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I would like to raise two issues related to the Budget, one of them good news and one of them bad, and I would be grateful if the Minister responding to the debate addressed both.
For the good news, I refer to a brilliant article about a range of desperately needed changes in the gig economy by Pippa Crerar in The Guardian on Friday. Her article suggests that we will finally see the end of exploitative “pay between assignment” contracts. In theory, those contracts guarantee a basic level of pay when an agency worker is between assignments and out of work. The reality is that staff are often held on those contracts even if they have been working in the same job for years, without such a gap between assignments.
The Communication Workers Union has led the way, striking a deal with BT that will see thousands of employees taking home the pay packets they deserve from BT call centres. Pippa’s article suggests that we will see the end of these deceitful contracts once and for all. Will the Minister confirm whether that is correct and, if so, what the timeframe for action is? When can we expect a comprehensive response to the Taylor review, which is now long overdue?
My reason for speaking today, however, relates to a different form of exploitation. Like many Members across the House, I was utterly dismayed to learn that the Government do not plan to introduce the new maximum stake of £2 for fixed odds betting terminals until October 2019, and their choosing to bow to pressure from the gambling industry, rather than listen to the legitimate concerns of one of their own Ministers, speaks volumes about just how badly misplaced their priorities are on this matter.
I do not come at this as somebody who is not used to gambling or who comes from a family that does not like to gamble. For most of my childhood, I could be seen on racecourses and dog tracks with my Irish family, who kept greyhounds, and my dad, to the last week of his life, spent his retirement with a copy of the Daily Mirror on the table in an attempt to spot the winners. But betting shops today are not about a fiver each way on the 3 o’clock at Cheltenham, as individuals are staking up to £300 a minute on FOBTs. That could not be further from the reality of my childhood or my dad and uncle’s lives.
Through FOBTs, bookmakers have facilitated a form of gambling at its most irresponsible, addictive and exploitative. With 43% of FOBT users thought to be problem or at-risk gamblers, it is no surprise that these machines have been called the “crack cocaine” of gambling. Even the Government have described them as a “social blight”.
We already know that FOBT machines can have a truly devastating impact on the lives of individuals, but they are even worse than that. In my constituency of Mitcham and Morden, they come hand in hand with a worrying range of related problems for my local area, because as FOBTs have grown more prevalent in the betting shops around the town centre, the culture of reckless gambling they promote has contributed to an epidemic of drinking, drug taking and antisocial behaviour.
In many cases, that activity now takes place inside the betting shops and bookmakers have become hubs for illicit activities and antisocial behaviour. That has seen local businesses suffer and driven customers away from a town centre that has so much to offer, but which some now worry has become less safe.
Just this week, I have had to write to one of the bookmakers in Mitcham town centre, Betfred, concerning reports of drug use, drug dealing and stolen goods being sold inside the shop. Mitcham town centre, like many town centres, faces many challenges in the retail sector, but it is not helped by the attraction of people to these bookmakers in a confined area at the same time that the number of police has fallen. No longer do we have a safer neighbourhood town centre team of police, so the behaviour gets worse and more women do not want to bring their children to the town centre, as they would see street drinking, brawling and men urinating in the street.
I am sure that my constituency is not unique in experiencing those issues. Betting shops are disproportionately clustered around some of the most deprived parts of the country, and the proliferation of FOBTs has served only to exacerbate many existing problems. That is why I must urge the Government seriously to reconsider their decision to delay the implementation of the £2 maximum stake: the longer it takes to bring an end to this horrible and exploitative form of gambling, the more unnecessary harm will be done to vulnerable individuals and to our town centres.
Implementing the new maximum stake might not bring an immediate end to the problems facing our communities, as those problems might already have gripped them too tightly, but it represents a vital step in the right direction—a step that we should not hesitate to take any longer.