The gambling liberalization introduced by Britain’s former Labour government was a “mistake” and has ruined people’s lives, the party’s Deputy Leader Harriet Harman says.
Harman has called for action to reverse measures in the 2005 Gambling Act which allowed the proliferation of betting shops in poor areas, many of them operating high-stakes roulette machines, known as fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs).
Research conducted for BBC Channel 4’s Dispatches program suggested that British punters lost well over £1 billion last year on the popular FOBTs, which allow bets of up to £100 on touch-screen games.
FOBTs first appeared in the U.K. in 2001, and the act introduced a limit of four for each betting shop in England and Wales. But a recent parliamentary report by the House of Commons Culture Committee recommends lifting the limit, which it said has had the “unintended consequence of encouraging the clustering of betting shops in some high streets.”
Dispatches suggested that relatively prosperous areas have around five bookies for every 100,000 people, while poorer areas have about 12—with some high streets in deprived neighborhoods seeing a cluster of 10 betting shops within a mile, each containing four FOBT machines.
Professor Jim Orford from Birmingham University told the show that an estimated £297 million of the money taken by FOBTs each year comes from problem gamblers.
“My own view is that we should probably get rid of them on the high street,” he said. “I don’t think casino gaming by machine belongs in the high street; I think it belongs in casinos.”
Harman told the program, “If we had known then what we know now, we wouldn’t have allowed this, because it’s not just ruining the high street, it’s ruining people’s lives. I think we were wrong, we have made a mistake, and this result is the consequence, and we need to do something about it.”
The Association of British Bookmakers defended the growth, saying, “Like any retailer, betting operators look at footfall, demand, location, rental rates and competitive presence when deciding where to open a new shop. Up to 80 percent of new shops are opened in vacant units, providing jobs and investment that would otherwise be absent.”
A spokesman for the government’s Culture Ministry, meanwhile, said there were no plans to amend the Gambling Act “unless there is clear evidence of a need to do so.”