Irish Times - Dublin,Ireland
Should fixed odds betting terminals be allowed in bookies' shops? Sharon Byrne supports their introduction, Pat Rabbitte opposes.
YES: There are no valid grounds to ban fixed odds betting terminals machines from licensed betting shops, writes Sharon Byrne
THERE ARE no valid grounds on which to ban fixed odds betting terminals (FOBT) machines from licensed betting shops. In fact there are more reasons to specifically allow them in betting shops than in any other venue. But the question of FOBTs cannot and should not be taken in isolation, as some commentators are attempting to do.
For the first time we are about to have a healthy, informed debate on the future of gambling in this country which will hopefully allow the State recover the millions in revenue lost to offshore internet gambling, the embracing of new technologies, the regulation of private members' clubs and the safeguarding of funding for the horse and greyhound racing industries.
Tax contributions from betting shops have helped make our races the envy of Europe, with greater prize money, the best horses and a much higher profile. In 2007, Irish bookies paid €36.5 million in tax to support the racing industry. This is 1 per cent of turnover and is borne by the bookies themselves rather than passed to the consumer.
However, customers, particularly young punters, have been voting with their feet for several years and the rise of internet gambling, telephone betting and betting exchanges in particular reflects the demand for a more varied betting experience. Much of this money ends up in companies licensed offshore, making no contribution to our exchequer.
From a social perspective too, these forms of gambling are problematic. A laptop and a credit card is all a punter needs to lose thousands of euro in a single sitting. The growth in private members' clubs in recent years further facilitates gambling on a 24-hour basis.
Horse Racing Ireland has estimated the current shortfall in betting duty to be in the region of €30 million. To put this figure into perspective, it is estimated using Paddy Power's accounts for 2007 that around €15 million of its profits are derived from Irish customers spending money outside the State through its online gambling business, with no contribution to the exchequer.
We have proposed a number of measures to address this shortfall. Primarily, steps need to be taken to ensure this Irish money is not lost overseas, and to capture duty on gambling receipts by regulating private casinos. Secondly, the introduction of FOBTs in betting shops will help further bridge the gap on a sustainable long-term basis. These machines would further satisfy the demand for technology, complementing the virtual races and self-service terminals which have been available for some time, yet in a much more controlled environment.
Much has been thrown in the face of these machines. Technologically, they are completely different to the "one-armed bandits" their detractors compare them to. They do not facilitate gaming like slot machines, where the outcome is influenced by the actions of the punter. FOBTs are popular because they return over 97 per cent of their stake monies.
Pat Rabbitte has repeatedly made erroneous use of UK data to claim that the introduction of FOBTs here will result in greater gambling addiction problems. There is no such evidence. In fact, a 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey on behalf of the Gambling Commission found that the level of problem gambling in the UK, at 0.6 per cent of the adult population, was unchanged from the previous survey which had been carried out in 1999, before the introduction of FOBTs.
This survey was conducted by the independent National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) and peer reviewed by international experts. It did not support the view that new technologies led to increased problem gambling. In all 9,000 adults surveyed, only 3 per cent of gamblers in the past year were found to have played FOBTs and NatCen identified only 24 individuals who were problem gamblers and who included FOBTs in their portfolio of gambling activities.
Rabbitte has also cited a UK survey which shows the use of FOBTs among problem gamblers at 40 per cent. He omits to mention that it also shows 80 per cent of problem gamblers bet on horses, 47 per cent bet on dogs, 38 per cent on football and 18 per cent on numbers betting. The NatCen survey also found that 84 per cent of customers who use FOBTs play only once a week or less.