Machines in east London bookies took £1.5bn last year

Pic: Sam Leighton

Tyrone has missed his train. Turning right out of Whitechapel station, it’s just a few steps to a branch of William Hill, one of seven gambling outlets on this short stretch of road. With time to kill, he’s put £20 on the snooker, and now stands in the dingy basement, surrounded by men (and only men), staring up at the big screens.

“If I’m passing through, I’ll pop in here,” he says. “I first went in a bookies when I was 17. The dogs are my thing, and the football on the weekends.”

A man walks past and feeds a ten-pound note into an electronic fruit machine, known in the industry as a Fixed Odds Betting Terminal. A cacophony of light and sound draws two men to stand up impulsively and watch him play.

“That’s one thing I don’t do: the machines. A lot of people lose a lot of money on those things just like that,” he snaps his fingers. “You can win, but you can lose a lot more.”

He’s right. Figures released last week by campaign group Fairer Gambling reveal the truly shocking amount of money gambled on fixed odds terminals last year. Bethnal Green and Bow, the local constituency and one of the most deprived in the country, topped the table spending £243,270,300 across 164 machines. That’s just shy of a quarter of a billion pounds – and a staggering average of £1,483,355 per machine.

Local politicians recognise that this is an acute problem. Rushanara Ali, the constituency’s MP, was one of thirteen to sign an open letter last week urging the government not to lift the cap of four betting terminals per betting shop. The other signees included Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington; Meg Hillier, MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch; and Jim Fitzpatrick, MP for Poplar and Limehouse.

These constituencies came sixth, twelfth and thirteenth in the list of highest spenders. In total, over £1.5bn was spent across all the ELL constituencies.

Joan Ruddock, Labour MP for Lewisham and Deptford, recently criticised the gambling industry for “preying on the vulnerable and desperate”. Across the fifty constituencies recording the highest rates of unemployment, £5.5bn was spent on these machines. Flip that to the lowest fifty, and the figure drops to just over £1.4bn. Henley, a constituency with just 600 benefit claimants, does not have a single betting terminal.

In the Tory camp, John Redwood, MP for rural Wokingham, was unforgiving in his analysis: “Poor people… have time on their hands. My voters are too busy working hard to make a reasonable income.” In a very narrow sense, he’s right: time-on-hands is a factor. But with pressure growing from the bookies’ lobby to deregulate the sector, and Conservative MP Philip Davies failing to declare £10,000 in benefits from companies with links to the gambling industry, one must be extra vigilant in questioning whether more betting terminals could ever be a good thing.  [We would like to clarify that these benefits were legimimate and were all properly declared in the register of members interests. We unreservedly apologise for any suggestion we made to the contrary and have linked to the exchange that took place with the Guardian newspaper on the subject.]

Back in William Hill, Tyrone explains that he lost his job in IT support just before Christmas, and is on the dole while looking for work.  He’s lived in a hostel for the past year, and goes into his old office voluntarily a few hours a week: “To keep me going, you know”.

“I got mates out there who are supported by the system. Right now they’ll just be getting up, that’s their normal thing, but I can’t do that. In the morning, about seven or half seven, even if I’m not working, I’m up. I think ‘what are you doing in bed?’

“As we watch, a man feeds a third tenner in 15 minutes into the machine. He’s playing roulette, spreading 20p bets across the table. He places roughly £4 a round, and the pot balance fluctuates wildly with each spin. This fast-paced play has seen fixed odds machines dubbed “the crack cocaine of gambling.” With maximum bets of £100 and rounds lasting just 20 seconds, things can get expensive.

He taps the screen frantically – one last shot. “What’s your number?” Tyrone asks. “I’ll give you some tips for the weekend.” Before adding sheepishly “but I’ll have to call you from a phone box; I haven’t paid my bill.”

The wheel spins, the ball falls and with the cartoonish sound of coins clattering away, the pot total rushes down to zero. I give Tyrone my number and follow the unlucky man up the stairs. Lighting a cigarette before he’s out the door, he spits, kicks the pavement, takes a deep breath and disappears into the mad rush of Whitechapel High Street.

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