Following a Guardian Money report into ‘casino’ machines, we have been told how angry punters are turning violent. But why are so few crimes reported to the police?
Jason Stevens doesn’t scare easily. He is 6ft 3in and knows how to handle himself. But when two men wearing balaclavas stormed into his betting shop on a winter afternoon and pointed shotguns over the counter, he froze.
Most experienced betting shop staff have either found themselves in a similar situation or know someone who has, he says. “Certain shops have a long history of robberies and you feel on edge all the time,” says Stevens, now a shop manager at Ladbrokes.
After 25 years in the industry, Stevens says the threat of armed robbery remains, but now a new menace means employees are, in some cases, afraid to go to work. Fixed odds betting terminals offer customers £100 bets every 20 seconds on casino-style games. Accounting for almost half of betting shops’ profits, the machines are attracting a new audience.
“You get young people hanging around outside, standing in the doorways so your normal customers get quite intimidated. It’s just not nice that you come to work and feel on edge, not knowing what’s going to happen,” says Sandra Thompson, a betting shop manager at William Hill.
Bookmakers are now more like “mini casinos”, says Thompson, and fixed odds betting terminals are driving the change. Each machine generates £918 of profit for William Hill each week, and net revenue is up 5%, according to its latest results.
When some punters lose they get angry. Thompson says she often works alone, regularly faces abusive customers who swear, spit, punch and kick the machines in a mixture of frustration and desperation after losing money.
According to an internal memo seen by Guardian Money, William Hill instructs staff not to contact the police when customers not already known to staff damage the machines.
The memo also states: “If the customer has made threats towards staff and/or other customers, or placed anyone in fear of physical violence, police should be contacted.”
The memo explicitly states that one of its purposes is “to reduce the number of reports to police”.
William Hill, Britain’s largest bookmaker, recorded just 67 incidents of “violence in the workplace” last year across 2,370 shops.
“It’s so they can report it’s not happening, but it is happening,” alleges Thompson, who has often thought about quitting. “From a staff point of view, frankly, the majority of us have had enough. We don’t get paid enough to put up with some of things that we have to put up with – it’s wrong.
“Basically, if someone came in with a hammer and smashed all the machines – unless you knew who this person was, then don’t bother reporting it.”
A William Hill spokesman says the company adheres to industry-wide standards, highlighting that all incidents of anti-social behaviour are recorded with head office. The memo, he said, “was put together in conjunction with the Met Police, the ABB (Association of British Bookmakers), and also the heads of security representing the UK’s major bookmakers. This was an industry-agreed policy, created to improve the reporting process and enhance the chances of successful prosecution in the case of criminal damage.”
Figures released by the Metropolitan Police after a Freedom of Information request show that between January 2005 and June 2011 there were 2,420 violent incidents against another person in betting shops across London. This number is rising. In 2005, there were 197 cases, compared to 538 in 2010 – the last full year of data.
From April 2008 to June 2011, there were 688 robberies at London betting shops where a gun was used, according to the Metropolitan Police.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Ryan Slaughter from Community, the betting shop workers’ union which receives dozens of calls from concerned employees each week. “The bookmakers open earlier and close later, and are continuing to do so.
“Their aim is to keep people on those machines for as long as possible: it’s as simple as that. Across the industry, continuously, staff are told not to report incidents of violence against fixed odds betting terminals in shops.
“This can range from anything from putting a chair or stool through the glass of the machine, to kicking it or punching it. While this is going on, staff are taking abuse as well.
“Any kind of evidence that suggests that the machines contribute to a rise in violence in shops is a concern to the betting industry. They’re playing a political game with it. They don’t want bad stories, they don’t want statistical information backing up what everyone knows who works in a betting shop.”
Though a new tax introduced on fixed odds betting terminals could raise £50m a year, Slaughter is concerned the government is considering increasing the current limit of four machines per shop.
