MP WRITES: Fixed odds machines need regulating

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This week Parliament debated and voted on proposals to toughen up regulations onbetting shops and fixed odd betting terminals.

It’s over 50 years since Parliament, through the Harold Macmillan Government, made it legal for betting shops to open on the high streets of Britain.

This was shockingly controversial in its day. But the Macmillan Government wanted to take illegal gambling off the streets, put an end to the “bookie runners” in most towns and ensure that problem gambling and addiction didn’t get out of hand.

Many people in Hartlepool might not have stepped foot inside a betting shop.

Many might have a flutter on Grand National Day. When I was a student, I had a holiday job with John Joyce in the town.

You used to meet real characters from both the punters and the women – it usually was women – behind the counter.

I’d like to think I learned how to put the kettle on and make a real cup of tea for the staff and punters while I was there.

I thoroughly enjoyed it – I recall with affection Sheila and Tracy at Golden Flatts or the formidable and great Margaret at Wynyard Road, who can still leave people awestruck when she does her impression of Tina Turner singing “Simply the Best”.

I went from taking bets on the counter, to settling bets and then acting as a relief manager when regular managers had their days off. It was a good lesson in work and in life and it taught me a lot, not least how to quickly do a 10 pence round robin (non-runner, 5/2 and loser) when the punter is demanding his or her winnings. (The answer, I believe, is £1.30 – I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong).

Even when I was working at John Joyce, new initiatives were being put in place. I remember Sunday racing coming in during my time. Football betting really took off during that time, to the extent where some shops probably took more in football than in horse racing on a Saturday as well as the introduction of betting machines.

That fast-paced innovation has continued. Betting shops now have the so-called fixed odd betting terminals, and it is concerns over this that Parliament has debated this week.

These are noisy machines with music and flashing lights that can almost hypnotise you into gambling big money.

Virtual roulette and blackjack machines can mean that a punter can walk into a bookies, not having to interact with a human being behind the counter at all, and be given the opportunity to bet £100 every 20 seconds.

You don’t even need cash – you can handily provide the machine with credit card details. It is little wonder that these machines have been described as the “crack cocaine of gambling”, providing greater incidences of problem gambling and with evidence that more and more people are taking out pay day loans to fund this habit.

As I said, I worked in a bookies and wouldn’t want to return to the days of the 1950s and outright bans.

That would be ridiculous and unworkable. I don’t believe in banning things purely because certain people don’t like them. That’s not really the British way.

I also don’t believe in a golden age of the bookies, when people had a light flutter and there was no such thing as addictive or problem gambling.

There have always been problems – I saw for myself on a Friday one man blow all his wages for the week on the dog racing.

But the addictive qualities of these fixed odd machines and the devastation that they can cause surely must mean that they should be regulated much more than they presently are.