MORE than £110m was lost by Yorkshire gamblers last year on controversial betting machines dubbed the “crack cocaine” of gambling.
Figures to be published next month will reveal an estimated £112m was gambled away in the region last year on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs), the glitzy gambling machines allowed by the last Labour Government in which punters can lose £100 in a matter of seconds.
In total, estimates by lobby group the Campaign for Fairer Gambling will suggest more than £3bn was staked on the addictive machines in Yorkshire in 2013 – around £600 for every man, woman and child.
The region’s gambling hot spot is Leeds, where an estimated £16m was lost by punters last year, on 414 machines spread across 114 betting shops. Next highest was Doncaster, followed by Hull, Huddersfield and York.
The highest losses per head of population were in the Parliamentary constituency of Hull West and Hessle, where punters lost nearly £50 for every man, woman and child. At the opposite end of the scale is York Outer, a rural constituency which hosts just two betting shops and where less than £3 per head of population was lost on the machines.
Labour, having allowed the machines to be introduced while in Government, is now calling for a clampdown. The Opposition party has demanded new powers for local councils to stop the proliferation of high street betting shops.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Post last night, Leeds Central MP and Labour’s Shadow Communities Secretary Hilary Benn said it was time for the Government to act.
“These are shocking figures,” Mr Benn said. “There’s all the world of difference between having a flutter and losing large amounts of money on these machines in a short space of time.
“A Labour Government will pass down to communities a new power to decide how many FOBTs there can be in a betting shop. We will also give councils the ability to require any new betting shops to apply for planning permission in future to protect our high streets.”
FOBTs are markedly different from most other forms of gambling due to the astonishing speed at which punters can lose – or win – vast sums of money. Unlike other types of gambling machine, where stakes are capped at £2, the FOBTs offer punters the opportunity to play casino-style games at breakneck speed, in theory gambling up to £100 every 20 seconds.
Campaigners cite anecdotal evidence of people losing an entire month’s wages in just a few minutes on the machines. The Campaign for Fairer Gambling wants stakes to be capped at the same level as other machines.
Ministers accept there is a problem, but are awaiting for more detailed research before deciding how to act. Culture Minister Helen Grant has held meetings with the chief executives of the five largest British bookmakers to discuss data recording methods that might help the Government to better understand player behaviour.
But pressed on the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions last month, David Cameron promised action as he blamed the last Labour Government for relaxing Britain’s gambling laws.
“I absolutely share concerns about this issue,” the PM said.
“This is a problem, it does need looking at. We have a review under way. Frankly we are clearing up a situation that was put in place under the last Government.
“We will be reporting in the spring – but I think it is important we get to grips with this.”
A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said Mr Cameron had been referring to an ongoing review by the independent Gambling Commission, which will produce its interim findings in the coming weeks.
Campaigners say the popularity of the machines is part of the reason the number of betting shops on Britain’s high streets has exploded over recent years.
Labour leader Ed Miliband has accepted Labour’s 2005 Gambling Act, which limited the machines to four per venue, did not go far enough in empowering councils to prevent their expansion.
A report published yesterday by property website Estates Gazette revealed more than 100 high street stores were converted to betting shops last year. The share of high streets taken up by betting shops has doubled from 4.4 per cent to nine per cent since 2008.
The Local Government Association complains councils simply do not have the powers to stop the proliferation, as they are not allowed to take into account the community impact when a betting shop applies for a licence.
Speaking in the Commons last month, Tory backbencher Andrew Percy, the MP for Brigg and Goole and a former local councillor, called on Labour to apologise.
“I chaired the local licensing authority in the city of Hull when the Gambling Act 2005 was brought in, and we were absolutely frustrated,” he said. “That legislation gave local councillors such as me no discretion at all.”
The machines have been defended by the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB), however, which says 40,000 jobs depend on the bookmaking industry and that most people who play on FOBTs are not ‘problem’ gamblers. It insists the majority of punters play for 20 minutes and then leave.
ABB chairman Neil Goulden said: “Electronic gaming machines have been in betting shops for over a decade, during which time no empirical evidence has ever been produced to support the anecdotal claims that they cause problem gambling.
“Quite the opposite in fact – the most recent peer reviewed and independently produced research, shows a 25 per cent reduction in the number of problem gamblers who used gaming machines.”
The body’s stance is supported by Shipley’s backbench Tory MP Philip Davies, a keen advocate of the gambling industry.
“Many of your constituents work in (betting shops), and many enjoy going into them,” he told Labour MPs in a recent debate. “If they did not enjoy going into them, they would not be open.
“It is true more bookmakers have moved on to the high street, but their overall number has not gone up; instead they have moved from the side streets owing to lower rents because of the recession.”