Controversy: an overview

cropped-argument-copy.jpg

Like Brexit or Scottish independence, the issue of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals arouses strong feelings and many opposing views. Although not as much in the public eyes as things like Brexit, our exploration of the FOBT debate gives a great insight in miniature of such important things as  how decisions are made in parliament, the role of individuals and organisations in decision making, business ethics, addiction and mental health and much more. One thing is certain: evidence and data, facts and interpretations are disputed between different parties. Not least importantly we hope to provide information and links by which individuals can make informed decisions.

Our intention is that this site’s case study of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals provides insights into many other controversial issues which involve competing viewpoints. For example, what roles do food industries,government and individual choice play in the consumption of ‘unhealthy’ food? Where does responsibility lie? Is it with the individual, the product, the industries that provide the product or government?

Or is it a combination of several factors?

What is a Fixed Odds Betting Terminal?

fobt machine

Fixed odds betting terminals, or FOBties, are gambling machines that can be found in some casinos, and high street betting shop where only four machines are allowed. As their name suggests, they give a ‘fixed odds’ bet. We concentrate on roulette machines as these are the most popular. These are designed on average to yield a 97.3% payout to customers. The odds on a roulette machine are 35 to 1 per bet. The odds decrease in roulette the more numbers you bet on, or betting on colours, or odds and evens, or first, second and third dozens. Essentially, the chances of winning on a FOBT are the same as in real roulette in a casino. Some machines have a maximum stake of £100, though in recent years this has been voluntarily modified by the betting industry. The maximum prize is £500. There are other FOBTs which have a different licence and are limited to £2 stakes.

European_roulette.svg

So why are they controversial?

Since their introduction to UK betting shops in 2002 there has a been a growing and intense series of protests against FOBties. In recent years this has gone alongside alarm about the spread of online gambling and advertising. There have been vigorous calls to limit the stakes or ban the machines completely from politicians, Church, health professionals, academic researchers, some senior figures from within the betting industry, unknown numbers of individuals who say that they have been destroyed by them, and the mainstream media. Of the latter, The Daily Mail has mounted a campaign against them, and other newspapers – national, regional and local – regularly have reports and features about them. The main television channels as well as regional channels have all produced programmes about them. Why?

Critics claim that the machines are addictive and unfair. While conceding that it is a relatively small number of users who run into serious problems, critics argue that the machines are proven to be harmful hard gambling products which are found in the more deproved and vulnerable urban areas, deliberately targeted at those most at risk.

Across this website are example os evidence and personal stories. However, the evidence is often challenged or rejected, and the stories of personal ruin are claimed below to be because of the individuals themselves and not the machines.

Some of the main oppositions to FOBties

The bottom line is the claim that the machines are unfair and potentially addictive. Critics cite the many stories of people who say their lives have been ruined by them. Researchers have argued that there is something in the design itself of the machines which is unfair. There are cases where the machines have been used for money laundering. There have also been claims that FOBties can induce violence, putting staff and customers at risk. Betting shops with the machines ‘cluster’ in the most deprived areas; sometimes the same company will have shops near each other to get around the four machines per premises rule. Many local councils have called upon government to restrict or ban them.

This website  gathers some examples of the above.

What do the bookmakers say?

The main organisation that represents the betting industry is the Association of British Bookmakers. They argue firstly that most people who use the machines do so sensibly. In a 2013 report they say that there is:

”no evidence of a causal link between problem gambling and electronic gaming”:

The average amount spent by customers on a B2 gaming machine is around £11 per machine per hour.

And 74% of B2 players play once a month or less which is hardly reflective of an addictive product. There is no evidence of a causal link between gaming machines and higher levels of problem gambling and the percentage of identified problem gamblers playing on B2 machines actually went down by 20-25% from 2007 to 2010…61

The ABB paper refers to the economic and social benefits of licensed betting offices.62 It claims that a reduction to £2 of the maximum stake on B2 machines would put 90% of betting shops and nearly 40,000 jobs at risk and result in the Treasury losing nearly £650 million in tax.

The idea of reducing the stake gathered momentum with a government working party which reported in January 2017. Of the report, the ABB said that it was:

“deeply flawed” and called for an inquiry by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards…

They said the parliamentary group had no proper standing; that its report merely reflected the views of certain MPs with an axe to grind; and that the report had been funded by rivals in the gambling industry, such as those in the casino, arcade and pub industries.

“We strongly believe that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should urgently investigate this all-party parliamentary group,” said Malcolm George, chief executive of the Association of British Bookmakers.

“This group of MPs has operated in secrecy, provided no transcripts of the evidence given to their meetings and operated throughout behind closed doors away from public scrutiny.”

He added that betting shops were already closing at the rate of more than 100 a year and if the findings of this report were implemented, it “could spell the beginning of the end for the High Street bookmaker.

