I used to work with a great bloke called Henry. He would spend every spare moment each morning poring over the racing section of the Daily Mirror. Then at lunchtime he would pop out to the bookies and place a range of bets, not just to win or place, but complicated, multiple bets such as accumulators and round robins. His main rule was that was the he would never stake more than £1 on any bet. He reckoned to break even most weeks.
By the way, there was a survey in the 1980s that concluded that the more left wing the paper, the better its racing tips. The Morning Star had the best results, followed by the daily Mirror and The Guardian. The Sun and the Telegraph came bottom of the list. We didn’t win much in the 1980s so it’s important to cling on the things like this.
Back to Henry. He enjoyed his gambling and he had it under control. In the five years I knew him he only won an accumulator once, he was ecstatic and bought presents for the family. Then he went back to placing £1 bets.
Fast forward twenty years and the Labour government relaxed the laws on gambling. I know I grew up in a somewhat puritan Methodist household, but I never understood the political justification for that move. The headlines of the policy shift were made by Super Casinos (I’ll come back to them), but it led to all sorts of cultural changes: many more bookies on the high street, advertising on television and a new breed of slot machine – the fixed odds betting terminal.
Now slot machines are addictive. Each bet might be small, but you keep having “just one more go”, after all you almost won just then … and then you realise that an hour’s passed and you’ve spent (wasted) £20, or £40, or £100. Fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) take that idea and ratchet it up. You can place higher bets and in theory win bigger payouts. Of course the odds of winning are no better, why would they be?
FOBTs have been called the crack-cocaine of gambling and can be found in every betting shop. They now account for half of the profits of the big bookmakers. They also account for most of the violence in bookmakers as people lose their wages, betting as much as £100 every 20 seconds.
The government is due to announce its latest review of the machines, but is not expected to restrict them. As ever, they are more interested in “stripping away unnecessary red tape and stimulating private sector investment”, than worrying about social problems. It not just an abstract “bad thing” that people lose money, it has consequences – domestic violence, mental health problems, hungry children.
The betting shops say there is no link between FOBTs and problem gambling. With the machines generating £1.4 billion every year they are hardly likely to say anything else are they?
I promised to mention casinos. Leeds is to get a large (as opposed to super) casino as part of the new Victoria Gate development in town. Leeds City Council are due to get a cut of the profits and this week the Executive Board are set to debate what to do with the cash.
The plan is to spend most of the £1 million upfront payment (future annual payments will be at least £450,000) on social inclusion and anti-poverty initiatives across the city. Good.
Good, but it’s a bit like to old dilemma that you can’t afford to have health initiatives that cut the numbers of people smoking, because it’s the tax on cigarettes that pays for the NHS.
We tax cigarettes (and alcohol and petrol for that matter) at high rates to create a disincentive, to encourage people not to consume as much. In 2005 Gordon Brown moved the tax from gamblers paying on each bet to the profits of the bookmakers. The government got the same amount of tax, probably more, but it removed the disincentive. What was Labour thinking?
I’m afraid I still think prevention is better than cure. For my money, we’ve got the balance on gambling wrong in this country and it’s areas like South Leeds that suffer disproportionately. A quick internet search reveals that William Hill alone have three betting shops within a mile of my house.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.