High-stakes gambling machine crackdown rejected
The government has ruled out a crackdown on high-stakes gambling machines from betting shops despite warnings about their addictive nature.
The machines can accept stakes of up to £100 and offer prizes of £500.
Culture minister Hugh Robertson said there was little evidence they caused serious problems despite an MP calling them the "crack cocaine" of gambling.
The Campaign for Fairer Gambling said the casino-style machines were often used by people with problems.
In a Commons debate on Thursday, Mr Robertson rejected the idea of creating new laws to restrict fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) or the betting shops where they are located.
The minister said he would only change the law if there was new evidence.
A recent Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report recommended that local authorities should be able to allow bookmakers to operate more than the current limit of four high-stakes machines per shop.
The Campaign for Fairer Gambling said the machines should be banned from betting shops on the High Street with immediate effect.'Addictive product'
The organisation, backed by psychologist Prof Jim Orford, said they were too addictive and should be restricted to casinos only.
Matthew Zarb-Cousin, a former addict who lost about £16,000 on gambling machines, works with the Campaign for Fairer Gambling. He told the BBC that the maximum £100 stake encouraged dangerous patterns.
He said a maximum stake of £2 should be introduced, effectively banning the high-stakes machines from prominent locations.
"What we've seen here is what looks like an addictive product, a harmful product to the consumer, that's been allowed to go onto the market without knowing how harmful that product is.
"All we have is this anecdotal evidence that these machines are harmful and it doesn't look like the government are taking this issue seriously, especially with the stigma that surrounds problem gambling," he said.
However, Mr Robertson said the government would be prepared to bring in new laws to clamp down on the spread of betting shops.
End Quote Hugh Robertson MP Culture minister
This is one of those quite tricky areas where common sense suggests there is a major problem but there is a lack of evidence to back this up”
Ciaran O'Brien, from bookmakers Ladbrokes, denied FOBTs were a major problem and said the industry takes action to fund "research, education and treatment" for addicts.
He said the average spend on a gambling machine was just under £7, while the average stake on a betting slip is £8.40.
"The vast majority of people enjoy their... experience and do it very responsibly. Where there is problem gambling its important the industry acts responsibly and we have a very good track record at doing so," Mr O'Brien added.
Meanwhile, Dirk Vennix, chief executive at the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB), said the "vast majority" of the gambling industry's eight million customers spend "safely and responsibly".
He told BBC Radio Five Live: "They are adults who think about what they spend and how much they can lose - they are not stupid."
Mr Vennix denied that betting shops were becoming more prolific on Britain's high streets, saying bookmakers constituted just 4% of retail space in town centres.
Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins wants the government to take a tougher stance.
He said: "The most addictive form of gambling is on fixed-terminal... machines. They are indeed described as the crack cocaine of problem gambling. Is the government seriously concerned about gambling addiction and when are they going to address the problem?"
Culture minister Mr Robertson said the Responsible Gambling Trust was carrying out an investigation into the use of fruit machines and problem gambling.
But he said any new laws would be based on research not anecdotal evidence.
"This is one of those quite tricky areas where common sense suggests there is a major problem but there is a lack of evidence to back this up," he said.
"I very much hope that the major research project that is being undertaken will give us the necessary evidence that we need and absolutely, once that is proved, the government will act."