The ABB declined to take part in a BBC Panorama programme about FOBties but submitted some statements, one of which pointed out that although FOBties have been on the high street for 15 years there is no evidence of an increase in problem gambling. The ABB repeated concern that rivals in the betting industries were working against them. The Head of Britain’s largest casino, The Hippodrome, took part in the programme, saying, “If you are making £30 million a week from a product on the high street that is insanely wrong you will defend it to the Nth degree.” The Association of British Bookmakers responded in a statement, “These accusations against our industry are malicious. Mr Thomas owns a casino and like many other campaigners he has a clear commercial interest in trying to undermine betting shop competition.”

The ABB point out also that they have an ethical commitment to tackling problem gambling, and donate large sums towards independent charities such as GamCare and actively support research.

The Totally Gaming website reported:

The Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) says that a petition signed by more than 325,000 betting shop staff and customers from across the country demonstrates how the British Public feel about betting shops, rather than how it is depicted in sensationalist headlines in the media.

A delegation of betting shop staff and Roar! Betting founder Dominic Ford delivered the petition to the Prime Minister’s house 10 Downing Street last week as the industry finds itself under great scrutiny.

ABB PR manager Peter Craske told TotallyGaming.com said the number of supporters willing to put their name forward in defence if betting shops was a strong message: “I think they show politicians the depth of feeling on an issue and we have been able to show the support for betting shops of 325,000 people, who choose to enjoy their leisure time with us.”

The petition was collected as part of the recent ‘Back Your Local Bookie’ campaign and called on the Government to support an industry that employs 43,000 people, serves six million customers and which has been trading on the high street for 55 years.

The ABB says more than 300 betting shops have been forced to shut in the past two years as a result of more regulation and higher taxes.   

Customers and staff now fear there could be hundreds more closures if more unnecessary regulation is introduced by the Government.

Among the delegation at Downing Street was Vicky Knight, who works for independent bookie Jennings Bet and has signed the petition. She said: “The support we’ve had from our customers over the past few weeks for our campaign has been fantastic. They enjoy their local bookie and would be devastated, as would staff, if the Government took draconian action against bookies.

“We care about our customers and we are there to help the very small number of customers who get into problems with their gambling. Bookies cater for millions of people who enjoy over-the-counter betting and gaming machines (FOBTs), if we lose either of these, we are finished. And, without bookies, there will be even more empty shops and fewer reasons for people to come into town.”

ABB chief executive Malcolm George added: “Britain’s betting shops have been open for business on our high streets and in local communities since before The Beatles. They have a long record of ensuring customers can bet safely and responsibly and it is vital that the work of staff and the voice of our six million customers are not ignored.

“We hope politicians and the public will visit their local betting shop to see for themselves what a great community they are and talk to the staff and locals who enjoy their flutter at the bookies.”

Totally Gaming says: The petition is a good tool to pierce the hysteria surrounding betting shops at the moment, particularly regarding FOBTs which are currently being looked at in the latest Triennial Review of stakes and prizes. Bookmakers need to create a groundswell of grassroots support if they are going to get politicians to even give them a fair hearing.

Further to their statements that there has been no increase in problem gambling since the introduction of FOBties, and that there is no evidence linking problem ga,bling with electronic machine, the ABB also point to the serious social and economic consequences of restricting them. In response to proposals to reduce maximum stakes to £2, a confidential report by KPMG (seen by The Times claims that

20,000 jobs would be at risk. The research also claims there would be a knock-on effect on the racing industry, which would miss out £100m from bookmakers in racing levy contributions and media rights, the newspaper reported. 

It says that the £2 maximum stake would bring in £1bn per year less for the Treasury by 2020. The prediction is based on data from two thirds of Britain’s 8,700 betting shops.

A spokesman for Ladbrokes said a cut in stakes to £2 would “decimate the industry”. 

Other contributions to the debate

We give a sampling of views and evidence,claims and counterclaims, throughout the site. The section on Evidence suggests some of the evidence that has been offered for and against FOBties being harmful or not.


 

One particular view is worth noting which is that the opposition to FOBties is based on there being no evidence for alleged links between FOBties and gambling addictions or harm. Some accuse those against the machines of hysteria or falling victim to the campaigning of various groups. Here is an example from the Institute of Economic Affairs, which is broadly an organisation that is committed to freedom in business. This briefing paper by Christopher Snowdon concludes: “The campaign against fixed odds betting terminals closely resembles previous moral panics about new gambling products and can largely be attributed to ignorance and misinformation: ignorance about how gambling works and misinformation from a small but well organised group of campaigners who make claims that cannot be supported by evidence.

The paper is well worth reading in full as it contains its own facts and figures to challenge directly evidence that is provided by those groups which are campaigning for FOBtie restrictions. Opposing views of evidence give more advanced students a basis for exploring the more general features of what counts as evidence, especially whether evidence gathering is influenced by underlying values, attitudes or biases. The rest of us can get an inkling of why the ‘debate’ goes on so long.
The video below shows a debate about FOBties bewteen the instantly recognisable John McCririck and Geoff Banks, an independent bookmaker. The debate is set in the context of horse racing (and bookmakers’ financial contributions). It’s fairly clearly a contest between two strongly felt viewpoints: