Ladbrokes Coral CEO Jim Mullen has appealed to politicians to ‘step back from the fray’ and take a serious look at the facts in highly fractious debate around FOBTs. Writing a piece in the Daily Telegraph, replicated below, Mullen argues that the only impact that cutting stakes to £2 from £100 will have is the loss of thousands of jobs and loss of funding for the Treasury and horseracing.
Fixed-odds betting terminals have faced an avalanche of criticism from campaigners in recent years. Opponents have made wild claims that machines in betting shops have fuelled a surge in problem gambling, with unprecedented rises in the numbers facing problems.
Amid this flood of emotive criticism, the Government is now reviewing the future of the fixed-odds betting terminals – or FOBTs as they are known. Ministers are being urged by some to slash the amount someone can stake to as little as £2 a time.
As the demands for “something to be done” grow, I would call on ministers and MPs to step back from the fray and take a serious look at the facts in three key areas.
First, the truth is that there simply hasn’t been a big increase in problem gambling. The claim at the very heart of the campaign against FOBTs doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Independent studies over the last 10 to 15 years show that levels of problem gambling have remained very stable at well under one per cent of the gambling population. Two years ago, for instance, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport estimated that around 0.4 per cent of people in the UK could be defined as “problem gamblers.” Last year, the Gambling Commission calculated the figure was 0.5 per cent.
So during a period when FOBTs have been widely available in Britain’s betting shops, there is simply no evidence of an explosion in problem gambling. These figures demolish the whole basis on which the crusade against FOBTs has been built. The claims of an “epidemic” of problem gambling are not supported by independent, credible studies.
Second, ministers must look carefully at the devastating impact a hasty response to these unjustified calls for action could have on the jobs of thousands of betting shop staff across the UK.
It is worth pausing to examine some of the figures on my industry. Betting shops currently employ 55,000 men and women across the UK, both in full-time and part-time jobs – and they are good jobs, with decent wages, holidays and benefits. That’s around 10 per cent of all the people employed in the UK’s leisure sector. Betting shops have a proud record of giving jobs to young people too – around a quarter of employees are aged 18 to 24. Ladbrokes Coral alone employs more than 20,000 people in around 3,500 betting shops across the country, including 6,000 under-25s and 1,000 apprentices.
Since the Seventies, the number of betting shops on our High Streets has fallen by nearly half and City analysts predict more will close in future, with an estimated loss of around 6,000 jobs by 2020. But that figure would be more than three times higher if there is an unwarranted clampdown on FOBTs and staking levels.
Despite the lack of evidence of a surge in problem gambling, critics of FOBTs want the limit on stakes to be cut from £100 to £2. The industry estimates that this would lead to an extra 15,000 job losses, on top of the 6,000 already predicted to silence an increasingly fanatical and political campaign against FOBTs.
As the chief executive at Ladbrokes Coral, I will not stand idly by and watch as a group of campaigners who do not like betting machines force thousands of my dedicated colleagues out of a job and onto the dole. We are talking about losing 15,000 to 20,000 jobs – it would be like closing down most of Rolls Royce’s biggest sites in the UK. But the difference is that betting shops will close – and jobs will be lost – in pretty much every constituency in our country. Many will be mums attracted by the opportunities to work part-time to accommodate childcare or young people in their first job.
Third, it is important ministers take account of the wider repercussions of an unjustified intervention.
Horseracing, for instance, would lose hundreds of millions a year. The sport currently receives around £250 million a year from the betting and gaming industry through a combination of media rights, sponsorship and the horserace betting levy. But if FOBT stakes are cut to £2, the amount of money available would plummet – horseracing would lose nearly £290million of funding over the next four years.
The Treasury’s already stretched coffers will be hit badly too. My industry currently pays around £1billion every year in taxes but that figure will fall sharply if FOBTs are singled out for unfair punishment. Current estimates show that moving to a £2 stake would cost the Exchequer an eye-watering £1billion in lost tax revenue over the next four years.
There is also genuine concern that targeting FOBTs in betting shops will simply displace betting to riskier, unregulated environments. In contrast, my industry has gone to great lengths to promote responsible gambling. Our staff are trained to spot problem gambling behaviours and we enforce breaks in play to help people stay in control. We are also increasingly using technology to help monitor potential problem gamblers. We have a tough, industry wide code on the promotion and advertising of gambling and as an industry we are committed to doing more.
If this is a genuine call for evidence, then the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the betting and gaming industry. If ministers choose to ignore this evidence – if they choose to press ahead with unjustified new restrictions – they will be gambling with the jobs of thousands of my colleagues, hardworking men and women who deserve a fair hearing.
Betting is a great British pastime. More people bet, and enjoy it, than visit National Trust properties. If we clampdown on FOBTs, hundreds of betting shops will vanish from our High Streets, and millions of Brits will no longer be able to pop down to their local betting shop to have a quick flutter. I’m proud of my industry – I started my career working Saturdays at my local betting shop – and I won’t let it go down without a fight.
As ministers consider their next steps, I would urge them to pause and take time to look properly at the evidence. There is no link between FOBTs and a surge in problem gambling. There is no evidence that stake cuts on one product will do anything to solve the issue of problem gambling. In contrast, the threats to jobs, tax revenues and horseracing are very real. On that basis, ministers should pull back from the brink and reject these needless calls for a war on the betting industry.