Defy gambling industry and limit stakes to $3, bishop urges UK government

(Photo: REUTERS / Beck Diefenbach)San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino's online gambling app "Code Red" is demonstrated in the exhibitors room at the GiGse online gaming convention at the Westin hotel in San Francisco, California, April 24, 2012. Online poker is a business that involves processing billions of dollars worth of bets and battling the fraudsters, cheats and robot-player software that can ruin the games. Hence the casinos are cozying up to some tech-savvy offshore partners whose pedigrees might give regulators pause. Online gambling is popular in Scotland.

The British government must be courageous and face down the gambling industry on betting machines, the Anglican Bishop of St. Albans, Alan Smith, has said as some church leaders and politicians try to rein in a national betting epidemic.

On March 19, the Gambling Commission a regulatory body, announced its advice to government ministers concerning fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), which have boomed in popularity in recent years, the Church Times reported March 20.

Church leaders and members of the UK's opposition Labour Party have sought to lower the maximum betting amount to try to curb a perceived gambling epidemic in the country.

The FOBT is a type of electronic gaming machine on which players may bet on the outcome of various simulated games and events (such as roulette, blackjack, bingo, and horse races), the odds offered being fixed from game to game.

Despite a vigorous campaign by church leaders, politicians, and others, the Commission did not recommend cutting the maximum amount of money which can be placed per bet to 2 British pounds ($2.80).

Instead, the Commission said that for most FOBT games the maximum stake could be set "at or below 30 pounds ($42)."

Bishop Smith said that this was too much. "Any stake on fixed-odds betting terminals higher than 2 pounds simply does not go far enough to protect the interests of the most vulnerable, their families, and communities.

"When Ministers choose the stake for these machines, they must put the interests of those affected by them ahead of concerns about tax take or the powerful gambling lobby."

Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party and a prominent opponent of FOBTs, said, "This is a deeply disappointing report from the Gambling Commission, which appears to have caved in to industry pressure. Ministers must not use this report as a cover to maintain the status quo.

"These machines are the heart of the UK's hidden epidemic of problem gambling. The government must cut the stake to 2 pounds on all FOBT machines, including the highly addictive roulette-style games."

The Commission did propose other measures to tackle problem gambling through FOBTs, which have been blamed for driving thousands of people into addiction.

There is a "strong case" to make it mandatory for the machines to track gamblers' play, and spot when someone may be slipping into a damaging pattern of betting, it said.

Also, machines should be banned from allowing different types of games to be played in a single session.

Bishop Smith said that he hopes that the Commission's more cautious proposals will not be taken up by the Government.

"We desperately need a scheme of gambling regulation that is ordered, sensible, and has care for the vulnerable at its core," Smith said. "I hope ministers will be courageous and use the review to do the right thing and reduce the maximum stake to 2 pounds."

Smith joined other parliamentarians at a special meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on FOBTs to continue to press their claim for a 2 pound maximum stake.

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