The Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Bill has passed the consideration stage of the Northern Irish Assembly, bringing closer the long-awaited regulatory overhaul in the province.
Sponsored by the Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey, the Bill was first raised in 2014, aiming to update regional gambling regulations for the first time in 35 years by amending the original Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Northern Ireland) Order 1985.
Northern Irish lawmakers identified greater public demand for new regulatory controls on gambling, particularly with regards to the protection of young and vulnerable groups.
Furthermore, there has been an appetite for introducing a mandatory Code of Practice and obligations for the gambling industry to fund research, education and problem gambling treatment via a betting levy.
Following the passage of the Bill through the consideration stage, the Assembly’s Committee for Communities recommended that the Department of Communities conduct ‘thorough research’ on the calculation of a betting levy and the roles and responsibilities of a gambling regulator.
The legislators further observed that as many gamblers in Northern Ireland use the same online gambling services as customers in Great Britain, ‘any changes to the regulatory system in GB will be of significance to Northern Ireland and the Department should liaise closely with neighbouring jurisdictions in that regard’.
Committee Chairperson, Paula Bradley MLA, noted that the Committee would have preferred the Bill to represent a ‘full and modern replacement of the 1985 Order’ rather than an update of it, but observed that the incorporation of new regulatory controls to address the rise of online gambling since the 1980s was ‘never going to be an easy task’.
The MLA continued: “The Committee is generally supportive of key elements of the Bill, including the legal enforcement of gambling contracts and the removal of restrictions on promotional prizes and offerings.
“The majority of the Committee were supportive of allowing bookmakers and bingo halls to operate on Sundays and Good Friday. Throughout our deliberations, it was important to us all that this legislation would strike the right balance between supporting the industry while protecting children and enhancing support for those at risk from gambling.
“We are therefore pleased that age restrictions regarding access to gaming machines has now been set at 18 and that it will now be an offence for operators to allow minors to play gaming machines. However, we remain concerned that the absence of a ‘regulator’ means that there is no clear structure or resource for monitoring and enforcement.”
Further recommendations centred around additional research, such as cross-departmental examinations of how gambling as a ‘public health problem’ arises and how gambling-related harm can be addressed whilst factoring in the views of young people on the matter.
A key caveat of the legislation is that betting premises will be permitted to open on Sunday’s and Bank Holidays, including Good Friday, a factor which prompted the Committee to assert that the Department for the Economy should publish ‘guidance highlighting the safeguards that exist for staff’ in relation to working on these additional days.
Bradley concluded: “The Committee realises that there is much to learn from the ongoing reviews into gambling in both Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, the outcomes of which are likely to have an impact on our regulations here. In that context, while not ideal, this Bill is an important and necessary starting point.
“Restructuring of gambling legislation in Northern Ireland still has a very long way to go. We are hopeful however, that this Bill will lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive and holistic approach when the Department for Communities introduces the second stage of reforms in the next Assembly mandate.”
Following the consideration stage, the Bill will pass to the further consideration stage and then the final stage. If these phases are completed, the Bill will receive Royal Assent and pass into Northern Ireland law, implementing the 35-year update.