A Church of England bishop has criticised the British government’s decision to delay new limits on a type of high-stake digital gambling machines. The Bishop of St Albans, Alan Smith, has been a vociferous campaigner against Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs). The C of E’s General Synod also expressed concern about the machines, which allow gamblers to risk £100 GBP every 20 seconds. In May the government bowed to pressure and said it would reduce the maximum stake to just £2.00; but last week, Britain’s finance minister Phil Hammond used the annual budget statement to announce that the reduction would not be implemented until October 2019.
The sports minister Tracey Crouch resigned from the government as a result of the delay. “From the time of the announcement to reduce stakes and its implementation over £1.6bn will be lost on these machines, a significant amount of which will be in our most deprived areas including my own constituency”, she said in a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May. “In addition, two people will tragically take their lives every day due to gambling related problems and for that reason as much as another I believe this delay in unjustifiable.”
Her words were echoed by the Bishop of St Albans. Writing in The Observer newspaper yesterday (Sunday), Bishop Alan expressed concern about the impact on young people in particular. “Young people are seeing, on average, four advertisements for gambling every day, especially those involved with sporting events or on football shirts, and there is evidence that some console and online gaming is associated with a form of gambling”, he said. “Some students see gambling as a way of helping with debt. All this is normalising gambling as integral to sport, gaming, a night out or even study and as fun.
“No addiction is fun.”
He said that the health consequences of gambling addiction was costing Britain’s National Health Service an estimated £260m to £1.2bn bill a year, including the cost of 100 addicts who have been hospitalised. He lamented that there was only one dedicated centre dealing with addition despite figures from the Gambling Commission which said put the number of people with gambling issues at 430,000.
“The industry is lobbying to keep more of the £1.8bn annual profits from FOBTs before the stake reduction comes, claiming that jobs will be lost”, Bishop Alan said. “I have compassion for anyone who experiences the uncertainty of job loss, but the government says that employment and job creation are at an all-time high. Losing a job that can be replaced does not equate to losing a life, which cannot.”
Defending the delay, the Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Wright, said that it “has to be recognised that, right though this change is, money for public services coming from the use of FOBTs has to be replaced, or public services will have less funding. The Chancellor has decided to do that with an increase in remote gaming duty, and it is right that that increase happens at the same time as the FOBT stake change.
“There also needs to be a proper period of notice after the setting of that new rate before the change to remote gaming duty takes effect. The Government have therefore concluded that October 2019 is the best date to make both changes.”