Fluttering in the British Isles

Gambling in England is not like it is in the United States. American gaming is governed by individual states and not by federal regulation, while gambling in England is regulated by the national government. And because of the difference, gambling in England is much more uniform than it is here. In the U.S., regulations are different in every state. Tax rates vary by state as does the size and number of casinos and the number of gaming options available to a gambler. In general, casinos are much larger here than in England.

Casinos may be bigger and more numerous here, but betting shops are more numerous there. There is nothing like an English betting shop in the U. S., except possibly Dotty’s, a chain of small slots-only casinos with outlets in Oregon, Montana, Nevada and Illinois. The English version, the betting shop began as a bookmaking shop. The English like a good wager, a “flutter,” and it seems they are willing to bet on anything, which of course means there are bookies willing to accept a wager on almost anything. Bookies in England take bets on well-known awards, international awards such as the Nobel Peace Prize, Pulitzers and Oscars, they take bets on which celebrities will die this year, or which animal will die next in a zoo in Sweden. They take bets on elections, horse races, sporting events and the name of the next baby born to a royal. You name it and the English bookies book it and there are lots of bookies.

Every high street has its bookies. It does not take a billion or even a million pound building to house a bookie; any vacant shop on the local high street will do. There are hundreds of those shops around the British Isles and until recently no one paid much attention or cared. However, those high street betting shops are now at the center of a media firestorm. The ire of the British press does not stem from making book on sleazy events, although they do, but rather for Fixed Odds Betting Terminals – FOBTs. An FOBT is a slot-machine like device with a variety of games, ranging from casino games such as Roulette, Poker and Black Jack, to electronic slot games and virtual racing. Roulette seems to be the most popular.

And popular is the word for the FOBTs. There are approximately 34,000 of them in the country and they account for 51 percent of the profit of bookies and 67 percent of the revenue. Each betting shop is limited to four FOBTs. So the only way to expand is to open a new shop. The major betting shop chains, like Ladbrokes and William Hill are opening new shops as quickly as they can; sometimes there are as many as 10 or 15 on a single high street.

Shocking figures from the Campaign for Fairer Gambling revealed in the East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow constituency, 81 fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) in 22 betting shops made more than £3.2million…There are 296 FOBTs in 76 licensed betting shops across the county, ranking South Lanarkshire the sixth highest Scottish local authority…North Lanarkshire is fourth in the table, with 322 FOBTs in 87 betting shops making a profit of £12.7m. Glasgow City topped the table with 759 FOBTs in 205 shops, pulling in a bookies profit of over £30m over the last year. Scottish Daily Record, 3-27-14

The rapid spread of the betting shops caught the eye of the media and it investigated. In particular, the Daily Mail and the Guardian have been relentless in their pursuit of the story. In their mind, they found gambling addiction run rampant without any government oversight. The media labeled FOBTs the crack cocaine of gambling. The media has been in a full-court press for over a year, and at least once a week a story appears about the crack cocaine machines and their unbridled invasion. Many town councils have attempted to limit the number of betting shops, but most lack the legal structure to prevent new shops from opening.

The Mail has campaigned against the machines, which are found in high street betting shops and allow users to lose up to £100 per spin. Critics say they are highly addictive and make casino-style gambling accessible on the high street… Britain’s 33,000 FOBTs have been under mounting scrutiny in recent months – with the Mail leading campaigns to highlight their dangers. The machines allow players to stake up to £100 a time. Tamara Cohen, London Daily Mail, 3-20-14

Councils have joined forces to demand the Government changes planning laws to stop the spread of betting shops. Nottingham City Council is one of 63 local authorities calling for betting shops to have their own planning category. They are currently classed as A2 financial services – the same as banks and estate agents, meaning they can move into premises without planning permission. Nottingham Post, 4-2-14

The issue has been debated in parliament and discussed in the cabinet. It has been “taken under advisement,” studied and discussed. So far, the only concrete action is an increase of the taxes on FOBTs. The new tax caught the industry off guard, but given the pressure from the press, local town councils and many MPs it should not have been too surprising. Even the Prime Minister has taken note of the issue and said a couple of months ago that it would probably be necessary to take steps to reign-in the growth of FOBTs. However, the new tax alone is hardly enough for the opponents.

In the budget, George Osborne reduced the tax burden on land based bingo halls and raised it for betting shop fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs)…In 2013 FOBTs – or “B2” gaming machines as they are categorized – generated more than £1.5bn of gross revenue for the betting sector. This represents 51% of its entire profits…FOBTs are an ancillary product in “betting” shops… betting shop FOBTs accounted for 67% of all revenue. Adrian Parkinson, Guardian, 4-1-14

Britain raised taxes on high-stakes gambling machines, hitting the shares of bookmakers that rely on them for a growing share of their betting shop income. The duty will rise to 25 percent from 20 percent, Finance Minister George Osborne said in his annual budget statement, responding to the spread of fixed-odds betting terminals that critics say are highly addictive. Keith Weir, Reuters, 3-20-14

It is an issue that is likely to continue making headlines until the press gets its pound of flesh. From my reading, I can’t tell what outcome the press has in mind. But it is certain the press is not yet satisfied. For an observer from another country, it is fun stuff. Reading the stories is like spending an afternoon watching a debate in parliament or an evening with Downton Abbey, except the rhetoric is not as polite or humorous – there are no “right honorable gentlemen” to be found. Instead the press has labeled the bookies as crooks, exploiters of the weak and the poor and downright greedy. The English can be very entertaining and sometimes amusing to Americans. We love their television programs, their literature and even their music. However, I am glad the gaming industry in the United States does not face a press that is as hostile as the English press has been to gaming in England the last year. It is amusing when it happens someplace else, but it would not be quite so amusing if it happened here.


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