By Helen Pidd
It is not often that I feel sorry for a vandal, let alone a violent one armed with a hammer, but when Eric Baptista went on a rampage in Liverpool recently he had my sympathies. A problem gambler, he says he had begged to be barred from all of his local bookies, but that they refused to stop serving him. He was too good a customer, regularly losing £400 in a matter of minutes on the fixed-odds machines.
In May, Baptista took drastic action. If the wretched betting shops wouldn’t stop taking his business, he would put them out of business, he reasoned. He had lost yet another £100 in the William Hill on Aigburth Road when a circuit in his brain tripped. He went next door to buy two tins of black paint and set about smearing it over everything he could see. He didn’t stop there, visiting six other branches over a three-week period, causing £36,000 of damage by smashing up betting terminals, TV screens and gambling machines.
Last month, he pleaded guilty to criminal damage and was given a 12-month suspended sentence and ordered to do 150 hours of unpaid community work. Liverpool crown court heard that during one of his rampages he shouted: “This is a protest. I am sorry; there is no safety net for customers.”
Horrible as it must have been for the staff he terrorised, they should have been allowed to stop serving him. As Baptista later argued, when he was a barman, he wouldn’t pour pints for people who had had too many; why, when the bookies knew he was an addict, did they allow him to keep feeding the machines?
They allowed him because gambling is an industry that feasts on the poor and vulnerable to survive. Last week, 888, one of Britain’s biggest online gambling firms, was fined £7.8m after allowing more than 7,000 people who had chosen to exclude themselves from its casino/poker/sport platform to access their accounts and continue gambling. Also last week, a Guardian investigation found that betting firms were using third-party companies to harvest personal data, helping bookmakers and online casinos target people on low incomes and those who have stopped gambling.
For many addicts, data harvesting is less of a problem than the fact they can’t go to buy a pint of milk without walking past a betting shop – or its enabling cousin, the pawn shop. It is depressing how many of our once-great towns can no longer sustain even an M&S and are instead plagued by bookies, pawn shops and stores selling washing machines for “just” £5.50 a week (twice the high-street price at the end of the typical 156-week payment plan). Just as you can tell an area is gentrifying when the plantation blinds and bi-fold doors appear, you know it is going in the other direction when a street gets more than one bookie and a Cash Generator or a BrightHouse.
When I was young, gambling looked exciting, largely because I wasn’t allowed to do it (Christian parents). Even playing the 2p cascade machines in Johnny’s Fun Factory after school in Morecambe felt illicit. It was 2005 before I started to see gambling differently. I was the most junior person on G2, the Guardian’s daily features magazine. The paper was downsizing to Berliner format and I had been tasked with trying out some ideas the features editor had for the revamped pages. One of them had the working title “Are you happy?” and was envisaged as a regular column where we would go out and ask people that question.
It soon became clear that people were not prepared to admit to a nosy parker with a notebook that they weren’t skipping through town, high on their fulfilling lives. After several soul-destroying hours, all I could report with great certainty was that I, at least, wasn’t happy.
I looked up and down Exmouth Market, which was midway through becoming the London foodie haven it is today, and noticed a bookmaker’s, squeezed in between an artisanal bakery and a jewellery store. That was the day I learned that if you need sad, honest quotes during the daytime, head to a bookie’s. A man came out, leaned against the window, lit a fag and told me that no, he wasn’t happy, actually. He and his wife were barely speaking after trying and failing to conceive for several years and he had just lost the money he ought to be putting towards the private IVF. Again.
Research has proved that people living in areas with a higher number of bookies are more likely to be problem gamblers. We know that problem gambling costs the UK up to £1.2bn a year, with London seeing a 68% rise in violent crime associated with betting shops since 2010, according to the Metropolitan police. But councils don’t have the powers to reject applications for new betting shops where there are already clusters and the government is dithering over whether to regulate the fixed-odds betting terminals – of which there are more than 34,000 – that prompted Baptista’s smashing spree. If a gambling addict with a hammer doesn’t wake up the authorities, it is hard to see who or what will.
Gambling an industry that feasts on the poor and vulnerable
By Helen Pidd