UK slashes maximum stake on gambling machines

by Roland JACKSON
The decision to slash the maximum stake on gambling machines will come as a blow to betting companies

Britain will slash the maximum stake on controversial gambling machines to �2 ($2.7, 2.3 euros) per spin, the government said Thursday, as it vowed "to protect the most vulnerable in society" from harmful losses.

The biggest wager for popular fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), which allow gamblers to bet every 20 seconds, will be cut sharply from �100, the department for digital, culture, media and sport announced.

The new rules for the popular electronic casino-style games, like roulette and bingo, followed a government review.

The machines -- dubbed the crack cocaine of the gambling world by campaigners owing to their addictive nature and escalating cost -- have long faced fierce criticism from opposition MPs and religious leaders with many calling for the maximum �2 bet.

"When faced with the choice of halfway measures or doing everything we can to protect vulnerable people, we have chosen to take a stand," said culture minister Matt Hancock in Thursday's statement.

- 'Social blight' -

"These machines are a social blight and prey on some of the most vulnerable in society, and we are determined to put a stop to it and build a fairer society for all," Hancock added.

The government also announced measures to tighten online betting protections and television advertising and raise awareness about potential harm, and will launch a probe into the public health impact of betting.

"Problem gambling can devastate individuals' lives, families and communities," said sports minister Tracey Crouch.

"It is right that we take decisive action now to ensure a responsible gambling industry that protects the most vulnerable in our society."

Campaigners celebrated the announcement following a long-running protest.

Tom Watson, deputy leader of the opposition Labour party, told BBC radio that he was "absolutely delighted", adding it would "help alleviate some of the terrible misery caused by problem gambling in Britain".

Bishop of St Albans Alan Smith -- who campaigned on behalf of the Church of England over the issue -- said it was the "right" decision.

"Fixed-odds betting terminals are a scourge on high streets that have taken advantage of the vulnerable for too long," he said.

Britain's Gambling Commission regulator had already recommended in March for the maximum stake for the terminals to be set at or below �30.

The sector has warned for some time that high-street betting shops could close as a result of such a move.

Bookmaker William Hill added Thursday that it could close about 900 branches -- or 38 percent of its estate.

However, shares in gambling firms rallied on Thursday as investors shrugged off the UK decision to focus on brighter news from the key United States market this week.

Shares in bookmaker Paddy Power Betfair jumped 2.5 percent to 8,455 pence in late morning deals on London's flat FTSE 100 index.

On the second-tier FTSE 250, Ladbrokes owner GVC Holdings saw its share price rise 1.0 percent to 925 pence and peer William Hill gained 1.1 percent to 321 pence.

- Sunlit uplands -

Markets.com analyst Neil Wilson said that there had been a "limited reaction" because investors had priced in the likely maximum betting cap as a worst-case scenario.

At the same time, the sector remains boosted after the US Supreme Court struck down a federal ban earlier this week on sports gambling.

That paved the way for states to legalise gambling on baseball, basketball, American football and other sports -- a business worth tens of billions of dollars per year.

"Now the sunlit uplands of the US market beckon," Wilson told AFP.

The decision to slash the maximum stake on gambling machines will come as a blow to betting companies