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Betting Shops (Single Staffing)

Volume 575: debated on Wednesday 5 February 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and to have secured this debate. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. While at university and for a period afterwards, I worked as a bookmaker.

Order. I am loth to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but if he declares an interest, the rules require him to be more explicit about his entry. The same applies to others who may make such declarations.

I have placed several charity bets and secured a donation of £5,000 from Ladbrokes for a charity in my constituency.

Although I have some fond memories of my time as a bookmaker and of some of the characters whom I met, I cannot say that my four years passed without incident. Whether someone was upset with the odds being offered or by losing money that they could not afford, their anger was inevitably directed at the person behind the counter: me. While it could be shrugged off when someone was working with me, I felt particularly vulnerable when working alone, in particular if I had taken large sums of money. I left the betting industry some 14 years ago and had assumed that the practice of single staffing had ended. I was therefore shocked to learn that it is still going on, which I why called for this debate.

Over the past few weeks and months, I have read about an increasing number of cases where betting shop workers have been attacked, assaulted and tragically even murdered. When we discuss the betting trade, whether problem gambling or antisocial behaviour, we rarely focus on betting shop staff, yet 55,000 people work in bookmaking, which is the equivalent of 10% of the leisure industry. The work force is mainly made up of women, some of whom are re-entering the workplace after having children, or students, who need flexible or part-time work while studying, as I did when I was a student.

In recent years, however, we have witnessed a reduction in the number of betting shop employees. From 2008 to 2011, the number of betting shop staff fell from 60,247 to 54,311. In contrast, the number of shops has increased from 8,862 in March 2009 to 9,067 in March 2011. We expect staff to enforce consumer protection measures and to verify the age of gamblers. At the same time, they have to police fixed odds betting terminals. Speak to somebody who works in a betting shop today and they will tell you how difficult it is for staff to oversee FOBT usage if they are on their own. In addition, they have to get on with the job that they are employed to do. When someone works alone in a shop, they are expected to do all that as well as take and settle bets. Ultimately, employees are being asked to work as both cashier and manager at the same time, and often they are not paid any extra for working what are in effect two jobs. Following a meeting with Ladbrokes yesterday, I was pleased to hear that such workers receive a supplement of 30p an hour, which is a promising move in the right direction.

We often talk about problem gambling and I am aware of some good self-exclusion schemes from bookmakers such as William Hill and Ladbrokes. The problem is that staff cannot enforce such schemes and combat problem gambling if they are working alone, which has been highlighted by those working in the industry. One bookmaker spoke to his union, Community, about the problems that single staffing causes when trying to deal with problem gambling. He said:

“There have been many occasions when I have seen customers display signs of problem gambling. As we often lone work, I have been unable to interact with these customers. I have been in the betting industry for over 30 years, and over the past 5 years I have seen more and more customers with gambling problems. Lone working makes these issues hard to deal with.”

Lone-working policies are preventing staff from performing the duties that their employers expect of them.

Most worrying is the way in which single staffing can make betting shop staff vulnerable to incidents of violence. A report by “Panorama” in 2012 reported 26 outbursts of antisocial behaviour being witnessed during visits to 37 betting shops in London and Birmingham. Figures obtained by the same programme show a 9% increase in violent crime in betting shops between 2008 and 2011. In 2012, a survey of Community union members found that 10% of betting shop staff had experienced physical assault in the previous 12 months.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, specifically the days at the races donated by bookmakers. I commend the hon. Gentleman, who is knowledgeable about such matters and is always worth listening to. On safety, does he agree that the Safe Bet Alliance, which has been set up to conduct a risk assessment of single manning, has been praised by the police for reducing levels of crime and that, under the scheme, single manning is used only after a risk assessment that is endorsed by the police and others?

I think that the hon. Gentleman and I are the only two Members who have worked in bookmakers and who actually know what it is like on the coalface— to use a Welsh term. He is right about the Safe Bet Alliance, and I spoke extensively with William Hill and Ladbrokes, both of which are signed up, before this debate. I will develop that point later in my speech. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I am glad that someone else with betting shop experience is here today.

According to the 2012 Community survey, some 50% of betting shop workers had been threatened with some form of physical violence and those responding to the survey said that abuse is almost seen as part of the job. If it is true that violence in betting shops is increasing, bookmakers and Ministers have a responsibility to act to protect staff at work. I want to draw attention to several cases that give an indication of the level of violence to which betting shop staff can be vulnerable when working alone. Community recently asked its members to provide their stories and experiences of single manning and I have heard further stories that indicate the risks of working alone. One betting shop worker was fortunate to escape uninjured after his store was robbed while he was single manning. He said:

“I was robbed one evening just after 9.30 pm by a customer who had been in and out of the shop all night. I had spoken with him and he pretended that there was something wrong with the machine. I had to go out from behind the counter to deal with it and he came up behind me with a hammer. Thankfully, I was not physically hurt but following the robbery I could not return to work for over a month.”

