liberalisation of gambling that we saw under the previous Government.

That said, it is incumbent on us as a responsible Government to try to reach a solution to the problem. I share the hon. Gentleman’s view about giving local authorities the opportunity to provide part of the solution. A cross-party working group on Medway council has recently produced a paper, to try to ensure that it can have a role to play in reducing the number of bookmakers on the high street. Bizarrely, Chatham high street is not in the Chatham and Aylesford constituency, but that is where the heart of some of these problems lies.

I can see the benefits of having fixed-odds betting terminals in betting shops, but I have concerns about the number of such machines in those shops and about the amount of money that can very quickly be staked, lost and won on them. That creates an incentive to people to go in and use the machines. I long for the day when I can go into my local bookies and queue up to place a bet on a horse, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, more people are playing on the machines than are filling out the card. In fact, I quite enjoy going into a bookies and shocking people when I place a bet on a horse. I do not think they expect a woman, let alone the local Member of Parliament, to walk into a bookies.

I am particularly concerned about the Medway towns, in which people are experiencing increasing levels of personal debt. It is an area of deprivation, and there are problems relating to the clustering of bookmakers, payday loan companies and pawnbrokers. This is an issue for the whole area. I therefore want to offer my support for the hon. Gentleman. Like him, I do not think that we should eradicate the machines from betting shops, but I believe that we should look carefully at limiting them or limiting the stakes that people can place on them.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) for securing the debate and giving the House an opportunity to discuss this issue. He correctly states that it is a matter of concern for many hon. Members. Let me reassure him that I do not in any way take what he said as an indication that he is either pro-gambling or anti-gambling. He made a well-balanced contribution that reflected concerns that I have heard when we have debated this issue and others associated with it. These concerns have been raised with me on many other occasions.

The hon. Gentleman is a diligent Member who does his research, and he will be aware that he is catching me at a slightly awkward time, in that the triennial review into stakes and prizes has just closed, on 9 April. My Department has received more than 9,000 responses to the review, and we are in the process of analysing them. For reasons that he and any other Members with experience of dealing with the gambling industry will know, it is important, given that these are big, litigious organisations, for any Government to proceed on the basis of evidence. I hope, particularly in view of what he has said tonight, that he has submitted a response to the millennium review.

The consultation started in January and finished in April, but will the Minister take account of any further new evidence? For example, BBC South East carried out an independent survey of betting and gambling problems and of fixed-odds betting terminals in Gillingham and the wider Medway area, but the survey was carried out after the consultation closed. Will he take that new evidence into consideration?

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. I will have to check the legalities and get back to him. The consultation period was open for a specific time, and if we were to reopen it to the BBC, we would have to reopen it to everyone else to be fair. I am slightly inclined to ask why, if the BBC was going to carry out a major study, it did not do so in time to submit it to the consultation, especially when it had three months in which to do it.

We have heard many distressing tales of where people have run into problems using the type of machines that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West has spoken about this evening. Each one of those stories is, of course, a personal tragedy not just for the individual, but for their friends and colleagues—and indeed, for the wider society. As was pointed out earlier, however, we also have to balance such matters with a recognition that for the majority of people, gambling does not develop into a problem. As I think the hon. Gentleman was fair enough to say, the gambling industry is a legitimate part of the leisure industry that creates jobs and harnesses investment.

According to the Gambling Commission’s industry statistics for the period April 2011 to March 2012, the gambling industry employed almost 110,000 people—a considerable number—with the betting sector making up the largest component, employing nearly 55,000 people in full or part-time posts. That makes the gambling industry a significant contributor to the UK economy. The Office for National Statistics estimated that in 2009 it was directly worth £4.9 billion in gross value added terms. What I think I am saying to the hon. Gentleman is not one thing or the other, but that there is a balance to be struck here. To be fair, he recognises that.

Let me say a few words about betting shops. The hon. Gentleman mentioned what has been a recurrent theme during recent times, about which concerns have been raised by a large number of stakeholders: the clustering of betting shops within certain local areas. The key concern—it has been raised tonight—often relates to the B2 machines and their impact on local communities in respect of problem gambling.

The overall number of betting shops has remained reasonably stable in recent years. In 2009, there were 8,862 and by September 2012 there were 9,049—not a huge difference. Those figures are well down on the peak of 16,000 during the 1960s. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, however, that more betting shops are relocating to the high street, which makes them more visible.

I am not entirely shrugging my shoulders when I say that planning policy is, of course, an issue for the Department for Communities and Local Government. It is relevant to the debate to note that local authorities have a range of enforcement powers—I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman would like them to have more—that can be used to manage the overall retail diversity and the viability of town centres. Tools such as article 4 directions allow local authorities to restrict nationally permitted development rights if they are not suitable for their area.

Anybody can see the clustering of betting shops on the high street. What is the Minister’s view of why that is happening, as he is right that there are fewer betting shops now than 20 years ago?

That is a very good question. I have to tread a little carefully because of the consultation. As a Minister who has already been judicially reviewed once, over a football stadium, I am not in hurry to go through that joyous process again, to be honest, so I will tread reasonably carefully here. Many of the factors mentioned tonight may be behind this particular development. It is pretty clear where betting shops are making their money at the moment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) mentioned, the pattern of betting has changed quite a lot over recent years. Betting shops are sometimes able to pay rents that other retail outlets cannot afford, there have been changes in shopping patterns and there is also the changing nature of the high street. All those things are factors, but I will not go a great deal further than that until we have had the chance to analyse the responses to the consultation.

Let me try to push the Minister a little further. It is perhaps not so much the absolute numbers or even necessarily the clustering itself that is the issue, but where the clustering is taking place. In my relatively poor constituency, there are two or three times the number of betting shops as there are in neighbouring more prosperous constituencies. In Chelsea or Richmond, a third or half the number of betting shops will be found than in an area such as Shepherd’s Bush. That is the concern.

