By Martin Robinson
Rochdale is home to the most deprived estate in the country, with four out of five children growing up in poverty.
But such hardship did not stop residents of the Lancashire former mill town from gambling £72million on high stakes betting machines last year, chasing jackpots of up to £500.
The total, the equivalent of £340 for every man, woman and child in the town, will fuel the claim that casino-style fixed odd betting terminals (FOBTs), described as the ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling, risk causing serious addiction among the poor.
Frightening: The people of Rochdale, one of Britain's most deprived areas, gambled £72million on fixed odds betting terminals in the last year, which are as addictive as crack cocaine
Bennett began playing the machines at the Glasgow shop where she worked
using her staff card, before progressing to using her own money. Soon
she was embezzling from the shop by cashing in fake winning slips.
At trial, Bennett, 27, received three years’ probation and was ordered to get counselling and do 225 hours of community service.
Another case of someone who has become hooked on the machines is a father who wishes to remain anonymous to protect his family.
Neil, a married father of three, aged 51 and hooked on playing
electronic roulette in high street betting shops.
He bet £1,000 some weeks and has gambled £90,000 to £100,000 away.
He lost his own business, almost lost his wife, and although he has
found a job in advertising he is struggling to keep his £400,000 house
in Enfield, North London.
‘I have always enjoyed a gamble on the horses, but my problems started when those machines came into the high street. Once you get started, you can’t imagine the buzz and adrenaline.
Neil joined Gamblers Anonymous 18 months ago and says he has now controlled his gambling.
In Rochdale the economy has been hit so hard by the recession that even McDonald’s has left the centre. The town’s Falinge estate has 72 per cent unemployed and 59 per cent with no employable skills.
The housing estate was named the most deprived area in England for a fifth consecutive year this month.
More than 200 children on the estate are growing up in poverty, with around 800 people claiming council tax or housing benefits.
People living in Falinge are not expected to live beyond the age of 69 - while those living just two miles away in Norden and Banford can expected to live for 10 years longer.
The council's own statistics show Falinge also has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the country, with one in 10 girls giving birth under the age of 18.
Yet there are 69 of the machines spread across 19 betting shops in the town. They allow players to gamble as much as £100 a time in games such as virtual roulette.
Coun Linda Robinson, chairman of the council's health and overview committee, said: 'I have said for a long time that we have become a nation of gamblers.
'You find that every programme on TV is asking you to ring this number for a chance to win something.
'That is where it starts and people get hooked on gambling. I am against there being too many of these machines in one area but you have to be able to give people the choice.
'But some of these people who are making the choice to gamble on these machines cannot afford it.'
Bookmakers deny targeting vulnerable communities, saying the claim is ‘false and offensive’.
But in the poorest areas of the UK more than £5.6billion was staked on 4,454 fixed odds betting machines last year.
In Liverpool Riverside, which has the fourth highest rate of child poverty in the country, more than £197million was staked on 189 machines in 52 betting shops. Last night the constituency’s Labour MP, Louise Ellman, urged the Government to review the laws surrounding the machines.
She said: ‘It’s a sad fact that poorer people use these machines more than others. It’s a very disturbing and worrying trend.’
Adrian Parkinson of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, which collated the figures, said: ‘The high stakes and speed of play have led to the machines being called “the crack cocaine of gambling”.'
‘You see people on the machines for hours on end. No matter how big the win or the loss they keep coming back for more.’
Last year Channel 4’s Dispatches found William Hill netted an estimated £416million a year from FOBTs, while Ladbrokes made around £359million, Coral £290million and Paddy Power £41million.
The Campaign for Fairer Gambling is urging the industry to make FOBTs less profitable by reducing the maximum stake to £2.
Liberal Democrat MP Tessa Munt wants a change in planning laws to stop the proliferation of betting shops. She said: ‘I would go further and suggest that all betting shops should be on the first floor and not on ground level.’ Earlier this month Sports Minister Hugh Robertson ruled out taking immediate action against the fixed odds machines.
Mr Robertson insisted the Government was ‘seriously concerned about problem gambling’, but told the Commons there was a lack of evidence that the terminals were a major problem.
Almost £195million was staked on 131 machines in deprived Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency in North-East London.
In another deprived constituency, Bethnal Green, East London, £243million of bets were placed on 164 high-stakes machines.
2. West Ham £227,052,280
3. Bermondsey and Old Southwark £227,000,000
4. Brent Central £216,240,267
5. Liverpool Riverside £197,198,213
6. Hackney North and Stoke Newington £194,616,240
7. Manchester Central £189,613,667
8. Camberwell and Peckham £189,210,233
9. East Ham £183,804,227
10. Vauxhall £178,398,220
*By parliamentary constituency (in millions)
FOBTs were introduced in British betting shops in 2001 under the previous Labour Government, after the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, abolished duty on individual bets in favour of a tax on bookmakers’ gross profits.
Ever since many Labour MPs have campaigned for it to be reversed.
Had there not been a change in law, bookmakers would not have installed FOBTs as the tiny profit margin they make per stake would have been wiped out by the duty. Experts say FOBTs have stopped thousands of bookmakers from going out of business.
Gambling industry figures show that each FOBT machine earns a betting shop just under £1,000 per week. As bookies across the country have on average four machines – the maximum allowed – FOBTs are earning a bookmaker about £4,000 per week before tax and deductions.
The Campaign for Fairer Gambling is calling for the industry to make the machines less profitable by reducing the maximum stake to £2.
Betting shops are classified as financial services, meaning that if a bank or similar business closes, a betting shop can open in the property unchallenged.
Adrian Parkinson, Campaign for Fairer Gambling consultant said: 'The high stakes and speed of play have led to the machines being called "the crack cocaine of gambling", and the Gambling Act 2005 limits each betting shop to four FOBTs - so bookies leapfrog regulations by opening up as many shops as possible, which is why we get clustering, especially in poorer areas as our research has shown.'
A spokesman for the Association of British Bookmakers said betting shops are heavily regulated and socially responsible businesses.
They added: 'According to independent planning reports they add to the vibrancy and vitality of the UK's high streets.
'The industry employs 45,000 people and supports a further 60,000 jobs in the economy.
'Our members pay £1 billion in taxes, far more than any other comparable retail businesses.'
Gamblers Anonymous can give help and support to people with gambling problems, for more information visit www.gamblersanonymous.org.uk