Iain Duncan Smith welcomes Government climbdown on fixed-odds betting terminals

20th November 2018

Having been one of the leaders of the campaign, Iain Duncan Smith welcomes the Government's climbdown on bringing forward the date of the cut in minimum stake for fixed-odds betting terminals.

I want to summarise some of the issues relating to the amendments standing in my name and those of many others, including, most importantly, my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan)—they are hon. Friends in this case, although I am not sure they will want to be pursuing that one further. This genuinely was a very cross-party process. Interestingly, the list of names of Members who support the amendments tells us everything we need to know about the strength of feeling that existed in the House.

We accept the Government’s change, to which I shall come back in a moment, but it is worth reminding ourselves that this process has had a long gestation. I remember having conversations with my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) probably two years ago, at least—

It was a long time ago, and even then we discussed the specific problems with fixed odds betting terminals, along with wider issues. There was this long process of gestation, and then the hon. Members for Swansea East and for Inverclyde got involved and the all-party group was formed. I congratulate them on managing to get things on to a much more even keel in respect of this being a cross-party process, in which I played a part.

We arrived at the point when we had finally persuaded the Government, with massive internal support from my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, that it was necessary for us to make this change, given that these machines, although not alone in this, were peculiarly addictive. It was accepted that they led to a higher level of addiction and had dramatically changed the nature of betting shops. Years ago, when gambling was liberalised under a previous Government, I said, given my involvement in some of the studies, that I thought that was a mistake. When it comes to widening and liberalising gambling, the situation is not like in any other industry. It really is not just about jobs and businesses, because change involves people making decisions that are not about positive life outcomes. Thus, the situation needs to be treated separately. I remember the discussions about super-casinos, when I said that I was appalled by the idea that establishing a super-casino would somehow regenerate a town. I said, “It won’t regenerate the town. It will make it descend, and everything will then hinge around the behaviour of people in and around the massive casino.” That is by the by; liberalisation became the process.

I was really pleased when the Government finally agreed to reduce the stake to £2. My goodness, what a peculiar argument we had. We heard the Gambling Commission and the gambling industry asking many times why we would not go to £30 rather than £2. The slow extraction of teeth in this process was fascinating to behold. The worst bit for me and, I am sure, for my colleagues, was hearing the endless testimony about the families’ lives that had been blighted by this terrible addiction. Even though I was opposed to FOBTs, I had not been aware of the real human harm being caused, because one does not see it, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford knows, that was the real driver behind why we wanted to act. It was really quite moving to hear the stories at first hand and to see families’ dedication to never allowing others to get into such a situation.

I was really proud of my Government for making the decision and accepting that there was a need for change. We thought the process was done. I argued for making the change this October, because there was no point in hanging around. I thought that we did not need to worry about the gambling industry, because it would make whatever changes were necessary and it gets a lot of money anyway, so I was not that bothered about it. I remember the discussion about why we were not acting in October, and we reluctantly agreed that perhaps 1 April would give the industry time. The next thing we heard was that the date had gone back to 1 April 2020 —the following year—which was never agreed.

All of a sudden, the Government then said that they had agreed to make the change in October 2019, which they said was an advance of six months, and we said was a delay of six months. We established that the gambling industry would make well over a billion pounds during that six months. The real problem was why there was a delay, as it was clear that, as the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) said on behalf of the Opposition, the gambling report said nine to 12 months, and nine to 12 months from the date of the original decision took us to approximately April or May the next year. All that was part of the consideration. We had debates about why the date had gone back and, although I will not make a big thing about this, I did say to my right hon. and hon. Friends in government that they needed to put it back to 1 April. At the time of the Budget, their date was rejected.

I am genuinely sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford eventually had to make her statement. I have resigned, and it is not an easy process, but the worst thing is when someone resigns only to find that days later the Government then actually do what they were being asked to do internally. I know it is politics and that all things change, but I say to my hon. Friend that all is not lost, in the sense that she has gained the respect—if she did not already have it—of a number of people in this House. More important, I hope, is the recognition that people of honour and decency in a Government can never be long outside that Government. I therefore hope that the Government pay attention and rectify the situation as soon as possible.

I was very keen to get the change brought forward, but I was told that there was no way on earth that we could force the Government to bring it forward, because by convention we could not bring forward a tax, because it is a tax rise. I thank enormously the Public Bill Office and the Clerks, who helped us to figure out that although we may not be able to raise a tax, we sure as ever can make sure that the Government can never raise a tax. Once the amendment was tabled and everyone signed it, the position was obvious. Our amendments and new clause have been the key driver modifying the Government’s opinion on this matter, which is never a bad thing. I am glad that they have listened. I fully accept that my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary recognises that this is the right thing to do.

In agreeing that we will not press our amendments and new clause to a vote, for obvious reasons—the Government are committed to making the changes, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary on doing so—I should say that I understand that a report to be published tomorrow that will show that gambling addiction among young people is now spiking at its highest ever level. That report is not out yet, so I guess it is not reportable, but it will show the very thing we have been on about: there is a genuine and serious problem that strikes at the heart of the lives of those who can least afford it. This addiction to gambling—we are given on television the constant sense that unless someone is a smart, clever, successful individual who gambles, they must be odd and pointless, and we see the idea that a person is successful because they can do the odds and get them right—is perverse and damaging.

I say to my hon. Friends and colleagues in this campaign that it is not over. We now have to turn our attention to the next level, as it is high time that we looked carefully at what is going on through the advertising and promotion of an industry that may well damage huge numbers of lives. In accepting the Government’s position, I put down a simple point: I will continue to campaign with my colleagues and move on to the next level. It is time for us to bring the issue under control, and this is only the start.

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Interventions

I fully accept what the Minister says about the reputation of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), but does he agree that these things should not have necessitated her departure when she was doing such a good job? I do not expect the Minister to express an opinion, just that it would have been better otherwise.

I clearly hear my right hon. Friend’s point, and I have fairly set out the chain of events that led to this moment. As I said, I enormously respect my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford and her decision. When I was first elected to Parliament, an elderly constituent sent me a quote by John Quincy Adams:

“Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

On this occasion, of course, my hon. Friend is not alone, and I am grateful for her work in this area.

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