SOUTHEND’S Labour group has called on the council to urge the Government to take action on betting machines branded the “the crack cocaine of gambling”.
Councillors will discuss a motion tomorrow to write to the Culture Secretary demanding Government action on fixed odds betting terminals, which allow gamblers to bet up to £300aminute in High Street betting shops.
Essex Police and Crime Commissioner Nick Alston and the managers of Southend charities the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Homeless Action Resource Project are among public figures to raise concerns over the machines, which have a maximum stake of £100, compared to £2 on fruit machines.
Anne Jones, one of two Labour councillors to put forward the motion on the Government to reduce the maximum stake to £2, said: “It’s very, very different from putting in 10p in a machine on Southend seafront.
“We’ve got an industry with bright lights and attraction and there is an element of instant gratification, but it’s very different when it is high stakes on the High Street.
“I’m very strongly opposed to fixed odds betting terminals.”
Each betting shop is only allowed four machines, which can pay out up to £500, but Mr Alston told the Echo last week bookies may be opening up more shops to get around this.
A number of former banks in Southend High Street, including Santander and Barclays, have been converted into betting shops as both are considered “financial institutions”, so no new planning permission is needed.
Southend Council still needs to grant a gambling licence in each case.
Mrs Jones, who represents Kursaal, also raised concerns betting shop chains target poorer areas and the increasing use of machines mean fewer people are employed by bookmakers.
James Duddridge, MP for Rochford and Southend East, backs the Government’s position that there is no need to change fixed odds betting terminal stakes.
He accused Labour of hypocrisy, pointing out it was the last government that raised the limit on the nubmer of machines per shop, from two to four, in 2005.
But Conservative councillors are yet to decide how to vote tomorrow.
Tory council leader Nigel Holdcroft said: “We have not, as yet, reached a decision on our response."
BOOKMAKERS have defended fixed odds betting terminals and say politicians are using them for point scoring.
A spokesman for the Association of British Bookmakers said: “The 170 people who work in betting shops in Southend are upset at seeing their livelihoods used as a political football, especially on the basis of statements that are simply untrue.
“Gaming machines have been played in betting shops for 12 years and have grown in popularity with our customers over that time.
“They are regulated by the Gambling Commission and local authorities and no shop in Southend can open without a licence from Southend Council.
“Southend Council has never revoked a licence for an existing betting shop.
“The Government recently held a consultation on the stakes and prizes on gaming machines in betting shops and out of 9,500 responses, the vast majority opposed a reduction of the stake to £2.
“The 20-second speed cycle for B2 gaming machines is actually one of the slowest speed cycles in the world. The speed cycle for machines in pubs, amusement arcades or bingo halls is just 2-3 seconds.
“While you could bet £100 in one go, the reality is hardly anyone does, and data from machines shows the average amount staked is just £7.55 with most people playing for an average of 10-15 minutes.”