Mr Deputy Speaker, if you were to step off the train at Sunderland station, you would see a betting shop straight away, and you would not need to walk far to see several more. According to the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, in 2012 there were 30 betting shops in Sunderland Central, with 109 fixed odds betting terminals, with gross gambled amounts of nearly £120 million, the second highest in the north-east. The machines have been referred to as the crack cocaine of gambling so often that it is easy to become blasé about their effects, but the reason they are referred to in such terms is that their relentless speed and high stakes can be devastating.
Problem gambling is associated with a number of mental and physical health issues, including depression and insomnia, in addition to comorbid disorders such as alcohol abuse. Problem gambling is a significant health issue, both from a public and a private perspective. Although treatment is needed and sought by many, prevention of extreme gambling behaviours should be boosted by giving local authorities the power to restrict the number of betting shops opening in their areas and revoke or reduce the number of FOBTs in each branch.
FOBTs are purposefully and cynically targeted at the most vulnerable in society. They target areas of deprivation and take money away from those who can least afford to lose it. In an article published this morning, Dirk Vennix, chief executive of the Association of British Bookmakers, claimed that misinformation was being spread on the issue, citing the 2012 health survey for England, yet the same study shows that nearly twice as many people in the most deprived quintile use FOBTs than in the least deprived. It drags vulnerable people into cycles of debt, exacerbates our cost of living crisis and turns other shoppers away from our already struggling high streets.
GamCare, which provides support and advice to anyone suffering from a gambling problem, has shown that 40% of all calls to its helpline named FOBTs as the main problem. There is a clear link between problem gambling and debt problems. Research from GamCare and the Money Advice Trust has revealed that debts of up to £60,000 might be common among problem gamblers. It also stated that there is an urgent need to improve education about gambling for young people in schools. Education is crucial, but often it is all too late. Problem gambling encouraged by FOBTs affects not just adults but an estimated 60,000 young people aged between 12 and 15. Furthermore, young people are far less likely to seek help for their gambling problems.
The industry is stoking fears that any changes to FOBTs will inevitably lead to job losses, yet there is an inversely proportional relationship between the net takings of FOBTs and the number of employees in betting shops. As many branches are single-staffed, it can be difficult to monitor users and detect problem gamblers, and it will be even harder if the industry has its way and has the number of machines in each shop increased.
Betting shop clusters do far more harm than just to gamblers. The Portas review said that
“the influx of betting shops, often in more deprived areas, is blighting our high streets”.Indeed, it puts many people off going shopping on our high streets. FOBTs are bad for problem gamblers, bad for our high streets, and bad for public health.
I very much hope that the Government’s promise of localism and greater local decision making in planning will count for something today, and that they will join us to put local communities before the profits of betting shops.