Fixed-odds Betting Terminals debate

Hugh Robertson responds to a back bench MP’s debate on the prevalence of high stake roulette machines - fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) - in high street betting shops.

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The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) for securing the debate and giving the House an opportunity to discuss this issue. He correctly states that it is a matter of concern for many hon. Members. Let me reassure him that I do not in any way take what he said as an indication that he is either pro-gambling or anti-gambling. He made a well-balanced contribution that reflected concerns that I have heard when we have debated this issue and others associated with it. These concerns have been raised with me on many other occasions.

The hon. Gentleman is a diligent Member who does his research, and he will be aware that he is catching me at a slightly awkward time, in that the triennial review into stakes and prizes has just closed, on 9 April. My Department has received more than 9,000 responses to the review, and we are in the process of analysing them. For reasons that he and any other Members with experience of dealing with the gambling industry will know, it is important, given that these are big, litigious organisations, for any Government to proceed on the basis of evidence. I hope, particularly in view of what he has said tonight, that he has submitted a response to the millennium review.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): The consultation started in January and finished in April, but will the Minister take account of any further new evidence? For example, BBC South East carried out an independent survey of betting and gambling problems and of fixed-odds betting terminals in Gillingham and the wider Medway area, but the survey was carried out after the consultation closed. Will he take that new evidence into consideration?

Hugh Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. I will have to check the legalities and get back to him. The consultation period was open for a specific time, and if we were to reopen it to the BBC, we would have to reopen it to everyone else to be fair. I am slightly inclined to ask why, if the BBC was going to carry out a major study, it did not do so in time to submit it to the consultation, especially when it had three months in which to do it.

We have heard many distressing tales of where people have run into problems using the type of machines that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West has spoken about this evening. Each one of those stories is, of course, a personal tragedy not just for the individual, but for their friends and colleagues—and indeed, for the wider society. As was pointed out earlier, however, we also have to balance such matters with a recognition that for the majority of people, gambling does not develop into a problem. As I think the hon. Gentleman was fair enough to say, the gambling industry is a legitimate part of the leisure industry that creates jobs and harnesses investment.

According to the Gambling Commission’s industry statistics for the period April 2011 to March 2012, the gambling industry employed almost 110,000 people—a considerable number—with the betting sector making up the largest component, employing nearly 55,000 people in full or part-time posts. That makes the gambling industry a significant contributor to the UK economy. The Office for National Statistics estimated that in 2009 it was directly worth £4.9 billion in gross value added terms. What I think I am saying to the hon. Gentleman is not one thing or the other, but that there is a balance to be struck here. To be fair, he recognises that.

Let me say a few words about betting shops. The hon. Gentleman mentioned what has been a recurrent theme during recent times, about which concerns have been raised by a large number of stakeholders: the clustering of betting shops within certain local areas. The key concern—it has been raised tonight—often relates to the B2 machines and their impact on local communities in respect of problem gambling.

The overall number of betting shops has remained reasonably stable in recent years. In 2009, there were 8,862 and by September 2012 there were 9,049—not a huge difference. Those figures are well down on the peak of 16,000 during the 1960s. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, however, that more betting shops are relocating to the high street, which makes them more visible.

I am not entirely shrugging my shoulders when I say that planning policy is, of course, an issue for the Department for Communities and Local Government. It is relevant to the debate to note that local authorities have a range of enforcement powers—I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman would like them to have more—that can be used to manage the overall retail diversity and the viability of town centres. Tools such as article 4 directions allow local authorities to restrict nationally permitted development rights if they are not suitable for their area.

Ian Lavery: Anybody can see the clustering of betting shops on the high street. What is the Minister’s view of why that is happening, as he is right that there are fewer betting shops now than 20 years ago?

Hugh Robertson: That is a very good question. I have to tread a little carefully because of the consultation. As a Minister who has already been judicially reviewed once, over a football stadium, I am not in hurry to go through that joyous process again, to be honest, so I will tread reasonably carefully here. Many of the factors mentioned tonight may be behind this particular development. It is pretty clear where betting shops are making their money at the moment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) mentioned, the pattern of betting has changed quite a lot over recent years. Betting shops are sometimes able to pay rents that other retail outlets cannot afford, there have been changes in shopping patterns and there is also the changing nature of the high street. All those things are factors, but I will not go a great deal further than that until we have had the chance to analyse the responses to the consultation.

Mr Slaughter: Let me try to push the Minister a little further. It is perhaps not so much the absolute numbers or even necessarily the clustering itself that is the issue, but where the clustering is taking place. In my relatively poor constituency, there are two or three times the number of betting shops as there are in neighbouring more prosperous constituencies. In Chelsea or Richmond, a third or half the number of betting shops will be found than in an area such as Shepherd’s Bush. That is the concern.

Hugh Robertson: The hon. Gentleman made his point very well. The rent that betting shops with machines of this kind are able to pay is crucial. Presumably, if they move to Chelsea the retail rents will rise, and that may price them out of the area. There is almost certainly a social element in all this, and I suspect that that is the answer that the hon. Gentleman hoped I would give him. We will consider all the evidence in the course of this review and the review that will be undertaken in due course by the Remote Gambling Association. I shall say more about that shortly.

Robert Flello: Is the Minister saying that the work that he and his civil servants are considering will include a mapping exercise to establish where betting shops are located in relation to, for instance, the index of deprivation?

