On 10th July 2018 the Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, asked a question he had tabled to Government about the date for bringing in the promised reduction in stakes on fixed-odds betting terminals. The Bishop of Chester also asked a follow-up question and a full transcript of the exchanges is below:
Gambling: Fixed-odds Betting Terminals
Asked by the Lord Bishop of St Albans:
To ask Her Majesty’s Government when the stake on fixed-odds betting terminals will be lowered to £2.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Ashton of Hyde) (Con): My Lords, the reduction in the stake on B2 gaming machines from £100 to £2 will be delivered through secondary legislation. We are currently preparing the draft regulations needed for the change and plan to lay the statutory instrument in the autumn. This will happen alongside engagement with the gambling industry to ensure that there is an appropriate period in which to implement the technological changes and develop plans to mitigate the potential impact on employment.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I thank the Minister for his reply. The delight with which the Government’s announcement was received on 17 May has now turned to puzzlement and dismay. We know that these machines cause bankruptcy, family breakdown and in some cases even suicide. The Minister in the other place said that the decision was being made because it was the right and the moral thing to do, yet we now hear that it could take up to two years. Will the Minister assure us that Her Majesty’s Government will proceed with this with alacrity and certainly get it in place before the end of the year?
Lord Ashton of Hyde: I am pleased to inform the right reverend Prelate that we have already started the process needed to implement the necessary change. As I have already outlined, the measure will be brought forward through secondary legislation and we have made good progress in starting to draft the statutory instrument required. That will then have to go through a process, including notifying the European Union under the EU Technical Standards and Regulations Directive. Finally, as the previous Secretary of State said last month, in order to cover any negative impact on the public finances, the change needs to be linked to an increase in remote gaming duty at the relevant Budget.
Lord Deben (Con): My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is a Treasury matter and the reason it is being held up is precisely because of that last point—the Treasury makes money out of it? This not right. We want this change because this gambling causes misery and ought not to continue. It is not good enough to plead administrative difficulties; these people should stop, and stop now.
Lord Ashton of Hyde: No, that is not right: it is a DCMS matter. My noble friend is right that the remote gaming duty is a Treasury matter. We completely agree that these gaming machines cause harm. However, there is a process that has to be gone through when such measures are implemented. We have to take into account not only the harm to gambling but the harm to employment that will be caused by this.
Noble Lords: Oh.
Lord Ashton of Hyde: I am surprised that noble Lords on the Benches opposite are groaning about employment; I thought that they were interested in that subject. The fact is that we are engaging with stakeholders. We are keen to implement this and we will do it as soon as we can.
Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab): My Lords, on a day when those in the party opposite are endeavouring to contain their disarray within the bounds of public decorum, will the Minister cast his mind back to the day alluded to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans when euphoria was released along the Benches around the House at the news that the limit was to be fixed at £2? I do not think that anyone in that debate was under the impression that it would take as long as is now being suggested. All the arguments were rehearsed and great enthusiasm was expressed. Is the Minister convinced, on looking at the respective interests of the revenues—not the employment—of the gambling industry and the well-being of the 14% of problem gamblers produced by these machines, that the right decision has been taken?
Lord Ashton of Hyde: My Lords, I am not clear to what decision the noble Lord refers. When we made the announcement that the revenue forgone from FOBTs would be made up by remote gaining duty, we said that the Chancellor would introduce that at the relevant Budget. We want it to be revenue neutral and so the remote gaming duty has to be in place to make up for the forgone revenues. We said that at the time. We are implementing this as quickly as we can. A process has to be gone through and we are keen to get on with it.
Lord Foster of Bath (LD): There is wide-scale support in your Lordships’ House for the view that, in order to minimise the misery and disruption caused to individuals, families and communities by the £100 stake, it should be reduced to £2 as quickly as possible. What estimate has the Minister’s department made of the speed with which that could, with good will, be introduced? Can he explain why it is not being introduced so quickly? More importantly, who do we hold to account for the further misery that will be caused by the delay?
Lord Ashton of Hyde: Perhaps I should explain the process that has to be gone through, some of which is not in the hands of DCMS. As I said, the remote gaming duty increases have to be passed and come into effect; the SI has to be laid, which will be done in the autumn; and the SI debate, in which this House will rightly be involved because it is an affirmative procedure, will have to take place. That is not in the hands of DCMS but of the business managers, and there are severe pressures on SI business because of Brexit. When we have done that, there will be engagement with stakeholders and mitigation plans in relation to the employment that will be lost. Some of that is concurrent and some of it is consecutive—but we have made the decision and we are very keen to get on with it.
Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con): My Lords, will my noble friend commit the same degree of energy to tackling online gambling, and in particular gambling that is based offshore? Will he say whether the Government have made an impact assessment of what the potential loss will be in terms of employment and contribution to the economy in market towns when the £2 betting limit provision is imposed?
Lord Ashton of Hyde: My noble friend asked me that question when we made the Statement. I said then that we had not done an impact assessment on market towns because in large measure the impact on employment will not be in such towns: rather, it will be in areas where there are vulnerable people and where in the main these betting shops are situated. We understand that there are issues with employment and we are producing a plan to mitigate this. However, I am not saying that that is more important than the harm that FOTBs are doing. That is why we made the decision to change the stake on these machines. We are endeavouring to move as fast as we can, but we have said all along that the move should be revenue neutral. Once we have that in place, we will be able to reduce the stakes.
Lord Rooker (Lab): In order to relieve the Minister’s obvious discomfort in answering this Question, will he agree to a good suggestion? As this is not about national security, all the minutes and diary information related to all the meetings that have taken place since the original decision was announced should be made available to the public.
Lord Ashton of Hyde: I am not sure that such a decision is within my brief. More to the point is the question put by the noble Lord about what meetings had taken place. I can tell him that, with suitable notice. There is nothing to hide in this and we are endeavouring to engage with stakeholders. However, it is not normal practice for the internal meetings of government to be circulated—that is my answer to the noble Lord.
Lord Cormack (Con): My Lords, can my noble friend go back to his department this afternoon and relay the unanimous feeling in your Lordships’ House? Where there is a will, there should be a way. Can we have a target to get all this sorted out by early October at the latest?
Lord Ashton of Hyde: I can assure my noble friend that I will relay to the new Secretary of State the feeling of this House. However, it is unlikely that he is not aware of it, because the same feeling exists in the other place. I can say that I was to have had a meeting to discuss this with the previous Secretary of State, but I am afraid that meeting was cancelled.
Lord Tyler (LD): My Lords, will the Minister explain why—as I understood him to say—Brexit-related orders will take precedence over this very urgent reform?
Lord Ashton of Hyde: No, my Lords, I did not say that.
The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, the Minister has referred several times to the need to engage with the industry in order to mitigate the impact on employment. I should like to know exactly what form of mitigation the Government have in mind.
Lord Ashton of Hyde: My Lords, an inter-ministerial group drawn from different departments will engage in discussions about what the effect on employment will be in different parts of the country, and we will produce a plan. There is a limited amount that we can do, but, as I say, over the summer we will produce a plan to deal with that. When we have a plan, I will be able to tell the House about it.