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Brief thoughts on yesterday’s debate

There’s been some interesting Twitter fall-out since yesterday’s debate in parliament on FOBTs, which deserves a longer blog with many more points than this if only there were the time.

Rather than write nothing at all until the moment has passed and it is all not worth it, though, I thought I put down three quick points which came out of yesterday and today’s Twitter exchanges, in no particular order (as they say on the X Factor). Maybe I’ll come back to the further points on another occasion, if time permits!

1. FOBTs and money-laundering

When the Sunderland MP Julie Elliott aired her view that the big problem with FOBTs is that they are used for money-laundering, I tweeted that previous speakers had been saying it was that they caused people to lose all their money, and it would be interesting to know which was right. They cannot, I said, do both. A number of people came back to me suggesting that it was obvious that they could, so I thought I would clarify what I thought might have been an obvious underlying subtext which it wasn’t possible to spell out in 140 characters.

The point I was trying to make was that all the debate against FOBTs up til that point had indicated that it was impossible for people using them to control their behaviour. FOBTs were, in that tired old phrase, the crack cocaine of gambling. To me, that implies that whoever you are, whatever you do, if you play one, you get hooked.

The newly-thrown-in fact that it is possible to launder money on one – irrespective of the extent to which people do or don’t – must surely demonstrate that this implication (that you play and simply lose control) is wrong. A logical extension of that would appear to be admission of the argument put by those in favour of FOBTs (or, I should say more accurately, against their being banned): that some people play for enjoyment, while others get themselves into trouble.

It seems to me that the point of the FOBT debate should be about helping those who get themselves into trouble, which makes it a debate about gambling addiction, and not a question about the product.  For me, it’s not enough to say that FOBTs are a special case because they offer the chance to bet a lot of money, repetitively, at short intervals: the same is true of betting on the dogs, and about 90% of what is available online. The drive to make this a debate about the product rather than the concept of protecting vulnerable people makes me suspicious.

2. MPs and statistics

The MP for Shipley, Philip Davies, made some very interesting ‘myth-busting’ comments, one of which (which I tweeted) was about the fact that it is simply not true that the number of shops has gone up. He quoted the figures, which were that 14,000 or so shops existed twenty years ago, and about 8,500 do now. The numbers have, apparently, been flat for the last ten years.

A number of people tweeted at me that Philip Davies is not independent because he used to be a bookie; and that he uses statistics to support his case.

It seems to me that no-one can ever be independent, if what the person says is not what you want to hear. For me, the fact that Philip Davies used to be a bookie makes him experienced, but if my experienced is your conflicted, fair enough.

What I find striking, though, is that all he did was quote the numbers available from the Gambling Commission. And the only reason he quoted them is because it is said, again and again, that the number of betting shops has gone up. It is simply not true that they have, so why do people say it? As I have said repeatedly on this topic, if the case against FOBTs is so strong, then just make it – don’t make it up.

It was put to me that the fact that Philip was once a bookie probably means he twisted the stats in his favour. Maybe, maybe not. What I found interesting is that the anti-FOBT case was not made with statistics at all, but with anecdote and emotion. Both were powerful, but as I have said before, not in my view a good basis for legislation.

3. I’m conflicted

I came in for a load of abuse on Twitter about the fact that I am conflicted in this debate as well. Notwithstanding the caveat above (that anyone is deemed conflicted if they don’t say something that you want to hear), let me (once again, for those who have had plenty of caffeine) lay out my own position:

  • I am not, and to date have never been, paid by anyone to lobby for or against FOBTs. I advised BetFred on their acquisition of the Tote; and I have advised Ladbrokes on the issue of sports betting rights and relations with the horseracing industry. But overwhelmingly, my biggest financial interest in gambling, as is well known, is with a company which has no exposure to FOBTs and probably stands to benefit in a small way if the product were restricted, as Barclays Capital outlined today when they issued a broker’s note saying ‘sell William Hill, buy Betfair’ on the back of yesterday’s debate; and my biggest professional one is with a company which would certainly benefit, since it could in theory put a FOBT in your pocket: I am a non-exec director at Probability plc.
  • I am no great fan of FOBTs myself. But not being a fan of them doesn’t mean I feel it is right to tell people what they can and can’t do with their spare time and their money. As Philip Davies (yes, him – the conflicted former bookie) said yesterday, this debate looks to me alarmingly as if it is about the patronising middle class telling poor people how they should spend both. That is not the same as saying that I don’t see a need to protect the vulnerable, because I absolutely do. But as mentioned above, that is not where this debate has focused – as the ‘Stop the FOBTs’ logo spells out clearly enough.



Posted in Betting industry, Gambling, Regulation.

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5 Responses

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  1. Robert says

    My understanding on laundering is that you can either fill the machine with cash and/or give the cashier cash to credit said machine, then play minimal stakes for a few minutes, print off the balance and cash in at desk. The print out from the machine “legitimises”/ “launders” the original monies

  2. says

    If you are right, that should be easy enough to address. Banning them because of that would be using a wrecking ball to crack a nut, forget about a sledgehammer.

  3. Robert says

    I agree that it could and should be addressed but there is no motivation for the high street bookmakers to do so when they can make so much profit from other customers. The point I was trying to make, obviously badly so apologies for that, is to explain that both scenarios (at the moment) are possible and that you can both launder money and have problem gambling on this same platform as opposed to your statement that “they cannot do both”.

  4. says

    Yes, I understand that. I thought I had explained above how that was a comment made to get a longer idea into the length of a tweet – the longer idea being paragraphs 4-6 of this post.

  5. Robert says

    Oh, I see your point when you elaborate. Perhaps reducing the stakes to a more sensible level would be a happy compromise. Arguing for that I could be accused of being in favour of a nanny state and I am far from that!! However, I too am suspicious, but of the bookies here, given the proliferation in poor areas. Why would there be a need for 18 in Newham High Street North? Why 3 Paddy Powers in a hundred yards? They must do that for a reason and my suspicion is that they are preying on the vulnerable. My god that does make me sound like a nanny state advocate but, at the risk of sounding patronising, some people do need society’s protection.

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