Gambling Watch UK, like others, was waiting with interest to see what this report on the workings of the 2005 Gambling Act had to say about Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs or B2 machines). For a start, the report contains a useful brief summary of how it came about that these machines are now to be found in high street betting shops (para 50, p. 18). Having been introduced on the grounds that they were not gaming machines at all, the report acknowledges that they were effectively 'taken off probation’ as a result of 'a deal' reached between DCMS, the Gaming Board and the Association of British Bookmakers, and that the limit of four machines per premises was reached as 'a trade off' between DCMS and the industry.
It is then interesting to note that the Committee clearly accepted the idea that some forms of gambling need tighter regulation than others. Although the distinction they draw between 'hard' and 'soft' gambling is probably over-simple, the implication is clear that some forms of gambling are more dangerous than others. They mention the level of stakes and prizes and the speed of play as the main distinguishing factors. The hard-soft distinction is introduced early on in the report (para 4, p.4) and is repeated a number of times (para 133, pp. 41-2; para 196, pp. 59-60). Furthermore, it is clearly recognised that Fixed Odds Betting Terminals constitute 'hard-core' gambling (para 50, p. 18), and that their presence in high street betting shops is unwelcome. To quote from the report:
The 1968 Act put in place a "regulatory pyramid", meaning that harder forms of gambling were confined to locations with tighter controls on, for example, access. The 2005 Act, as well as more recent developments, have disrupted this 'pyramid', as online gambling – much of which is not subject to UK regulation – has developed and some 'harder' forms of gambling (such as casino-style gaming machines) have been permitted in traditionally 'softer' locations (para 41, p. 15).
Despite recognising that FOBTs constitute 'hard' gambling, and recognising concern about clustering of betting shops along high streets, and acknowledging that their presence in high street betting shops is contrary to the idea of a 'regulatory pyramid', the Committee went on to make a set of extraordinary and illogical recommendations. The first of these recommendations is that the cap of four such machines per betting shop should be removed altogether (but with the proviso that if problems arise local authorities should have the right to require the removal of any machines over the minimum allowance of four). Their reasoning behind this seems to be that operators should not need to open a new outlet simply in order to increase the number of their B2 machines, but at the same time there should be no threat of reducing the numbers of these machines on the high street since there is a need 'to create certainty for operators' (para 66, p. 22). This completely fails to acknowledge that these machines are dangerous and should probably never have been allowed to be situated outside casinos in the first place.
The Committee seems more motivated to appease the industry than to protect consumers and the high street environment. But of course that is completely consistent with the Committee’s general approach which is 'to support liberalisation of rules... [while] keeping national controls to the minimum...' (para 5, p. 4). This implies that they believe the liberalisation of the last twenty years has been too little and that they would like to see more of it, a view directly at odds with that of Gambling Watch UK. Most disappointing is the complete lack in the report of a public health perspective on gambling and perhaps this is only to be expected from a Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Nowhere in the report is there any mention of a possible role for the Department of Health, something which Gambling Watch UK advocates.
But this confused and illogical treatment of B2 machines – recognising that they are examples of 'hard' gambling but refusing to deal with them accordingly – is taken still further. Having argued that 'hard' gambling should be confined to locations with tighter controls, and having listened to the arguments that FOBTs on the high street are giving great cause for concern, the report takes a further, unexpected, step in the direction of disrupting the 'regulatory pyramid' by recommending that Adult Gaming Centres (i.e. adult only amusement arcades to be found in the high streets of most towns and cities) should be allowed B2 machines on the same basis as betting shops! This is truly extraordinary and flies in the face of all the evidence the Committee received about the dangers of these machines. Their justification was that they believed Adult Gaming Centres are providing 'a controlled adult environment and have robust access controls' (para 69, p. 23).
There is some logic to one of their other recommendations about FOBTs. It seems that, because of the strange history of how these machines arrived on our high streets, the current regulations do not permit this category of machines in casinos. Hence, casinos being, according to the Committee, 'the most highly-regulated sector and... therefore the most appropriate venue for hard, high-stake forms of gaming', casinos should be permitted to operate up to 20 B2 machines with a maximum stake of £100 (para 53, pp. 19-20). Logical though that may appear to be, it would only serve to increase population exposure to what appears to be a particularly dangerous product. Furthermore, this recommendation takes on a more sinister appearance when combined with another of the Committee’s recommendations. In a section of the report devoted to casinos, the Committee heard evidence from representatives of the industry that their sector had suffered badly as a result of the 2005 Gambling Act (this is just one of the places in the report where we hear about evidence from different sectors of the industry about how badly they have been doing). In particular it was reported that there had been scarcely any developments of new casinos in the Small Casino category, due it was said to the fact that the Small Casino model was not economically viable because it allowed a maximum of only two gambling machines to every one gaming table. The committee’s recommendation, therefore, was that this ratio should be increased to 5:1, as for Large Casinos (para 169, p. 51). Were this recommendation to be acted on, and if Small Casinos were then to be economically viable, which with an allowance of 20 B2 machines it is likely that they would be, this could surely lead to an added threat to the high street in a form we have not seen before – relatively small premises (Small Casinos need be no more than 750 m² in extent), licensed as casinos but with B2 machines as the main form of gambling on offer.
The report says that the Committee was aware of and concerned about problem gambling, but the vision of gambling on our high streets which their recommendations call up – betting shops, amusement arcades and small casinos, all offering 'hard-core' gambling in the form of FOBTs – is truly alarming.