"Total desolation": Welwyn Hatfield's £24 million loss on gambling machines

PUBLISHED: 21:00 14 October 2017

A fixed odds betting terminal. Photo: ARCHANT LIBRARY.

A fixed odds betting terminal. Photo: ARCHANT LIBRARY.

Archant

Fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) are casino-style machines that accept low-stakes bets to play games such as roulette, and have been criticised for their addictive potential.

There are 73 of the machines in the local authority, one of the highest numbers compared to surrounding areas.

The government is currently reviewing proposals for further regulation.

Campaigners such as Stop the FOBTs are calling for the maximum stake to be reduced to £2 a turn.

According to estimates from Stop the FOBTs, gamblers in Welwyn Hatfield lost £3,633,411 in 2016, with a total of £24,615,815 lost between 2008-2016.

They also estimate that there are 73 FOBTs in the local authority, one of the highest numbers in Hertfordshire.

The WHT spoke to a recovering gambling addict from Hertfordshire who spoke anonymously about the impact that FOBTs have had on his life.

“I never really had any problem with any other form of gambling, but FOBTs are a whole different ball game.”

A roulette game on a FOBT currently allows a stake of up to £100 per spin, which takes 20 seconds to complete.

“I myself have lost £1,000 in 20 minutes,” said the man, who had gambling problems for around six years.

He said that the bookies pull in punters with free offers as a way of getting people hooked.

“I’ve been in gambling of one kind or another for around 15 years, and I’ve never seen anything like these machines.

“They can change someone who is reasonably level-headed into someone with almost an obsessional, zombie-like need to gamble.

“It feels like you are spiralling out of control, but you can’t stop.”

The man in his 30s, who works in financial services, described how the addiction took over his life.

“In the midst of it, there was nothing more devastating. Total desolation.

“Numerous times when I was on these machines I wasn’t able to pay the rent. I’d quite happily lie about my whereabouts and finances. It caused massive rifts in my family.”

Debbie Rixon, chief executive of Citizens Advice Welwyn Hatfield, told the WHT: “We know from national data that there is a clear connection between gambling and a decline in well-being.

“Many of the clients coming to us to discuss gambling have developed a mental illness as a result. Some were in such debt that they could not afford food and utilities.”

The ex-addict we spoke to emphasised that the issue cuts across all social classes.

“There’s a perception that it’s the poorer or less educated members of society [who get addicted] but either way it becomes a hand-to-mouth existence whether you’re on £7 an hour or £70,000 a year. I was earning a decent living, but I scraped by on a pittance.”

Yet at one stage he calculated that he had lost more than his total earnings for that year.

“In the midst of it, there was nothing more devastating. Total desolation. All your hard work and efforts go down the swanee.”

The man believes that the key to recovery is accepting responsibility for his actions, and spoke out in order to help others take control.

Welwyn Hatfield MP Grant Shapps told the WHT: “The government has previously taken steps to confront this, but I know that Ministers recognise that more must be done in order to strike the right balance.

“Whilst it’s only right that those who wish to gamble responsibly are free to do so, I think we need to absolutely make sure that the necessary protections are in place to stop people, such as the young and vulnerable, from being harmed or exploited by gambling.”

Labour council leader Kieran Thorpe said: “Labour’s position is clear, we will reduce the maximum stake available on these terminals, but the government must urgently provide local councils with the powers to curb the growth of this unfair and harmful style of gambling.”

However, a spokesperson for William Hill told the Welwyn Hatfield Times that reducing the stakes is not guaranteed to work.

“To date the research [the Government] has commissioned has clearly stated that stake cuts will do little or nothing to alleviate problem gambling and it would be more effective to focus on data gathering, identifying harmful behaviour and targeting of those that suffer from the problem.

William Hill currently fund research and gambling addiction support organisations as part of addressing the problem.

They are developing algorithms that should be able to recognise warning signs in people’s gambling behaviour, helping staff judge when to step in.

“There are a number of activities we undertake to warn people of the dangers of excessive gambling including information on the gaming machines, shop broadcasts, leaflets and funding of advertising. We also provide a number of tools such as self exclusion.”

Citizens Advice Welwyn Hatfield offer free, confidential advice onwww.whcab.org.uk/cawh/ or on 03444 111444.

If you think you may have a gambling problem, contact www.GamCare.org.uk for support.

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