Adrian Crossley is Head of the Addiction Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.
On Thursday, Tracey Crouch resigned from the Government as Minister for Sport and Civil Society because of its delay to changes on Fixed Odd Betting Terminals (FOBTs). The moral question is settled across the House that FOBTs exploit an addiction and cause terrible suffering to individuals, their families and the wider community. With the gross gambling yield from FOBTs for year ending March 2017 reaching £1.8 billion, this form of betting has been compared to crack cocaine, and is destroying families and draining them of much-needed money.
Parliament’s decision to set the maximum bet at £2, pulling it down from £100 every 20 seconds, was a bold assertion which made it clear that any fiscal advantage from taxes enjoyed by the Treasury could not defeat the moral duty to protect the vulnerable.
However, an urgent question on Thursday saw Parliament alive with members from both sides of the house expressing disbelief and frustration at the Government’s position. As matters stand, this change will not now take effect until October next year. Jeremy Wright was clear that this was no concession to the gambling industry: no care was taken to protect their profits. It was explained that this delay to implementation was intended to help the industry prepare, and therefore reduce the risk of job losses. The postponement of implementation is not without cause but neither is it without consequence.
Tom Watson left no room for doubt about the gravity of the current problem and the risks involved by waiting when he said: “This is extremely disappointing […]research shows that half of people struggling with problem gambling have had thoughts of suicide.” These concerns have foundation in fact. The Campaign for Fairer Gambling has brought this into clear focus, highlighting the case of Wendy Bendal, a lady who tragically lost her partner to suicide after he incurred thousands of pounds in losses through these betting terminals.
Earlier this year, the Guardian explored the case of Martin Paterson, who candidly spoke of the effects of FOBT causing suicidal thoughts brought about, in no small part, by the guilt he often felt for losing money desperately relied upon by his family. I’m confident that the Government will join us all in the sincere hope that no such occurrence takes place between now and October 2019.
It is also a delay and harm that we would not accept in other areas of public policy. As recently as July of this year, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency advised pharmacies immediately to recall valsartan-containing medicines as a precaution. This precaution was in response to reports of an impurity with potential carcinogenic qualities. Yet in the case of FOBTs, the Government is prepared to accept a substantial and widely recognised risk and simply leave the baby by the fire.
The Chancellor has, only days ago, announced £2 billion towards mental health spending and a new 24 hour hotline. It seems completely at odds with this very welcome and compassionate approach to mental health to simply allow the continuance of this clear source of danger. Only immediate cessation of this exploitation can satisfy Parliament, the public, and social justice. The Government has been bold on this so far and now it must be bolder still. For some, this pause may have tragic consequences.