UK’s DCMS Releases Proposal for FOBT Crackdown Amid Market Controversy

The United Kingdom’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) today released its long-awaited proposals regarding fixed-odds betting terminals, or FOBTs, which have come under increasingly negative public pressure in the face of a multiple of addictive-gambling behaviours blamed on the machines.

The 61-page report, titled “Consultation on proposals for changes to Gaming Machines and Social Responsibility Measures,” details the DCMS’s findings regarding the FOBT market and controversy, and its recommendations regarding the fast-paced, high-volume machines, which have proliferated in streetsside betting shops across the UK.

The major change proposed within the DCMS report: A cutback in the maximum amount that can be wagered per electronic bet. That amount is currently £100, but would be trimmed to a maximum ranging between £50 and £2. Also on the table: A proposal to extend the minimum amount of time that elapsed following one wager on a machine before another can be placed. That timeout is currently set to be 20 second.

Both of these proposals have been widely and heatedly debated over the past year, following DCMS’s launching of the proposal study last October. Today’s report indicated that the agency had received 275 submissions on the topic, including gambling industry firms, local authorities, Parliamentarians, faith groups, charities, think tanks, academics, and members of the general public.

The report stressed the high volume of submissions from faith groups, charities, and local-authority agencies backing the public outcry for a reduction in the FOBT wagering cap from £100 all the way down to £2. This goes hand in hand with the anti-gambling public outcry on the topic.

On the flip side, the DCMS noted that a universal cutback to a £2 wagering cap was not practical for several reasons. First, such a drastic rollback would create a drastic wagering inequity between FOBTs — technically called B2 gaming machines — and other wagering opportunities in the facilities where FOBTs can be found. In other words, gamblers who wanted to wager for high-stakes could simply wager the same large amount on other devices. (Whether FOBT play is a more addictive form of gambling wasn’t directly addressed within that context.)

The DCMS report also noted that an increasing share of betting-shop revenue is derived from FOBT play, and too drastic a cutback would negatively impact the live betting shop market, which currently employs about 53,000 people across the UK. That allowed, the DCMS did admit that it found the submissions by gambling firms to introduce stricter self-regulatory and social-responsibility efforts to be insufficient; instead, the DCMS believes it and other UK government agencies must take a greater role in FOBT regulation.

The DCMS’s findings included three top-line items, which effectively summarize the agency’s most important recommendations:

1. We believe that the current regulation of B2​ ​gaming​ ​machines​ is inappropriate to achieve our stated objective. We are therefore consulting on regulatory changes to the maximum stake, looking at options between £50 and £2, in order to reduce the potential for large session losses and therefore to potentially harmful impacts on players and their wider communities.

2. While the industry proposes increases to the remaining stakes​ ​and​ ​prizes, permitted​ ​numbers​ ​and​ ​allocations​ ​across​ ​other​ ​categories​ ​of​ ​machine (B1, B3, B3A, B4, C and D gaming machines), we believe retention of the current regulatory environment will better protect players from potential harm than industry’s proposed increases.

3. We are aware that the factors which influence the extent of harm to the player are wider than one product, or a limited set of parameters such as stakes and prizes. These include factors around the player, the environment and the product. We are therefore also consulting on corresponding​ ​social responsibility​ ​measures​ ​across​ ​gaming​ ​machines​ ​that​ ​enable​ ​high​ ​rates of​ ​loss,​ ​on​ ​player​ ​protections​ ​in​ ​the​ ​online​ ​sector,​ ​on​ ​a​ ​package​ ​of measures​ ​on​ ​gambling​ ​advertising​ ​and​ ​on​ ​current​ ​arrangements​ ​for​ ​the delivery​ ​of​ ​research,​ ​education​ ​and​ ​treatment​ ​(RET).​ Within this package, we want to see industry, regulator and charities continue to drive the social responsibility agenda, to ensure that all is being done to protect players without the need for further Government intervention, and that those in trouble can access the treatment and support they need.

The review did note that a cut to the maximum mentioned in the range, from £100 to £50, would likely have little effect on the worst FOBT-related problem gambling behaviour. An update in the Guardian, which has been one of the leading forces pushing FOBT reform, thus infers that a cap cutback to £20 or £30 is more likely.

Wrote DCMS minister Tracey Crouch, “Upon announcing this review we set out that the objective is to look across the industry and determine what, if any, changes are needed to strike the right balance between socially responsible growth and the protection of consumers and the communities they live in. This Government is determined to address this balance, to step up and act to ensure that appropriate measures are in place to protect the vulnerable people that are exposed by the current weaknesses in protections.”

The UK’s Labour Party voiced its disappointment in the DCMS report. Labour has been very vocal in its attacks on FOBTs and the gambling industry in general, claiming FOBTs are targeted at the poor and at other societal elements most susceptible to the machines’ appeal. The Labour Party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, issued a statement declaring, “There’s an old maxim that the bookies always win and they’ve won again today.”

Added Watson, “Ministers have squandered a real opportunity to curb highly addictive FOBTs, which can cause real harm to individuals, their families and local communities. After months of delays they’ve simply decided to have another consultation.”

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