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Gambling: Fixed-Odds Betting Terminals

Volume 793: debated on Thursday 1 November 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in the other place:

“The Government do not have a new approach to fixed-odds betting terminals. The reduction in stakes for FOBTs is an important change and the right thing to do, but there are several factors to consider in determining the date from when it should take effect. The most important of course is to do this as soon as possible to prevent further harm. The Government were urged in an Early Day Motion in June of this year by the FOBT APPG not to wait until April 2020 to do so, but it was also right to consider planning to reduce the effect of job losses for those working in betting shops on the high street, and to allow time for that planning to take effect.

It also has to be recognised that, right though this change is, money for public services coming from use of FOBTs has to be replaced or public services will have less funding. The Chancellor has decided to do that with an increase in remote gaming duty, and it is right that this increase happens at the same time as the FOBT stake change.

There also needs to be a proper period of notice, after setting the new rate, before that change to remote gaming duty takes effect. The Government have therefore concluded that October 2019 is the best date to make both changes. However, the Government have always made it clear that the issue of problem gambling is complex and cannot be addressed through these measures alone. So work has been continuing to strengthen protections around gaming machines, online gambling, gambling advertising and treatment for problem gamblers. The Gambling Commission launched a consultation on protections around online gambling last month, and this examines stronger age-verification rules and proposals to require operators to set limits on consumers’ spending until affordability checks can be conducted.

There will be tough new guidance from the Committee on Advertising Practice on protecting vulnerable people, with further guidance on protecting children and young people introduced before the end of the year. Public Health England will carry out a review of the evidence on the public health impacts of gambling-related harm. As part of the next licence competition, the age limit for playing National Lottery games will be reviewed, to take into account developments in the market and the risk of harm to young people.

While we want a healthy gambling industry that contributes to the economy, we also need one that does all it can to protect players. This is a significant change that will help stop extreme losses by those who can least afford it, and we are taking decisive action to ensure we have a responsible gambling industry that protects the most vulnerable in our society”.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for responding on behalf of his colleague in DCMS on this matter. But this is a disgraceful situation. After two years of consideration, it was finally dragged out of the Government that there should be action taken against FOBTs—and it is now going to take two years until we can implement it. This does not seem the right way to approach something which is recognised in the Statement, and by all in this House, to be a really significant problem in need of urgent remedy. We are not talking just about the personal cost to people who are involved in problem gambling—an issue that we will come to in a later debate today. It is not just because of the loss of funds that flow out of families affected by this. It is also that these machines—situated, as they are, on the high street—are a blight on many of our local communities. They cause problems simply because of their presence, and they are funded largely by the FOBT income that they get.

This is, as the Minister said, a complex issue, but it is complex in a more complicated way than he was prepared to admit—even though we have, in the Statement in the other place that was read out to us today, what effectively amounts to a campaign against problem gambling. We in this House have been arguing for this for several years. Now, at last, it is beginning to get some shape, only because they seem to be embarrassed about their inability to replace lost income in a rather confusing world which requires there to be equity in this area of support and not in other areas of our public life.

We have not ignored the issues that the noble Lord mentioned. Of course problem gambling—which we will discuss in the QSD that is about to start—is made up of very different elements of activity, including education, social organisation and the way in which it has to be treated like a drug: it is an addiction but a substanceless one. Without a much broader approach, none of this will work effectively. If we get a proper policy initiative out of this which will deal with all the aspects that I have mentioned, some good will obviously have come of it. But it is absolutely disgraceful that the Government are taking so long to implement something which clearly needs to be sorted today.

When the Government responded on the FOBTs issue, they were also asked to consider the wider question of whether they wished to look at the playing of casino-type games on machines such as FOBTs. There is evidence that that is also causing harm—but they chose not to act on it. Will the Minister confirm whether action will be taken on that, because it is a scandal waiting to happen?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for his questions. He talked about a number of things involving problem gambling, a broader approach and other games. I will start where he ended. In so far as other games are concerned, one must remember that it is clear that gambling-related problems are related not just to one product. This was taken into account when, in May, the response to the Consultation on Proposals for Changes to Gaming Machines and Social Responsibility Measures set out a comprehensive package of measures covering changes to the stake on B2 gaming machines, online gambling, advertising and research, and education and treatment. I will write to him with more detail on that issue.