Hugh Robertson: It is important to note that two separate reviews are taking place. The triennial review of stakes and prizes closed on 9 April, and produced 9,000 responses which we must work through. The wider issues will be addressed by the review that will take place next year, and I hope that we will be able to reach some worthwhile conclusions on that basis.

The Gambling Commission’s statistics show that between March 2011 and April 2012, an average of just over 35,500 machines were capable of offering B2 category games in betting shops in Great Britain. The number has remained relatively stable since 2009, but, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, that stability has occurred at a time when machine numbers elsewhere have declined. For example, according to Gambling Commission figures, the overall number of gaming machines fell by 10% between 2011 and 2012, and the number of B2 machines increased by 1% during the same period. That would appear to show that B2 machines are popular consumer products, which may give rise to some of the problems identified by the hon. Gentleman. They are, of course, also crucial to the profitability of many betting shops.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that, in the light of concerns raised by him and others, it is appropriate for the Government to look into the issue. I assure him that I am well aware of the concerns that he and many other Members have expressed about B2 machines in particular. In dealing with the problem, for reasons that I have already given, I must proceed on the basis of evidence. I hope that the combination of the two reviews that I have mentioned will give us the evidential base that we need in order to work out exactly what is happening and what needs to be done as a consequence. We want to balance the harmful effects that he and many others have described with the contribution that gambling properly makes to employment and the local economy in many areas, which has been mentioned by Members on both sides of the House.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman both on securing the debate and on the way in which he has prosecuted his case. The evidence that he has presented illustrates the problem, and as he said, it is up to the Government to determine how best to tackle it. I can reassure him that the Government are listening—I am absolutely listening—and that we will take action if it is necessary. However, we must act on the basis of the evidence that is available to us.

Ian Lavery: I thank the Minister for giving way again. There is evidence that it is possible to spend £18,000 in an hour on FOBT machines. I agree with the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) that the people whom we should be looking after are the most vulnerable in society. Like every other Member who is present tonight, I recognise that that is the case and that there is a problem with these machines. We need a fair and balanced review. We need people to be honest about this. People cannot lose £18,000 in an hour on one of those machines. They can go to Cheltenham and spend £100,000 in one minute on one bet; they can put £250,000 on a horse in one minute with one bet. We would not multiply that by 60 and say that is how much money people can spend at Cheltenham, and then look to prevent them from doing so. That is a ludicrous argument.

Hugh Robertson: I understand much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The challenge for us as a Government and me as a Minister is to work out a way to deal with the problem that has rightly been identified—the fact that some people get addicted through this sort of gambling—but to do so, if we can, in a way that does not discriminate against the many people who use those machines perfectly safely and perfectly reasonably, and not to overdo it in such a way as to harm the local economy and the employment prospects of many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. It is a question of getting that balance right.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): The Minister talked about a solution that involves the Government, but has he had any conversations with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government about licence fees and local authorities, because they have a role to play in this and they can represent their communities? If the licence fee cap by Whitehall were lifted and they were able to make their own local decisions on what the initial fee should be and what the annual fee should be after that, that might have an impact on the high street, with decisions being made by local government and therefore taken out of the hands of central Government. Has the Minister looked at those questions, and has he had any conversations with his colleagues in DCLG?

Hugh Robertson: The simple answer is that we are in constant contact with DCLG. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), used to speak on these matters for the Lib Dems and is now the Minister with responsibility for them. He is very much across the subject; he understands these points extremely well, and all of them will be looked at. Let me make the point again, however, that we have to follow the evidence, which is precisely why we are trying to put these two studies together.

Mr Hamilton: I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing this debate, because I have learned one or two things tonight. I have constituents who have come to see me about some real problems. The comparisons that we must think about, however, go further than those he has made. We to take into account the fact that local pubs, clubs and bingo halls also have machines, but not machines of such an infectious nature, perhaps because they cannot afford the licence. The comparison that has to be made is this: are people more likely to go to the betting office to get a bigger gamble or go to the local pub or bingo hall where the sums they can put in are limited to 10p, 20p or £1, which is the highest stake?

Hugh Robertson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. It is, indeed, in theory perfectly possible—although we will have to wait and see where the evidence from the consultation leads us—to deal with one set of machines in one way and another in another way, and we may want to do so to reflect the different reasons why people play.

Mr Slaughter: One piece of evidence the Minister may take into consideration is that the average spin on a B2 machine is about £15, which is seven or eight times the maximum on a B3 machine. That, rather than the possibility of spending £18,000 in an hour, is what concerns to me. This is an anomaly, because these are off-site betting opportunities, where the server is off-site, and suddenly people can gamble a much higher sum. I am sure the Minister is aware of that, although he may not be commenting on it tonight. That is a major difference with regard to the type of gambling that has just been talked about, which is available now just by walking off the street.

Hugh Robertson: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point of which I am aware. I hope everybody who has spoken in the debate contributed to our consultation; if so, their responses will be lying there among the 9,000 that I am sure my civil servants are looking forward to wading through over the coming months.

Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West on securing this debate; it proved a popular activity for an hour. I assure him that we are listening and that we will act on the available evidence, for all the reasons I set out tonight. We will also listen carefully to all the responses to our consultation.

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