A Conservative minister who was in favour of allowing fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) at motorway service stations and amusement arcades has been put in charge of a landmark review of gambling laws, the Guardian has learned.
Campaigners for gambling reform voiced concern after it emerged that John Whittingdale, the minister for media and data, is taking over responsibility for the review from the sports minister, Nigel Huddleston, nearly three months after it was launched.
They pointed to Whittingdale’s record of voting against stronger regulation of the industry and comments playing down the dangers of FOBTs.
Whittingdale was chair of the culture select committee when it produced a report suggesting that FOBTs should be permitted at venues such as bingo halls and amusement arcades. The 2012 report could also have led to the highly addictive £100-per-spin machines being installed at motorway service stations across the country. The proposals were not adopted by David Cameron’s government.
Whittingdale later took aim at the common description of FOBTs as the “crack cocaine” of gambling, telling an industry conference: “I’m not so sure they’ve even the cannabis of gambling.” NHS surveys have consistently shown that FOBTs are associated with higher rates of addiction than other gambling products.
In 2014, during a debate in the House of Commons, Whittingdale said it was “virtually impossible” to lose large sums on the machines. However, a later study by the Gambling Commission found that FOBT players lost more than £1,000 on more than 233,000 occasions over a 10-month period.
The Conservative government ultimately cut the maximum stake from £100 to £2, branding the machines a “social blight”.
Labour’s Carolyn Harris, who chairs a cross-party group of MPs investigating gambling-related harm, said she was concerned at the change in ministerial oversight of the review.
“Given the new appointee has a history of being strongly supportive of the industry, I very much hope he will be focused on the evidence and not influenced by aggressive industry lobbying,” she said.
The change is thought to be due to the intensity of Huddleston’s workload overseeing efforts to alleviate the impact of Covid-19 on sport, tourism and heritage.
A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “The minister [Whittingdale] fully supports the comprehensive, evidence-led review of the gambling act to ensure that legislation is fit for the digital age.”
Liz Ritchie, of the charity Gambling with Lives, which was set up by families bereaved by gambling-related suicide, said: “The failures of successive ministers to right the wrongs of the 2005 Gambling Act and rein in the greed of the gambling industry has led to thousands of people dying through gambling related suicide and millions of lives torn apart. The new minister has a chance to put this right. Bereaved families will hold him to the task of preserving the lives of the next generation.”
Voting records show Whittingdale has consistently opposed measures to impose tighter control on the sector. In 2013 he voted not to require gambling companies to ban people who have registered for self-exclusion. In 2011 he voted against measures that would have prevented gambling companies from getting automatic planning permission to open shops in plots vacated by banks.
Matt Zarb-Cousin, of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, said: “Public support for gambling reform is overwhelming. So if the government’s going to get its gambling review right, hopefully John’s views have changed since 2012.”