Such stories demonstrate the need for a commitment on the part of the betting industry to tackle the issues caused by single staffing and lone working. I want CCTV to be compulsory, so that staff can feel secure in the knowledge that what goes on in a shop is properly monitored, and I am pleased that some steps are being taken in such areas. Community has told me that it has had more engagement with firms like Betfred in recent months and is holding meetings to discuss its current restructuring. I also wrote to William Hill to ask what measures it was taking to combat this problem. It is trialling a system in its shops that will ensure that any shop policy is dictated by how best to protect shop staff. It tells me that shops designated as high risk under their security risk assessment process, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), were excluded from the recent lone-working trial. William Hill has assured me that it has also undertaken a shop-by-shop risk assessment. Of particular importance is the fact that it has consulted heavily with staff. William Hill is also drawing together a lone-working policy document to set out clearly the company’s approach to single staffing. There are also some fantastic campaigns that are working to draw attention to the problems caused by lone working. The Sutton Guardian recently launched its “Safe Bet” campaign to fight for safer conditions for betting shop workers. Campaigns such as that are extremely important if we are to get the betting industry to respond positively to the problems.

As I mentioned, yesterday I met representatives of Ladbrokes, who assured me that they are working on ways to improve their situation such as implementing a code of practice, with the aim that it should be in place by 1 March. I was also informed of the new till technology that it is trying to set up whereby if tills become inactive over a certain time, an alarm is sent to the security office who will be alerted to the situation. The code of practice is intended to help gamblers by providing alerts. For example, if a person plays for more than half an hour or spends more than £250, the machine will alert the player. I was pleased to hear of that and wish that such practice was in place right across the industry.

Does the hon. Gentleman think that the way forward is for the issue to be dealt with on an industry basis through a voluntary code of conduct, rather than through Government legislation?

That is the nub of my speech. We need to start with a voluntary code and monitor the situation. If it is working, it should be rolled out across the industry. If it is not working, we need to revisit the matter with legislation. I am asking for a common-sense solution to sometimes volatile situations. I want compulsory double-locking on doors, compulsory CCTV and compulsory panic alarms, so that if people are threatened, they can hit the alarm and help will come.

There is something else in which I would be interested. The Ladbrokes policy is always to send someone out when a panic alarm goes off, even if it is a false alarm, just to be sure—someone might have been hit, or they might be on the floor and cannot be seen, or something like that.

The hon. Gentleman and I both have experience of working in betting shops, and in my case often alone. Does he agree that there is concern about putting too much obligation on betting shops, given that about a third of them are making less than £15,000 a year? Many of them are independent shops, which is my background and my biggest concern. Putting too many requirements on independent betting shops might make them unviable, and we could end up not with single-manned betting shops but with no betting shops and nobody in work.

I have the same background as the hon. Gentleman. I also worked in single-staffed independent betting shops. All I am looking for is simple, common-sense, cheap things such as putting in “bandit glass” areas or cages, as we called them, to ensure that the staff are safe. We need seriously to consider a voluntary code and see how it runs out. If a voluntary code does not work, we can revisit it and have another discussion at another time.

My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. What would he say to a constituent of mine who works in an independent bookmakers and who shall remain anonymous? In her letter to me she raises a deep concern that, on a single staffing, she is cashing up at night and having to take the takings down to the bank’s all-night safe. Does my hon. Friend feel that that practice should be addressed by the bookmaking industry and should not be allowed, particularly in the independent sector?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I used to cash up at night, as I am sure the hon. Member for Shipley did. Sometimes on a Saturday I walked on the street with thousands of pounds in my pocket. Someone could have followed me from the betting shop as I walked to the post office to cash in. I do not know when he left the betting industry, but at that time we had what was known as “amusement with prizes,” which was the forerunner to FOBTs. We had to drop £250 in coins out of the machine every night, and we had to carry that money, too.

The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is nodding, and perhaps we are united on wanting to address the issue. My constituent is a young female, so does my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) feel that the industry recognises that young females who are lone staffing and taking thousands of pounds from the bookmakers to the bank’s all-night safe are at risk and that something ought to be done to protect such individuals?

I agree with my hon. Friend. After I left the betting shop, I worked in a bank. Compared with the level of security that we had at the betting shop, the Securicor van would turn up at the bank and the staff would be wearing armour and helmets to take the money away. The bank had security measures in place, which the betting industry needs to consider. An interesting idea is that the marketplace manager, who looks after three or four shops, should take the takings and have security measures in place.

