Some of our high streets – in large village, as well as towns and cities – now seem to be over-run with betting shops.
This is big business. The difference between the amount betting companies take from punters and the amount they pay out was a record £13.8 billion last year, up 65% from £8.36 billion in 2008/09. No-one would be surprised if a government focused on the potential tax take from gambling rather than the damage being done to individuals and families.
The Gambling Commission says that more than 2 million people are either problem gamblers or at risk of addiction. The number of gambling addicts in the UK has increased by 30% to 430,000 since 2012.
A recent report found that the total cost to the taxpayer of problem gambling, including through mental health services, police intervention and homelessness, is probably more than £1 billion a year. Yet the voluntary levy for education, research and treatment raised just £8.6m.
But, it isn’t the odd flutter on the dogs, horses, football or even elections which explains the proliferation of betting shops and that is causing most concern to observers.
The biggest problem is the fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) – the infernal machines sometimes described as‘the crack cocaine of gambling’ – that can so quickly consume the wage packet before the household bills are paid and food put on the table.
The government has been conducting a consultation which, amongst other things, is considering a reduction in the maximum stake which can be made on each bet.
A new study, using the betting companies’ own data, has found that more than 30% of sessions with a £20 stake resulted in losses greater than £100, and 6% gave losses greater than £500. With a £50 stake, more than 9 in 10 sessions ended with a loss of more than £100 and in nearly 8 out of 10 sessions the losses were greater than £500. However, sessions with a maximum stake of £2 delivered no losses of more than £100.
The betting companies have been lobbying hard to prevent a proposal to cut the maximum stake to £2, arguing that the tax loss to the government would be dramatic and that government shouldn’t interfere in individual’s freedoms to gamble if they want to.
Now a think tank report says that the possible loss of tax revenue, from cutting the maximum stake to £2, would be far lower than the industry has previously claimed. And, when we consider the cost to individuals, families and communities, and the cost to the taxpayer caused by problem gambling and gambling addiction, the civil liberties’ argument simply doesn’t stack up.
The government should now impose a £2 maximum stake on FOBTs and it should require a proper compulsory levy on the betting companies to fund education, research and treatment for problem gambling.
But, will this government do the right thing? I wouldn’t bet on it.