After news emerged earlier this week that the UK government was set to slash FOBT stakes to just £2, high street workers took their protest to Parliament.
The message was clear; they urged the government not to “gamble with high street jobs”.
How would it affect staff?
With more than 50,000 people employed in 8,500 betting shops throughout the UK, many believe that a cut in FOBTs would lead to a cut in staff, not to mention the £1bn ($720m) in tax that these shops pay.
Some estimates show that a £2 stake would result in up to 21,000 direct job losses and half of all betting shops closing.
So it’s unsurprising that staff from across the betting sector joined forces to demonstrate against the cut. Shop staff from Ladbrokes Coral, William Hill, JenningsBet, and some independent bookmakers peacefully protested on the green with placards. They were joined by Laurence Robertson MP, Philip Davies MP, and Chris Evans MP.
What are staffers saying?
Concerned about job losses, they carried placards to display their fears. They read, “I keep Britain gambling safely,” “Don’t gamble with high street jobs,” “Our shops are the safest place to bet.” These alluded to the fact that betting shop staff members are trained to interact with customers, which allows them to spot vulnerable users.
Ron Hearn, the current Betting Shop Manager of the Year, said: “I’ve been a racing fan all my life. Betting and racing go hand in hand. It’s not just betting shops at risk, it’s racing too; when the shop goes, the media rights money to racing goes too. The government shouldn’t gamble with the future of shops or racing; people will still gamble but just in arcades or other forms of gambling, where there are few if any staff to interact with them.”
Independents most concerned
Although most betting shops belong to the bigger chains, there are still some independent bookmakers in the UK, such as JenningsBet. Vicky Knight works for the company and believes their family business would be put at risk by the proposed changes.
She said at the protest: “A 98% reduction in stake is a disproportionate response. We are a fourth-generation family business and the vast majority of people who gamble in our shops do so responsibly. Staff in shops are trained in responsible gambling and how to interact with customers, helping to spot signs of harm or problem gambling. It’s crazy that this stake cut would mean you could bet £6 per minute on a FOBT but people could bet £24 per minute on a pub fruit machine. We have lots of adults who want to stake £20 or £30, and that is an appropriate level in a highly-regulated environment like a betting shop.”
Last month, 350 independents warned Theresa May via a letter that a maximum cut could have devastating effects on their business.
The letter said, in part: “Customers will not play FOBT games at this staking level as they are unable to spread their bets and de-risk their play.
“These are gaming customers who will not switch to betting on horses or football but will simply go online or to other venues, and we will not be able to compete or trade as viable businesses.
“At a £2 stake, many of our family enterprises will close, our staff – including members of our own families – will lose their jobs, and all the monies to the government, local councils, and racing will be lost. The consequences for our businesses would quite simply be disastrous.”
The letter also highlighted internal advice that was previously commissioned. “The government’s own advisers, the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board (RGSB), warned “we would find it difficult to regard so strong an action (cutting from £100 to £2) as being proportionate on the basis of the existing evidence” and could lead to “a variety of unintended and potentially harmful consequences”.
The most important point that the independents wanted to highlight was that their shops, in particular, are not faceless companies and that staff members have a relationship with their customers.
“We care about our customers and know most of them by name. We know if they have had a bad day or have been enjoying a family celebration, we offer them teas and coffees and a chat, and a place for them to meet their friends and enjoy their leisure pursuit in a friendly, safe and responsible environment.
“If you really want to help problem gamblers then we are best placed to help you achieve that. We implore you not to throw small businesses like ours on the scrap heap by imposing a £2 maximum stake.”
MPs joined protest
Three members of parliament joined the protest. One such supporter is the MP for Islwyn, Chris Evans, who wants the government to tackle the “slippery slope” of gambling offered by the National Lottery and scratchcards as opposed to FOBTs, which are mainly housed among trained and supportive staff.
He wrote in Progress Online: “With problem gambling on the rise, it is essential that the government does more to investigate and tackle this issue. The accessibility of the lottery and scratch cards makes them the perfect stepping stone to more complex forms of gambling, and with variants such as the Health and Postcode Lottery increasing in popularity, this problem could yet grow.
“Without intervention, the effects of a gambling habit can be devastating, not only for the individual but for their family and friends. With the National Lottery committing less profit to good causes year on year, perhaps it is time for them to take action against the problem within their own industry and join the ever-growing debate surrounding gambling addiction.”
A verdict on FOBTs is thought to be delivered after the local elections on May 3.