Monday, December 16, 2013

Betting Barkingside

The effects of this financial crisis are going to last for generations. Unemployment is bumping along the bottom. Essential services are being cut. Food and fuel prices are rising steadily. All of which makes haemorrhaging £46bn a year on gambling machines in the UK obviously senseless. So why is this happening and who is doing something about it?

This view includes some of Barkingside's
'financial and professional services', also known as
betting shops and pay day loan shops.
Barkingside High Street has 4 bettings shops, Betfred, Ladbrokes, Jennings Bet, and PaddyPower (as well as two pay day loan shops, Cash Converter and The Money Shop). Ilford North, our parliamentary constituency, has 27 betting shops with 99 fixed odds betting terminals or FOBTs (the ones they call the crack cocaine of the gambling world) at which the gross amount gambled is - choke! - an estimated £161,642,546 while the yield for the punters (if I understand correctly) is a measley £5,140,233. The Greater London Authority observed a 13% increase in London's betting shops between 2010 and 2012. Redbridge currently has 70, and I'd imagine that all those payday loan shops are very tempting to problem gamblers. There are restrictions on the number of machines in a betting shop, but no restrictions on the number of betting shops in a local area.

Since Tessa Jowell (Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport in the Labour Government of the time) relaxed gambling laws with the 2005 Gambling Act, problem gambling has increased - as anyone could have predicted. But it turns out all this is a nice little earner for the Conservative-led coalition government too. In a recent Commons vote on stakes and prizes, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats made sure that these machines will continue to accept wagers of £100 a spin at a potential rate of one spin every 20 seconds. Yes, a very nice earner, for some (did I mention the drug dealers?) Of course, the person who's ultimately responsible for their money is the person pouring it into the machines. But if you're somebody with a gambler in the family and have ever found yourself in the position of being the ultimate safety net, you're probably wishing that gambling was less compelling and less convenient.

And before we start blaming the casino users entirely, let's keep in mind that our economy is run like a casino. It's highly ironic that betting shops are classified as 'professional and financial services' when you remember that the financiers who sunk us in 2008 are still nicely afloat themselves, with their bonuses and their hedge funds, still betting on the value of commodities, still avoiding personal responsibility, still taking cocaine and swilling champagne. Consecutive London mayors have welcomed these respectable gamblers into the City. Clearly, gambling is entirely of the establishment, and the last thing anybody needs to be doing is kicking the poor young people who have their hopes and dreams taken off them on our high streets. They're mugging themselves, certainly - but aided and abetted (ha!) by the law of the land. Not to mention the culture of the land - who hasn't seen 10 or 20 highly alluring adverts for online casinos this week?

This year the Fairer Gambling Campaign (pdf format) carried out research in Newham with 501 interviewees recruited in or near betting shops. Most of the study's respondents were aware of FOBTs, and 57% of those aware of the machines had converted to frequent play. Unsurprisingly, frequent play meant higher sums gambled per session. At the same time, these gamblers tended to be younger and poorer. 38% of daily gamblers said they put all their winnings back into the machines and most chased their losses. Most become more resentful of their losses the longer they play.
Which brings us to aggression. Losing can make gamblers desperate and violent. As the Ladbrokes blog explains,
"Picture the scene: It’s 21:58 on a Sunday, you’ve got two machine players in your shop. You inform them that they’ve only got a few more spins of roulette before you’re locking the door for the 22:00 close. One player prints off the remaining balance and leaves, the other isn’t going to easily.
This machine player has lost over £1000 on roulette in the last hour. He is angry that he is unable to win that money back. “A few more spins?” he asks.


In the heat of the moment, anything could happen next.

This dialogue is all too familiar with those who have closed a betting shop on their own. What can you do if a customer refuses to leave and starts to get abusive? Switch the machine off? 

That’s not going to help, he’s already angry. Call the police? Not worth the hassle, they won’t arrive in time.

