MPs campaigning against roulette-style gambling games in UK bookmaking shops have expressed disappointment after the industry regulator failed to recommend cutting stakes on controversial fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) to £2.
The Gambling Commission’s recommendation will be one of the most influential submissions to a review by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which has said it would cut the maximum bet on FOBTs from £100 to a range between £2 and £50.
Despite campaigners’ concerns about the risks involved in playing casino-style games, the commission said stakes for games such as roulette – by far the most popular FOBT game – should be cut to £30 or below. The commission recommended the lowest possible limit of £2 a spin be imposed on “slots” games, similar to fruit machines, which are much less popular than the roulette games.
Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader and a prominent opponent of FOBTs, said: “This is a deeply disappointing report from the Gambling Commission, which appears to have caved in to industry pressure. Ministers must not use this report as a cover to maintain the status quo.
“These machines are the heart of the UK’s hidden epidemic of problem gambling. The government must cut the stake to £2 on all FOBT machines, including the highly addictive roulette-style games.”
Carolyn Harris, the Labour MP who chairs an all-party parliamentary group investigating FOBTs, added: “It is disappointing. However, I am confident that the government will see past this and do the right thing, as the moral argument has been made so overwhelmingly for £2.”
The commission’s recommendation is likely to be seen as positive for high street bookmakers, who derive more than half of their annual revenues from FOBTs and say a cut to £2 would force shops to close and cost jobs. Shares in William Hill closed up 4% and Ladbrokes Coral almost 3% on the news.
The commission recommended a series of other measures, including greater use of “tracked play”, where betting patterns are monitored to identify problem gambling behaviour, and tighter controls on online gambling.
The Gambling Commission’s chief executive, Neil McArthur, said: “Protecting consumers and tackling the risk of gambling-related harm is always at the heart of our work and the advice we have published today is no exception.
“In our judgment, a stake cut for fixed-odds betting terminals alone doesn’t go far enough to protect vulnerable people. That is why we have recommended a stake cut plus a comprehensive package of other measures to protect consumers.
“We have proposed actions that will tackle both the risk of harm and provide solutions that are sustainable in the longer term.”
John White, chief executive of the anti-FOBT amusement machine industry trade lobby Bacta, added: “Whilst a stake reduction is a step in the right direction, merely reducing this to £30 is still dangerously high.
“This conclusion from the Gambling Commission is drawn from a narrow interpretation of a limited range of evidence and focuses on the theoretical rather than the reality. With a 20-second play duration on FOBTs, the proposed £30 stake will generate a loss of £90 within one minute. Within 10 minutes it is £900. Such comparable high losses to the original £100 stake does not do enough to protect those consumers who are vulnerable.”
The culture secretary, Matt Hancock, is understood to be open to the idea of a cut to £2 but is facing pressure for a softer option from the Treasury, which derives a large slice of its £700m in machine gaming duty from FOBTs.
The Association of British Bookmakers, which lobbies on behalf of gambling firms, added: “We fully understand that there is public concern and that there will be a stake cut to reduce the levels of losses on machines in betting shops … We remain committed to introducing further measures to address problem gambling and will continue to work with all interested parties.”