UK Government Kicks Bots into the Long Grass

UK Government Kicks Bots into the Long Grass

Anti-gambling campaigners are “furious” that the massive reduction in the stake for fixed-odds betting terminals looks likely to be delayed until 2020.

Last month, I reported on the UK government’s decision to cut the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs – or “bots” as they’re colloquially known) from £100 ($132) to £2 ($2.64). “The British Government,” I wrote, “Increasingly mocked for its apparent inability to make any decisions on Brexit, has finally found something on which it can make a decision: Fixed Odds Betting Terminals.”

I went on to comment on the government’s reasons for the move, with sports minister Tracey Crouch saying that the reduction, “will reduce harm for the most vulnerable.” The bookmakers responded with predictable howls of anguish, saying that the move would lead to job losses, a huge reduction in sponsorship levels for UK sport, widespread betting shop closures and tumbleweed blowing through what had once been vibrant UK high streets.

…To no avail. The government’s mind was resolutely made up, and the reduction in the maximum stake was going to be implemented.

… or maybe not

Having secured its headlines, the government has speedily backtracked, and it seems likely that the “crackdown on bots” will be delayed until April 2020. It may never be implemented at all – Ladbrokes are currently offering 11-to-2 against a general election this year and 5-to-2 against one next year, suggesting a more than 40% chance that there will be one before 2020 – and who knows what decision a new House of Commons might come to?

The ostensible reason for the delay is to give the bookmakers “time to adjust”. Not surprisingly, campaigners against FOBTs – the “crack cocaine of gambling” as they have been dubbed by the headline writers – have widely condemned the move. They argue that the delay will allow the bookmakers to generate a further £4bn ($5.2bn) in revenue from the FOBTs, and cite the machine manufacturers who say that only eight weeks would be needed to implement the changes.

Bookies are the winners. For now…

The bookmakers, though, appear to have won the day, convincing the government that they need a full two years to implement the changes. The bookies, apparently, need the time to put voluntary redundancy plans in place and re-negotiate leases with landlords so they can “safeguard shops and jobs”. And while the machine manufacturers say eight weeks, the bookmakers say far longer is needed to physically change the machines.

In the short term, the bookmakers may have won the battle. They should not congratulate themselves on winning the war, especially if a general election in or before 2020 sees a Labour government come to power. They would be far more hostile to the bookmakers – with Labour MP Carolyn Harris saying she is “furious” about the delay – and likely to take immediate action on FOBTs. The present government, meanwhile, seems happy to continue its policy of kicking bots – and any other contentious issue – into the long grass.