UK Regulators Back Off FOBT Limits

The UK Gambling Commission is recommending that a £30 maximum bet be set on fixed odds betting terminals for the most common games such as roulette. The maximum bet for FOBT slots should be set at £2, says the board. Advocates for problem gambling have been pushing for the lower max of £2 on all FOBTs, saying that higher limits allow problem gamblers to lose thousands of pounds an hour. Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Matt Hancock (l) will have the final say.

UK Regulators Back Off FOBT Limits

In a recommendation that sounds like a compromise on the maximum bet allowed at fixed odds betting terminals, the UK Gambling Commission is recommending that a £30 maximum or lower bet be set on fixed odds betting terminals for games such as roulette while the maximum bet for FOBT slots should be set at £2.

The UK has said it will reduce the maximum stakes allowed at FOBTs, which is now set at £100, and has been considering a limit between £50 and £2. The commission’s recommendations come after a public input phase, but the final decision is still up to Parliament.

Advocates for problem gamblers have been pushing for a maximum stake of £2 on all FOBTs. The groups say FOBTs allow a bet every 20 seconds and under the current £100 bet, a player can lose up to £18,000 an hour. FOBT games like roulette are much more popular with bettors than slots, which account for only one in every 200 bets, according to reports.

High Street bookmakers, however, have warned that a drastic cut in the maximum stake would result in job losses and the closing of possibly hundreds of betting shops. The FOBTs are the main source of revenue for many betting firms.

The commission said that while there is a clear case to lower the maximum stake, there is insufficient evidence to justify recommending a specific figure below £30.

“For some people there is a risk that if they can bet smaller amounts they will actually spend longer playing and will engage in riskier behaviors, Tim Miller, executive director of the commission, told the BBC Radio 4.

The commission’s recommendation leaves open the possibility that MPs could set the stake lower. The commission said any limit under £30 meets their recommendation.

The commission’s recommendation also includes several other measures that it says would help protect problems gamblers. The commission, for example, wants to block FOBTs from offering different categories of games to be played in a single session.

Other recommendations include prohibiting lower-stakes “quickfire” games; requiring bookmakers to track customer habits to identify problem gambling; and requiring the government to extend FOBT player protections to other machines. The recommendations also cover shoring up a number of areas including age verification, customer identification and interaction with customers.

The recommendations were made in a letter to Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Matt Hancock, who is ultimately conducting the government review on FOBT stakes.

“We’ve put consumers at the heart of our advice—advice which is based on the best available evidence and is focused on reducing the risk of gambling-related harm,” said Gambling Commission Chief Executive Neil McArthur in a press statement. “In our judgment, a stake cut for fixed odds betting terminals alone doesn’t go far enough to protect vulnerable people. That is why we have recommended a stake cut plus a comprehensive package of other measures to protect consumers.”

Along with blocking different categories of games, the commission said that there is “a strong case” to make tracked play mandatory across certain machines categories.

“We have proposed actions that will tackle both the risk of harm and provide solutions that are sustainable in the longer term,” McArthur said.

The recommendation led to shares of William Hill and Ladbrokes to rise on the London Stock Exchange. Still, both bookmakers have warned that a drastic cut in the maximum stakes could lead to them cutting millions of pounds they now spend on sports partnerships, particularly for horseracing.

The recommendations disappointed many problem gambling awareness groups.

“Many people will feel let down today,” Mike Dixon, chief executive of Addaction, a charity that supports people with addiction problems told the UK newspaper the Independent. “It’s hard to understand why the gambling commission isn’t backing the £2 limit when so many lives are being ruined by FOBTs. These machines pile up profits for the gambling industry at the expense of those who can least afford it. We need much stronger regulation and proper funding for treatment so people can get help.”

Grant Humphrey, analysts for the professional services firm EY, told the paper the recommendations were “progressive” and said that it “rightly recognizes the different risk to players of each type of game.” He also said, however, that the cut could still hurt High Street bookmakers and lead to shop closures.

The recommendation carries significant weight as the commission is the main advisory to the UK government on gambling issues. But the FOBT debate has been heavily covered by UK media and caused divisions in Parliament as many MPs are pushing for the £2 limit.

“This is a deeply disappointing report from the Gambling Commission, which appears to have caved in to industry pressure,” Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader and a prominent opponent of FOBTs, told the UK newspaper the Guardian. “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 on all FOBT machines, including the highly addictive roulette-style games.”

However, Parliament would also be concerned with protecting tax revenue gained from FOBT betting, according to many UK analysts.