A lot of people do not realise that the working day in a betting shop does not end when the last race goes off. Staff still have half an hour in which to cash up and settle outstanding bets. If there is any other sport going on, they have to settle that before going out the door. A relief manager, as I was at one point, has to open the shop for the day so that everything is clear when the manager comes in. My hon. Friend is right that the industry needs to consider whether there should be more security measures, which again should be included in a voluntary code.

I will now complete my speech and await the Minister’s response. Yesterday, I discussed the betting safety charter with Ladbrokes. Following our meeting, I plan to send a letter to the chief executives to put the betting safety charter into action. I am pleased that Ladbrokes is open to the idea of such a charter. I hope that bookmakers will respond positively and commit to the idea of a national charter so that workers can feel safe in their place of work. I would like to see betting industry figures and Ministers sit round the table to discuss ways to protect shop workers and to ensure that staff can properly address issues such as problem gambling and antisocial behaviour.

I know the Minister well from our time serving together on the Select Committee on Justice. She takes a level-headed view of things and works collaboratively. I hope she lets us know whether she will take up my round-table idea and meet figures from leading bookmakers to investigate the matter further. I have often spoken in the House about the betting sector’s innovative response to change. The betting industry is one of the great business success stories, but like all industries there is much to improve. I hope that an innovative and creative approach, which characterises the industry, is used properly to address the problems that shop staff face on a day-to-day basis.

It is a pleasure, Mr Howarth, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this important debate; he speaks from a position of great experience on these issues. I acknowledge the important and thoughtful interventions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and, of course, by the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), who has just left the Chamber.

Hon. Members have made a number of points about single staffing in betting shops. I should like to set out clearly what controls are already in place and what the Government are doing in this area. I absolutely agree that betting shops should be sufficiently staffed to ensure that the licensing objectives of the Gambling Act 2005 are upheld, and I confirm that local authorities already have powers to ensure that this is the case.

The Gambling Act allows local authorities to attach conditions to betting shop premises licences where there are local concerns, including the compulsory use of CCTV, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Islwyn. There is evidence that local authorities are using these powers to good effect. The London borough of Newham used these powers in November 2013, when it imposed a number of licence conditions on a betting shop because of concerns that it attracted crime, disorder and underage gambling. The conditions include a requirement to have a minimum of two members of staff on duty throughout the whole day.

Westminster city council has been proactive in using powers under the Gambling Act. In response to concerns from residents, Westminster’s licensing service has implemented several new practices for assessing applications for new premises or for extended hours, imposing additional licence conditions where necessary. Westminster council requires betting shops to operate no pre-planned single staffing after 8 pm and to ensure there are a minimum of two staff members after 10 pm.

The examples I have provided show that we do not need new statutory regulations on businesses to enforce minimum staffing levels. It is right that local authorities, which know these areas best, in conjunction with businesses, are responsible for setting appropriate minimum staffing levels, depending on local circumstances. Staff safety was mentioned. The Government have made it clear that staff and customer safety in any workplace is of paramount importance. Employers have a legal duty under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of their staff. This applies to the betting industry as much as to anyone else.

The betting industry has taken steps to enhance staff safety in recent years. In 2010, the betting industry formed the Safe Bet Alliance, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, to tackle instances of crime against staff, customers and betting operators. The alliance’s principles agree a voluntary minimum standard of workplace safety and security for the industry. Those standards were developed in collaboration with the industry, police and local authorities. Statistics from the Association of British Bookmakers show that the number of robberies in London fell by 60% in the two years following the introduction of the code.

Although the Safe Bet Alliance was launched in London, all those standards have been adopted by the largest betting operators, which means that the vast majority of betting premises in England, Scotland and Wales are covered by those principles. Every employer must consider workplace risks to their employees. I expect all bookmakers to properly assess the appropriateness of single staffing as part of their business operations.

The hon. Member for Islwyn mentioned support for a national charter. The industry is implementing its social responsibility code, which includes points on staff safety, from March. The principles of any charter could perhaps be adopted in the existing code. There is certainly room for further discussions on that.

We have heard that single staffing limits the ability of staff to intervene when customers experience problems. It is essential that all gambling operators, not just betting shops, are able to provide support to customers who appear to be having difficulty. That is why it is already a condition of an operator’s licence granted by the Gambling Commission that licensees define their policies when there are concerns that a customer’s behaviour may indicate problem gambling. Those policies must include training for all staff on their respective responsibilities and how and when any customer intervention should occur. Those procedures must be adhered to as a minimum requirement by gambling operators. The Gambling Commission can take action, up to and including licence revocation, if there is evidence that a betting shop is failing or falling short of its obligations.

In conclusion, the safety of betting shop employees and customers is of paramount importance. Local authorities already have powers to impose licence conditions on betting shops to ensure that this is the case. It is right that these powers remain at local level.

Sitting suspended.