As far as the timing of regulations is concerned, we have said that we intend to lay the draft regulations for the usual process of approval as soon as possible. We would expect operators to look to bring in the changes as soon as possible as well. In the meantime, we would expect them to look at their businesses and prepare them for the introduction of the stake reduction, to mitigate any impact. As the noble Lord is aware, I have stood at this Dispatch Box on a number of occasions on this issue and I am perfectly aware of the feelings around the House.

My Lords, I cannot help but agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson: this is disgraceful. The Chancellor has entirely resisted and ignored a powerful cross-party body of opinion. There is a kind of Alice in Wonderland quality about the Statement. It says:

“There also needs to be a proper period of notice, after setting the new rate, before that change to Remote Gaming Duty takes effect. The Government has therefore concluded that October 2019 is the best date to make both changes”.

What is the logic of this? I see no particular reason. Is it because the Government have bought the bookmaking industry’s case in the series of red herrings that it put forward? It was talking about the time to implement technically and time to make preparations, all of which has been punctured by the all-party group on gambling abuse. The question of job losses has been punctured by not only the Landman Economics report but the CEBR report. In fact, the industry now derives 43% of its income from online gambling. The economic and the moral arguments, which were very well put by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, are very important in these circumstances, as are the societal arguments.

I have some questions for the Minister. First, what is the view of the DCMS Minister in this respect? Pledges were made by Tracey Crouch on this matter. Has she made a separate statement from that of the Treasury? I have seen no such statement. Secondly, has an independent outside assessment been made of the human costs of the delay involved, including the possible fatalities? Thirdly, was any independent economic advice taken or even a review made of the CEBR report? That report says not only that the gambling industry will be handed hundreds of millions in extra revenue, but that if the Treasury had brought forward the date further then it would itself benefit. We are in an Alice in Wonderland situation where the Treasury is making a decision which confounds all moral, societal and economic logic. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, I will be brief because other people no doubt want to get up as well. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, mentioned that we are in essence supporting the gambling industry on this. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have to take the job losses into account. We are interested not in the profit margins of the gambling industry but in trying to mitigate any job losses that happen in the future. I repeat what I said in the Statement: the Government were urged in an Early Day Motion in June by the FOBT APPG not to wait until April 2020 and we are not doing so. He also mentioned my honourable friend the Minister for Sport. I have had the great pleasure and honour of working with her for a number of years and she is an exceptionally fine Minister.

My Lords, what will the tax yield be from delaying this between now and implementation? What funds will flow into the Treasury which would not otherwise have come and might that money be used to support the voluntary levy, which is inadequate to help charities such as GambleAware to deal with gambling addiction? Does the noble Earl contest these figures from GambleAware: that there are 430,000 problem gamblers; that around 500 suicides annually are linked to gambling; and that 2 million may be at risk from gambling? Will he return to the question that I asked on Tuesday about how advertising is directed unscrupulously at children and young people, especially through things such as virtual games?

My Lords, I will try to be as quick as I can. My noble friend Lord Younger answered the noble Lord’s question earlier this week but it is important that advertising is restricted, particularly when pinpointing younger people. For example, the sports clothes worn by young people are not allowed to have the advertising logos of some of the gambling companies that sponsor sport. The noble Lord also asked a number of questions relating to the tax take and so on. I do not have that information to hand and I will write to him on that issue.

My Lords, may I briefly make two points? The Minister has indicated that he is aware of the strong feelings in this House. He and other members of Her Majesty’s Government must have been aware, particularly on Tuesday when this matter arose at Question Time, that that concern comes from all sides of this House. He may not be aware that after playing a part on Monday, as I sat in the Commons Gallery for the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget Statement, I used the word “disappointed” about the Chancellor’s decision to delay implementing this change. The Minister may not be aware that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has subsequently gone further and described it as appalling. On a slightly more positive note, there was an indication in the other place in response to a question from Peter Bone MP that there would be consideration of a clampdown on gambling advertising. Can we be quite clear whether that is part of what the Government are considering?

The right reverend Prelate is quite right that there will be further restrictions on how gambling advertising will be allowed—I will have to write to him on the exact details—particularly with vulnerable people in mind; and that, so far as the effects of gambling are concerned, it is important to have the right structure to support individuals.