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High-Stake Gambling Machines: Govt Wins Vote
Safeguards on fixed-odds betting in which punters can lose up to £300 in 60 seconds have been pledged by the Government after pressure from Labour.
In a Commons debate in which Labour demanded tougher curbs on high street "mini-casinos", ministers promised measures to protect gamblers later this year after a Government review.
The pledge came as the Government comfortably defeated a Labour motion calling for councils to be given power to limit the number of high-stake fruit machines by 314 to 232, a majority of 82.
Unlike traditional fruit machines in pubs and amusement arcades, punters can gamble up to £100 every 20 seconds on fixed odds betting terminals, attracted by payouts of up to £500.
According to the Gambling Commission, there are more than 33,000 of these terminals making over £1.5bn every year.
While the Gambling Act 2005 limited the terminals to four per betting shop, Labour says bookmakers have simply opened more branches to get around the restrictions.
Rejecting Labour's motion, Gambling Minister Helen Grant told MPs: "We believe in doing things properly. We're waiting for the research, we have put pressure on the industry to produce the data.
"We've got reports coming out imminently, there's going to be precautionary protections placed by the industry at the end of March and then we will do whatever is needed to make sure people are protected."
Despite the large Government majority, some Tory MPs backed calls for urgent action and a small number of Coalition back benchers are thought to have abstained.
In a Commons vote last month, four Tory MPs voted against the Government and supported Labour in its calls for the stakes on the so-called fixed odds betting terminals to be slashed from £100 to £2.
Stewart Jackson, one of the Conservative MPs who rebelled last month, said: "I am a social conservative and I believe there is a bond of trust with the most vulnerable people in our society because actually there is a problem with problem gambling.
"As a Christian, I am compassionate for those people who are stuck in the mindset of feeling that they have to gamble. My concern is mostly though is for their children and families, those families affected by problem gambling.
"We have a responsibility and a duty. We have a regulatory regime for many things that we do in society and I think we are wrong, when so much money is being made on stakes and on money going in from some of the poorest people in society, to walk on by and say this something that we should not look at this again."
Earlier, questioned by Labour leader Ed Miliband at Prime Minister's Questions, David Cameron promised action would be taken after the review now being undertaken by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
Mr Cameron told MPs: "This is a problem, it does need looking at, we have a review under way. Frankly we are clearing up a situation that was put in place under the last government but I think if we work together we can probably sort it out."
But attacking Labour, he said: "Fixed odds betting terminals were introduced in 2001 after the Labour government relaxed gambling regulations.
"The second fact is there are actually now fewer of these machines now than there were when Labour were in office and of course to the point you have just made - councils already have powers to tackle the issues and I believe that councils should make full use of that power.
"I'm not arguing that is job done, there may well be more to do, but we have a review under way, this is an issue for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, if you have ideas I'd ask you to put those ideas into this review."
Mr Miliband disputed the Prime Minister's claim that councils have the power to tackle the spread of the machines. He said London mayor Boris Johnson and the Conservative chairman of the Local Government Association had both called for local authorities to be given more powers.
"One in three calls to the gambling helpline is about these machines and they are clustered in deprived areas," said Mr Miliband. "For example, there are 348 in one of the most deprived areas of the country, Newham. Can you at least give us a timetable for when the Government will decide whether to act?"
"Local communities believe they already have the evidence - shouldn't they be given the power to decide whether they want these machines or whether they don't want these machines?"
The Opposition claims action could be taken before the review by putting betting shops in a separate class of building use so councils can use planning powers to restrict new premises opening.
And responding to the Prime Minister's claim about Labour legislation allowing the spread of this type of betting, a Labour source conceded there had been "unforeseen consequences" of the 2001 law.
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