Betting addiction charities have reacted with dismay to the appointment of the “pro-gambling” John Whittingdale as David Cameron’s new Culture Secretary.
The appointment of a former political secretary to Margaret Thatcher – seen as a victory for Tory right-wingers who want more influence over the party leadership – is already proving divisive due to Mr Whittingdale’s views on the BBC and equal rights.
But gambling reform campaigners are also concerned his promotion is either “inept” or a “deliberate” move to weaken gambling regulation, given his history of supporting the gambling industry’s use of highly addictive fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs).
The casino-style machines can swallow up to £100 every 20 seconds and have been linked to crime and anti-social behaviour in some areas. Their spread across Britain’s high streets has led campaigners to label the touch-screen roulette machine as the “crack cocaine of gambling”.
Yet in his previous role as chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Mr Whittingdale has repeatedly favoured reduced regulation of the addictive machines – including backing recommendations that gambling laws be relaxed, to reduce the limit on the number of machines each bookmaker can operate.
In 2013 he flew in the face of a growing consensus when he told a gambling industry conference he favoured a light regulatory approach.
He said: “People talk of [FOBT machines] being the crack cocaine of gambling. I’m not so sure they’ve even the cannabis of gambling.”
Mr Whittingdale is also on record supporting calls for casinos, bingo halls and adult gaming centres – such as those found in many motorway service stations, which are currently banned from operating the controversial machines – to be allowed to operate FOBTs.
In 2012, he shocked campaigners by backing the removal of the limit on the number £100-per-spin machines allowed in bookmakers. At the time he said that gambling was a “legitimate entertainment activity” and that laws to protect consumers were “outdated”.
Mr Whittingdale became Margaret Thatcher’s Political Secretary aged 28 and was greatly influence by her free-market views.
Last year Mr Whittingdale was one of just six MPs to vote against equal-pay legislation, which would require all medium-sized companies to declare their average pay for male and female employees. He has also voted against LGBT equality, including moves to lower the age of same-sex consent and to legalise gay marriage.
His appointment has also been accompanied by speculation that he will take a hard stance against the BBC, with some suggesting he will “go to war” with the broadcaster. He has previously been a vocal critic of the licence fee, saying: “It’s very regressive, expensive to collect, and you get these ridiculous letters threatening you with having your nails pulled out if you don’t admit you’ve got a TV… It’s a poll tax. Actually it’s worse than a poll tax.”
Adrian Parkinson, spokesman for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, said: “Putting a man in charge of gambling and FOBTs with the views Whittingdale holds is either a completely inept decision on the part of David Cameron or deliberate.”
The charity Rethink Gambling said it was “concerned” at his appointment.
David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham who has campaigned against the spread of FOBTs, told The Independent: “The lack of regulation of FOBTs causes huge damage in communities across the UK, particularly in more deprived areas like the one I represent. It’s disappointing that the new minister doesn’t seem to recognise how our failure to regulate these highly addictive machines is ruining lives.”
A Department for Culture, Media and Sport spokesperson said the Government’s policy “remains the same” on FOBTs.
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