In 99% of cases, this interaction results in the customer leaving without altercation. However, in 100% of cases the conversation is uncomfortable and not a pleasant way to end a day."
There's a 2012 book by Natasha Dow Schull called Addiction By Design which is summarised in this Tom Vanderbilt article. He points out that - unlike, says, physical cards or roulette, we don't know the odds on a machine - but we can bet they are "algorithmically stacked against its participants". He writes,
"The games themselves were undergoing an evolutionary change. Once upon a time, you stood at a slot machine, putting whatever change you had into it, cranking the lever and watching the wheels spin. If you won, you'd wait for the clanging of the change in the hopper. If you won big, you'd have to wait for a casino attendant to come by and record it. There was a discrete rhythm, with any number of chances for a natural pause – like walking away from the machine when you ran out of coins.
 But ... any number of refinements were added to the machine, most of them targeted around breaking down those moments of inertia – just as decades of Taylorist efficiency had done on the assembly-line floor. The lever was dispensed with (though it still exists on some machines as a "legacy lever"). Stools were added, then increasingly ergonomic chairs. Reels could be spun by pressing a button (thus doubling, Schüll says, the average number of games that could be played per hour, from 300 to 600). "Embedded bill acceptors" eliminated the need to fumble for coins, speeding up play another 15% and increasing the amount played by 30%. "Ticket in/ticket out" systems got rid of the need to dispense coins as winnings; as one slot floor manager told Schüll, "People didn't want to wait to be paid off, because even if it took just three minutes, to them it felt like 20 minutes." There was a curious paradox at work here: as the games got faster, players stayed on longer."

The Commons vote I mentioned above wasn't close. The Guardian reports that Lib Dems supported the Conservatives against Labour.

Who's doing anything?
  • The 2011 Portas Review (by Mary Portas, Queen of Shops) triggered a number of campaigns to change the so-called 'use class' or betting shops, enabling Councils to impose things like planning permission and quotas.
  • Redbridge Council (Conservative Lib Dem Coalition supported by the Labour opposition) recently picked up on the wider campaign - it has written to the government asking for reforms to help councils limit the number of betting shops on high streets.
  • At a national level Southwark Labour Councillor Rowenna Davis is petitioning Eric Pickles to let local communities have a say about which shops are on their high streets. The petition is about half way to its target, so go and sign.
  • Stop the FOBTs - on Twitter @stopthefobts. You can find out how many FOBTs are in your area and send a message to your MP.
  • GRASP (Gambling Reform & Society Perception) have been pushing back on gambling for years; they're also paying attention to the internet and TV advertising which is reaching people of all ages in homes up and down the country.
  • The Campaign for Fairer Gambling - on Twitter @fairergambling.
  • Zac Goldsmith, Conservative rebel in the Commons motion mentioned earlier, when Conservatives and Liberal Democrat succeeded in raising the jackpots for some machines while failing to take on FOBTs. There are probably a few others too - kudos.
  • Labour MPs - two Early Day Motions 580 and 268 - and Tom Watson who led the opposition to the motion.
Who isn't doing anything?
  • The Conservative-led government's Responsible Gambling Strategy Board made a press release since May. It places responsibility all with the gambler and not with the betting shop.
  • The Gambling Commission site is looking unkempt. The link to Research from this page is broken.
  • In July this year the government released a report on progress since Mary Portas' aforementioned review. Can you find any reference to betting shops in it? I can't.
  • Our MP, Lee Scott, isn't listed among Stop the FOBTs supporters. I wrote to tell him about the 27 betting shops and 99 FOBTs and received a line back - no, he doesn't sign early day motions but he did forward my message to 'the Minister'. And that, I dare say, is the last I'll hear of that.
  • No, the government isn't doing anything.
  • No, we're not talking about Bingo. Bingo is slow-paced, low stakes, and sociable.

1 comment:

  1. And you haven't even mentioned the National Lottery,which is a tax on the poor if ever there was one.