Following its original decision to reduce the maximum stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) the UK government has now confirmed it will enforce a new ruling from April 2019. After that cut off point, customers of betting shops around the UK will now be restricted to a £2 max bet – a significant reduction from the original figure of £100.
The latest decision is something of a U Turn after a proposed delay looked set to see the changes put back to October. However, after considerable lobbying and the resignation of government minister Tracey Crouch, confirmation of an April inception has been met with mixed reactions.
A mixed response
Naturally, the betting shops involved are not completely on board with the ruling amid reports of a potential delay to October 2019 that would hand them a £900m windfall. FOBTs have formed a significant part of their revenue and there are concerns that this drop in income will mean they’ll have to make redundancies to make ends meet. With over 100,000 employees in the gambling industry, there’s clearly a lot at stake.
In the north west of England, a spokesman for a long-established bookmaker who has been present on the high street for over fifty years stated that the company would be working hard to “mitigate job losses”.
On the other side of the debate, the move has been welcomed by bodies who have fought hard for those who have been faced with gambling problems. Fixed Odds Betting Terminals are a contentious issue and many have welcomed the new ruling.
If they are elected, the Labour Party has promised a number of reforms to the gambling industry and FOBTs have been high on the agenda. Deputy Leader and Shadow Secretary of State for Digital Culture Tom Watson (pictured) has largely been their mouthpiece on the subject and he has previously labelled fixed odds betting as a “scourge” on the UK.
Watson was particularly vociferous over the proposed delay to the maximum stake reduction. While there was predictable criticism coming his way from governing Conservatives, the situation has finally come to its conclusion as the cabinet cowed to pressure from Watson and others keen to bring about change sooner rather than later.
The lead-up to the enforcement of that max bet has almost been as controversial as the FOBTs themselves, and some have questioned whether there are any winners in the move.
An industry in flux
The Gambling Commission in the UK has been reporting favourable revenue figures for the online betting sector for some time now. Back in 2016, the regulator confirmed that more money was spent by online punters than anyone else. Online gambling accounts for around one-third of all gambling revenue – making it the largest single gambling sector.
The National Lottery is also included in those numbers, and that’s a game where many customers still prefer to buy their lotto tickets and scratch cards inside a physical shop.
However, it’s clear that online betting is thriving and operators are in prime position to take advantage of the changes in fixed odds betting, which would hit the UK’s land-based operators hardest.
Why more players are heading online
Gamblers have been heading online in their droves in recent years – both in the UK and across the world. One of the reasons is the convenience with which they can play their favourite games online. They can be played on any device, meaning players can enjoy having a flutter from the comfort of their own home, or if they’re on the move. What’s more, it’s easier than ever to set up an online account if you’re of legal betting age.
But comfort isn’t the only benefit – there’s so much choice available, too. FOBTs in bricks and mortar premises largely focus on roulette and while there are other options, the choice is limited. However, with no restrictions on space, online operators can provide hundreds of titles, including all versions of roulette plus blackjack, poker and other table games. Just one look at this range of engaging casino games will show you that.
With advances in gaming technology, these games are more immersive than ever – with high quality audio and video rivalling leading consumer titles. So online gambling was a force to be reckoned with anyway. The FOBT ruling will likely propel them to further domination.
Who’s holding online operators to account?
The online gambling sector is under heavy scrutiny, not just by Tom Watson and the Labour Party but also by those that look to promote responsible betting such as the body GambleAware. The Gambling Commission is not afraid to take action, and recently handed heavy fines to three online operators who flouted anti-money laundering measures.
Virtual casinos are held to the same standards as bricks-and-mortar ones, and subject to the same rules and regulations. They must, for example, have responsible gambling measures in place. This means it’s possible for anyone playing online to restrict their stake and to limit the amount of money that they can deposit at any one time. Of course, this isn’t an approach that will exclude all problem gamblers but while this remains a concern, it enables many gamblers can enjoy the pastime without letting it lead to financial issues.
Online casinos are required by law to implement responsible gaming measures such as age verification methods, and set self-limits and ‘take a break’ periods of between one day and six weeks to prevent problem gambling. In this sense, they have greater safeguards than betting shops with fixed odds machines, where it’s at the supervisor’s subjective discretion how old the players are and how long they’ve been gambling.
The social element of gambling
Gambling in land-based casinos has long been something to do with friends and family – and it’s that human element that online gambling can struggle to match. However, some do provide online communities, particularly for bingo games, which can go some way towards replicating that while many also have live dealers on the roulette and blackjack tables.
For those customers, the reduction in fixed stake terms at fixed odds betting terminals may see them continue to head indoors – making a bigger issue over the concern around job losses in licensed premises.
The future largely depends on the political landscape in the UK which is a volatile one. Brexit is dominating discussion at the moment but if a Labour government were to take over, we can expect to see some far-reaching changes to the gambling industry as a whole.
For example, Tom Watson has previously spoken about a ban on TV advertising during live sports matches and the possibility of outlawing funding to accounts via a credit card. Labour have been vocal opponents of FOBTs so could we see a further reduction in fixed stakes or might these machines disappear altogether?
The future is unclear in this respect but in the online world, the gambling industry continues to thrive and it provides a strong alternative platform for bettors affected by FOBT changes.