Britain’s opposition seeks crackdown on high-speed gambling machines

LONDON, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Britain's opposition Labour Party wants to tighten controls on gambling machines that they say have turned betting shops into mini casinos targeting poorer people.

Betting shops are spreading "like an epidemic" along Britain's high streets, Labour leader Ed Miliband said on Friday, proposing that councils be given new powers to control the numbers of sites bookmakers open. "The time has come to give local communities the right to pull the plug on these machines - the right to decide if they want their high streets to be the place for high-stakes, high-speed, high-cost gambling," Miliband said in a statement.

The popularity of fixed-odds betting terminals, which began to proliferate when Labour was in power a decade ago, has given the retail outlets of bookmakers such as Paddy Power and William Hill a new lease of life at a time when a growing number of gamblers are going online.

Miliband said that bookmakers are circumventing laws limiting them to four machines per shop by opening clusters of shops close to each other.

Critics have said the terminals, which allow gamblers to bet up to 300 pounds ($490) a minute, are highly addictive, dubbing them the crack cocaine of gambling. There have also been claims that they facilitate money laundering.

Labour, hoping to return to power in an election to be held in 2015, wants to allow councils to reduce the number of terminals in each shop.

It said it would also introduce legislation to double the time between plays on machines to 40 seconds, introduce pop-up messages to warn players how much they have lost and limit how long they can play without a break.

The government has said it is awaiting the results of research into the impact of machines on problem gambling. "We have been crystal clear with the betting industry that if it doesn't improve player protection measures on fixed-odds betting terminals by March 2014, or provide data to inform research, we will not hesitate to act," said a spokesman at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Ladbrokes spokesman Ciaran O'Brien accused Miliband of jumping on a bandwagon, noting that a health survey for England published this week showed a decline in problem gambling.