The hon. Gentleman made his point very well. The rent that betting shops with machines of this kind are able to pay is crucial. Presumably, if they move to Chelsea the retail rents will rise, and that may price them out of the area. There is almost certainly a social element in all this, and I suspect that that is the answer that the hon. Gentleman hoped I would give him. We will consider all the evidence in the course of this review and the review that will be undertaken in due course by the Remote Gambling Association. I shall say more about that shortly.

Is the Minister saying that the work that he and his civil servants are considering will include a mapping exercise to establish where betting shops are located in relation to, for instance, the index of deprivation?

It is important to note that two separate reviews are taking place. The triennial review of stakes and prizes closed on 9 April, and produced 9,000 responses which we must work through. The wider issues will be addressed by the review that will take place next year, and I hope that we will be able to reach some worthwhile conclusions on that basis.

The Gambling Commission’s statistics show that between March 2011 and April 2012, an average of just over 35,500 machines were capable of offering B2 category games in betting shops in Great Britain. The number has remained relatively stable since 2009, but, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, that stability has occurred at a time when machine numbers elsewhere have declined. For example, according to Gambling Commission figures, the overall number of gaming machines fell by 10% between 2011 and 2012, and the number of B2 machines increased by 1% during the same period. That would appear to show that B2 machines are popular consumer products, which may give rise to some of the problems identified by the hon. Gentleman. They are, of course, also crucial to the profitability of many betting shops.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that, in the light of concerns raised by him and others, it is appropriate for the Government to look into the issue. I assure him that I am well aware of the concerns that he and many other Members have expressed about B2 machines in particular. In dealing with the problem, for reasons that I have already given, I must proceed on the basis of evidence. I hope that the combination of the two reviews that I have mentioned will give us the evidential base that we need in order to work out exactly what is happening and what needs to be done as a consequence. We want to balance the harmful effects that he and many others have described with the contribution that gambling properly makes to employment and the local economy in many areas, which has been mentioned by Members on both sides of the House.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman both on securing the debate and on the way in which he has prosecuted his case. The evidence that he has presented illustrates the problem, and as he said, it is up to the Government to determine how best to tackle it. I can reassure him that the Government are listening—I am absolutely listening—and that we will take action if it is necessary. However, we must act on the basis of the evidence that is available to us.

I thank the Minister for giving way again. There is evidence that it is possible to spend £18,000 in an hour on FOBT machines. I agree with the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) that the people whom we should be looking after are the most vulnerable in society. Like every other Member who is present tonight, I recognise that that is the case and that there is a problem with these machines. We need a fair and balanced review. We need people to be honest about this. People cannot lose £18,000 in an hour on one of those machines. They can go to Cheltenham and spend £100,000 in one minute on one bet; they can put £250,000 on a horse in one minute with one bet. We would not multiply that by 60 and say that is how much money people can spend at Cheltenham, and then look to prevent them from doing so. That is a ludicrous argument.

I understand much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The challenge for us as a Government and me as a Minister is to work out a way to deal with the problem that has rightly been identified—the fact that some people get addicted through this sort of gambling—but to do so, if we can, in a way that does not discriminate against the many people who use those machines perfectly safely and perfectly reasonably, and not to overdo it in such a way as to harm the local economy and the employment prospects of many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. It is a question of getting that balance right.

The Minister talked about a solution that involves the Government, but has he had any conversations with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government about licence fees and local authorities, because they have a role to play in this and they can represent their communities? If the licence fee cap by Whitehall were lifted and they were able to make their own local decisions on what the initial fee should be and what the annual fee should be after that, that might have an impact on the high street, with decisions being made by local government and therefore taken out of the hands of central Government. Has the Minister looked at those questions, and has he had any conversations with his colleagues in DCLG?

The simple answer is that we are in constant contact with DCLG. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), used to speak on these matters for the Lib Dems and is now the Minister with responsibility for them. He is very much across the subject; he understands these points extremely well, and all of them will be looked at. Let me make the point again, however, that we have to follow the evidence, which is precisely why we are trying to put these two studies together.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing this debate, because I have learned one or two things tonight. I have constituents who have come to see me about some real problems. The comparisons that we must think about, however, go further than those he has made. We take into account the fact that local pubs, clubs and bingo halls also have machines, but not machines of such an infectious nature, perhaps because they cannot afford the licence. The comparison that has to be made is this: are people more likely to go to the betting office to get a bigger gamble or go to the local pub or bingo hall where the sums they can put in are limited to 10p, 20p or £1, which is the highest stake?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. It is, indeed, in theory perfectly possible—although we will have to wait and see where the evidence from the consultation leads us—to deal with one set of machines in one way and another in another way, and we may want to do so to reflect the different reasons why people play.

One piece of evidence the Minister may take into consideration is that the average spin on a B2 machine is about £15, which is seven or eight times the maximum on a B3 machine. That, rather than the possibility of spending £18,000 in an hour, is what concerns to me. This is an anomaly, because these are off-site betting opportunities, where the server is off-site, and suddenly people can gamble a much higher sum. I am sure the Minister is aware of that, although he may not be commenting on it tonight. That is a major difference with regard to the type of gambling that has just been talked about, which is available now just by walking off the street.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point of which I am aware. I hope everybody who has spoken in the debate contributed to our consultation; if so, their responses will be lying there among the 9,000 that I am sure my civil servants are looking forward to wading through over the coming months.

Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West on securing this debate; it proved a popular activity for an hour. I assure him that we are listening and that we will act on the available evidence, for all the reasons I set out tonight. We will also listen carefully to all the responses to our consultation.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.