Iain Duncan Smith is a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, founded the Centre for Social Justice, and is MP for Chingford and Woodford Green.
At the Centre for Social Justice, it is considered that there are five pathways to poverty. Rather than just use the benchmark of cash to define poverty, the CSJ is concerned with looking at the causes of poverty – the reason why some are unable to sustain a level of income sufficient to take them out of poverty. The five pathways are family breakdown, worklessness, educational failure, addiction, and debt. Today I will consider the most recent CSJ report on the problems of gambling addiction, with particular focus on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs).
Two years ago, the Government introduced regulations aimed at helping the users of FOBTs control their gambling behaviour.
The regulations included an obligation for individuals accessing higher stakes (over £50) to load cash through staff interaction or create an account to play on the machines. The machines, in turn, would provide the user with up-to-date information about their session of play.
Independent of government, measures in the Association of British Bookmakers’ code of practice also included gaming machines ceasing play if voluntary money and time limits are reached. Mandatory alerts would tell users when they have been playing for 30 minutes or spent £250, and staff would be given training to recognise problem gambling behaviour.
However, neither set of measures has been effective in preventing problem gambling.
Whilst seeking to protect users, these regulations do not tackle the overall problem – at £100, the size of the stake for FOBTs is dangerous.
If a customer currently wishes to place over £50 during a single play on a FOBT, they need sufficient personal identification as well as an over the counter interaction with a member of staff. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport anticipated that this would allow for increased opportunities for interaction and intervention with appropriately trained staff. It was also hoped that this would improve players’ understanding of their behaviour, which may then result in more conscious decision-making, therefore increasing an individual’s control over their gambling.
But while the intentions were good, they were flawed as they assumed that the bookmakers had the infrastructure to implement such behavioural changes amongst customers. This has turned out not to be the case. The capacity to implement such measures was overestimated.
Furthermore, the warning messages designed to alert customers exhibiting problem gambling were not tracked and no analysis was undertaken to assess behaviour change.
Gambling problems are increasing
And so the prevalence of problem gambling has increased over time. The British Gambling Prevalence Survey identified 450,000 problem gamblers in 2010 with an average debt of £17,500. The number of problem gamblers has now increased to 593,000 in 2015.
The correlation between the increase in problem gamblers and FOBTs cannot be ignored. The use of FOBTs has also increased in line with the number of calls made to GamCare, the UK’s leading provider of advice and information regarding problem gambling. In 2016, they revealed that the largest share of calls (23 per cent) made to their helpline were related to FOBTs, followed by online betting (16 per cent) and online casino games (11 per cent).
The actual number of calls has increased from 30,648 in 2013 to 46,851 in 2016. This substantial rise in individuals seeking help with problem gambling regarding FOBTs emphasises the need for action.
A driver of poverty
This is a not just a problem of gambling, but of poverty – there is an increased number of FOBTs in poorer areas of the country. Newham Council cited that there are twice as many betting shops in the poorest 55 boroughs than in the most affluent 115. The council found that 99 per cent of residents thought that there were too many betting outlets, with reports that betting outlets now dominate high streets.
This naturally creates a culture of FOBT use in these areas that has implications on families and the youth population. Research has shown that increased gambling behaviours directly cause emotional stress on partners, strain relationships and cause financial hardship.
The impact on children and families
The increasing rate with which adults use FOBTs makes preventing their children from gambling far less likely. The main social risk for children in terms of gambling is having parents who introduce them to it or having relatives who gamble.
Gambling amongst young people must be taken extremely seriously, given the ramifications on health and wellbeing compared to other forms of addiction. A paper by the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board in 2014 found that there are disproportionately high levels of thoughts and acts of self-harm among young problem gamblers.
Further research has also shown that young problem gamblers demonstrate poor attainment at school, may be more likely to take alcohol and drugs, exhibit antisocial behaviour and hold unstable relationships with friends and family.
Reducing the stake to £2
Outside of category B2 machines like FOBTs, stake sizes do not rise above £5, enabling users to remain more in control and less susceptible to problem gambling. Research has shown that stake size has an adverse effect on decision-making, and if the stake size were reduced to £2, this would bring the rate of problem gambling on these machines more in line with levels on other categories of gambling.
The truth is that the recommendation has strong support across political lines, and that outside support for the measure is also significant.
Tracey Crouch, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who oversees gambling as part of her role, has warned that although it is important that gambling regulations strike the right balance between allowing the industry to contribute to the economy and enabling people to bet responsibly, it must also “ensure consumers and communities are protected”.
In Breakthrough Britain, the CSJ outlined the co-morbid nature of problem gambling and its immense complexities. Given the insufficiency of current regulatory measures, it is questionable as to whether the bookmakers have the infrastructure to implement such behaviourally-focused regulations. An easily implemented ban on stakes above £2 would be a sure step in solving this fundamental limitation on bookmakers’ capacity.
FOBTs are unique in their capacity to take bets of up to £100 every 20 seconds, and this is the crux of the issue. Stakes should be cut off beyond the £2 mark. This will protect users from falling into problem gambling, thus nullifying the corrosive effects that evidence has shown FOBTs to have in perpetuating poor mental health, violence and family breakdown.
The time has come I believe to try and get a hold on this pernicious addiction which has such a strong connection to social problems, including drug and alcohol addiction and family breakdown. This is I believe a very conservative action to take and one which would help those in the poorest communities enormously.