Westminster Council needs counselling

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Westminster Council recently wrote to the Campaign for Fairer Gambling in order to justify why it is the only local authority in London which didn’t support Newham Council’s Sustainable Communities Act proposal to reduce the maximum stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) to £2 a spin.

However, there appear to be major flaws in Westminster Council’s position and its understanding of the issues.

The letter was sent by Philippa Roe, leader of Westminster Council, and argued that the council promotes, encourages and supports local businesses. None of the two FOBT suppliers or the five large corporate bookmakers are local Westminster businesses. FOBTs are in fact detrimental to local business, employment, economies and tax revenues as substantiated by reports from NERA and Landman.

Some adult gaming centres, family entertainment centres (collectively arcades), bingo halls and pubs in Westminster may well be independent operators and locally owned. Their gaming machine revenues have been impacted by the bookmaker market monopoly of easy-access machines at stakes in excess of £2 – obtained through the illegal introduction of FOBTs.

BACTA, the trade organisation representing many arcades and suppliers in this sector, is rightly advocating for staking parity at the maximum they are allowed to offer, which currently is £2 per spin. By supporting the FOBT status quo Westminster Council is effectively discriminating against these businesses.

It is deplorable that both the government and Westminster Council assert that there is insufficient evidence to support a FOBT stake reduction. Publicly funded research provided data which established that FOBTs are the most addictive form of gambling and that the losses by vulnerable at-risk and problem gamblers were estimated at 40% of gross revenues. This now equates to around £650 million per year.

Cllr Roe argues in her letter that a stake reduction could result in “unintended consequences” of more shops being opened. But this is irrational, is not evidence-based and would not be endorsed by anyone with expertise in gambling. The bookmaker’s trade association, the ABB, submitted a document to DCMS in the 2013 Triennial Review of Stakes and Prizes claiming that 85% of shops would be at-risk if the FOBT stake reduction to £2 was applied.

This was a business modelling approach, which ignored both the impact of crossover revenues to other products in other shops and the associated reduced operational expenses, so – as NERA concluded in its analysis – it must be heavily discounted. Rather than the 7,900 shops that the ABB claim would be “at risk” if the maximum stake was reduced to £2 a spin, NERA’s illustrative calculations suggest that a more realistic number of LBO closures might be between 700 and 1,200, representing largely shops in existing areas of clustering.

Westminster Council claims it has enough powers to handle betting shops, but if this were the case then it would be able to prevent the “unintended consequences” of reducing the maximum stake on FOBTs, as it would be able to prevent new shops opening. However, Westminster Council does agree that the Article 4 powers are inadequate and contradicts the government’s position on this aspect.

It is fascinating that Westminster and Manchester Councils are involved in research which includes identifying what “harm” and “vulnerable” mean. Westminster Council could also benefit from being advised as to what “prevention” means. The researchers, GeoFutures, have an excellent reputation.

There is every expectation that the geo-locations of vulnerability cohorts will show a correlation with betting shop locations. However no-one at the recent public presentation of the background to the research could explain how it could have any significant benefits in prevention of harm to the vulnerable.

It appears both Westminster and Manchester deliberately avoided asking whether proximity to certain forms of gambling increases vulnerability to gambling harm. This would have given Westminster greater insight into the impact of FOBTs compared to lower staking machines. Is Westminster Council interested in evidence which might show that FOBTs are indeed harmful, as every other local authority in London has concluded?

Westminster Council appears to be acting as a proxy for DCMS and the Gambling Commission by denying the validity of the evidence against FOBTs. The theories, views and beliefs that Westminster Council rely on a pitifully poor understanding of gambling behaviour.

Inevitably the question arises as to whether Westminster’s apparent agenda to protect corporate market interests to the detriment of individuals and society as a whole is driven by ideology, rather than evidence.

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