“I think this would be absolutely shocking,” he says. “You can’t call a betting shop a betting shop any more. It is a mini casino and if you put more machines into a shop, then that’s all you can call it. The art of bookmaking is long gone and that’s really sad for a lot of the guys I represent.”
From April 2008 to March 2011, the number of betting shop employees fell from 60,247 to 54,311, while the number of betting shops has increased from 8,862 in March 2009 to 9,067 in March 2011.
Darren Andrews, who used to work for Paddy Power, which has 165 shops in the UK, says that in the five years he spent working in betting shops he encountered “three or four” bad incidents involving betting on football or horse racing. With the machines, there could be “six or seven incidents of aggression a day,” he says.
“This 30-second fog just comes down on them; they don’t really know where they are, or what they’re doing. I think they’d be capable of doing anything in that 30 seconds,” says Andrews. “It can happen any time of day. Once I opened up the shop on a Saturday morning – we’d only been open 15 minutes and this bloke had done a grand on the machines.
“Then he started trying to smash things. He started swearing, hitting the machines. I asked him not to and he started turning his aggression on me.”
A Paddy Power spokesman stressed that all staff are trained to deal with problem customers. “It’s a concern to hear this, but you don’t get staff members complaining to their district managers too often about this. You do get rowdy customers, like any industry. If there’s a particular hotspot, we’ll send our training staff to help deal with specific situations,” he explains.
Despite receiving threats of rape while working, Lisa Brown, a betting shop manager at Betfred, says no one from management has checked on her welfare. “I could put seven reports on the system in a day and no one will ring me up to ask what’s going on,” says Brown, who has over 15 years experience in the industry. “There is not a day I don’t come to work where someone is either going to tell me they’re going to rape me, wait outside for me, they’re going to get my car, get me, or they’re going to smash the shop up.
“When it’s crowded, once they’re in, it’s a mob mentality. So if one starts, the whole lot starts – it’s like having a mini riot in your shop.”
“We take the safety and security of our staff and customers extremely seriously and all incidents are logged,” says a Betfred spokesman, which has 1,360 shops in the UK.
“Any concerns should be immediately raised with the area manager, who would then initiate a thorough investigation.”
Brian Taylor, a William Hill betting shop manager, has 30 years experience in the industry and seen fixed odds betting terminals overtake football and horse racing as the most popular over-the-counter business.
Members of staff are encouraged to get traditional customers playing the machines through tournaments and free bet promotions, he says.
“You would never, ever, get these young crowds in without these machines. There’ll be one of them playing and 14 watching and you just get dog’s abuse,” says Taylor, who has been a victim of armed robbery, and been hospitalised after an assault at work.
“We’re not encouraged to phone the police at all. People could be on those machines 12 hours a day, I absolutely abhor them.
“You don’t know on any one day what could happen. I feel particularly sorry for the younger staff as they’re not used to dealing with it. A lot of people don’t want to come into work any more and I don’t blame them.”
“The industry claims bookmakers are hubs of the community,” says a spokesman for Grasp, an independent reform group set up by former gambling addicts. “In reality, they are creating multiple mini-casinos that attract violence and anti-social behaviour.”
For Stevens, who has had to endure six robberies throughout his career, new measures introduced this year by Ladbrokes, which has 2,100 shops in the UK, mean that staff may have to work alone during the evenings.
“I’m not happy doing it, it’s very lonely and demoralising,” he says. “Night after night you’re working without a colleague and it does get very soul destroying.”
A Ladbrokes spokesman said: “It’s never going to be popular. We will continue to monitor it on an ongoing basis.
“Like all public places there are the occasional incidents and some areas are more challenging than others, but shops have strong security measures in place and are regularly risk-assessed in line with health and safety executive best practice.”
But Stevens feels differently about the reality betting shop employees face. He says: “The young ones, who are less experienced, less empowered to deal with the difficult situations, are having to work on their own. They don’t feel like they’ve got a choice. It was simply a case of take it or leave it.”
* All employees’ names have been changed to protect their identities.