The government has been accused of prioritising bookies’ jobs over those who suffer addiction, amid an ongoing dispute over machines dubbed the “crack cocaine of gambling”.
Following the recent budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond has been accused of postponing a cut to the maximum stakes for fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) from May next year to October 2019.
The controversy prompted the resignation of sports minister Tracey Crouch, a prominent campaigner for a crackdown on the machines, who hit out at an “unjustifiable” delay.
Mr Hammond, appearing before the House of Commons’ Treasury committee on Monday, has now faced claims of giving preference to the gambling industry in implementing the cut of FOBT maximum stakes from £100 to £2.
Committee chair Nicky Morgan, highlighting how Ms Crouch used her resignation letter to note two people take their own lives every day due to gambling-related problems, told the chancellor: “It is the case the government has prioritised the preservation of jobs in the gambling industry over the addiction of those who suffer from these machines.”
She spoke after Mr Hammond stressed he has “absolutely no love for these machines” – with the cut in maximum stake likely to eliminate the presence of FOBTs in high street bookies – but told MPs the government “has to manage this process in an orderly and sensible way”.
“We’re looking at a measure which will have very significant impact on the industry,” he said.
“The industry’s own estimate is that between 15,000 to 21,000 jobs will be lost as a consequence of the elimination of fixed odds betting terminals.
“Members of the committee might take a view about that estimate, but it’s very clear there will be a significant number of jobs lost, that there will be a significant number of high street betting shops that will close.
“That is people that will have to go through the process of losing their jobs.
“By giving a sensible period of time for this to happen, we’ll be able to ensure as many of possible of those job losses are dealt with through voluntary redundancy processes rather than compulsory redundancy processes.
“As ever with difficult decisions the government takes, there has to be a balancing of the different interests involved and the different concerns.”
Mrs Morgan told Mr Hammond his promotion of an “orderly transition” will not help “the expected 300 people a day who may end up taking their lives, suffer mental health problems from gambling addiction”.
But the chancellor told the committee: “There are very many social harms that we know about and very many things that drive mental health problems and, sadly, occasionally suicides.”
He also suggested there are other areas, such as the tobacco or alcohol industries, where further government action could be taken but isn’t because of “wider impacts”.
Mr Hammond was also challenged by Mrs Morgan over how, in the government’s impact assessment on reducing FOBT maximum stakes, it was stated how it would take nine to 12 months to implement from May this year.
The chancellor responded: “October 2019 will represent a period of 12 months from the budget statement.”
He also denied having been aware of an earlier budget draft that had April 2019 as the date for introducing the crackdown on FOBTs.
Yet, Mr Hammond added: “Obviously I’m not involved in the drafting of documents within the Treasury, so I can’t comment on what may or may not have been drafted by officials.”
Earlier on Monday, Ms Crouch tweeted a picture of her saying goodbye to her former staff at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Downing Street later announced Ms Crouch’s replacement will be Eastleigh MP Mims Davies.