Winning Post: Stormont wants an overhaul of ‘hopelessly out of date’ gambling regulations

Taking edited excerpts from its Winning Post, industry strategic consultancy Regulus Partners observes some familiar narratives at play as a devolved Stormont plans its intended review of the Northern Irish Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements Act 1985.

UK: Regulation – Gambling Review VII – Regulatory Thinking…Belfast and Slow

This week saw the launch of yet another review of gambling in the UK – as the All Party Group on Reducing Harm Related to Gambling launched its inquiry into the ‘Regulation of Gambling in Northern Ireland’.

The inquiry is the seventh major political or governmental review of gambling this year (with at least one more – the HM Government review of gambling legislation – in the pipeline) and will examine a familiar list of issues – the availability and accessibility of gambling; the safety of gambling products; advertising and marketing, public health messaging; and the funding and provision of treatment services.

Gambling is a matter for devolved legislation in Northern Ireland. The market is regulated under the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements Act 1985 – a piece of legislation that makes the rest of the UK’s gambling laws look positively space-aged. As the APG’s vice-chair Philip McGuigan commented: “Legislation here is hopelessly out of date. Gambling laws here predate the internet so reform is long overdue…We need legislation that reduces the risk of harm occurring in the first place.”

The inquiry thus looks to the existing Westminster legislation as a better model while at the same time trying to second guess the path of reform across the Irish Sea.

The APG, which was launched in May this year appears to have been modelled directly on Carolyn Harris’s Gambling-related Harm APPG – both are funded by the Las Vegas-based activist, Derek Webb. The Stormont APG is led by Robbie Butler (UUP, Lagan Valley) and supported by 14 other Members of the Legislative Assembly. Membership is drawn from across the political spectrum – the Alliance Party, the DUP, the SDLP and Sinn Fein – and counts one-sixth of all Northern Ireland’s MLAs in its ranks.

While the APG appears to favour restrictionism, its consultation does at least ask the question as to whether there are grounds for liberalisation in certain areas. This might possibly crack the door open on the question of whether casinos should be permitted in Northern Ireland (something that at least ought to be a choice under anything other than a prohibitionist approach).

The APG’s Westminster counterpart, the GRH APPG was predictably dismayed this week at the Gambling Commission’s announcement on reform of VIP (or High Value Customer) schemes. From the end of this month, customers entering such programmes will need to undergo a range of financial checks.

The schemes themselves will need to be overseen by a Personal Management Licence holder, thus allowing the regulator to apply personal accountability for compliance. These appear to be sensible reforms designed to root out abuse of customer hospitality programmes – but were never going to please those who favour outright abolition.

This week also brought news that the former member of Harris’s APPG, Margaret Ferrier (SNP, Rutherglen and Hamilton West) had broken the law by taking the train from London to Glasgow following a positive test for Covid-19.

The episode, which may well spell the end of Ms Ferrier’s political career, suggests that her commitment to public health is not quite as strong as might have been claimed. To err is human – but those who make a habit of sitting in judgement on their fellow citizens may be less deserving of sympathy when they themselves slip up.

Europe: Regulation – Finn end of the wedge

Goalposts were on the move in Finland this week as the country’s Ministry of the Interior extended the reduction in monthly loss limits until the end of the year. In April, in a bid to address lockdown punting fears, the maximum amount that players could lose with the Veikkaus betting monopoly was lowered from 2,000 euro per month to 500 euro. The emergency restriction had been due to expire at the end of September but in a late twist – and to the irrepressible joy of public health activists – the Government determined to keep it in place until the end of the year.

A pattern may well be emerging here. In Britain, the Gambling Commission’s emergency proscription on reverse withdrawals (an odd response to increased use of National Lottery games under lockdown) seems likely to become a permanent ban; while there appears to be no plan at all to end the 10 O’clock ‘curfew’ that is wreaking such havoc across the nation’s pubs, restaurants and casinos. It seems plausible that, where possible, the public health lobby will seek to extend certain ‘emergency restrictions’ with the aim of achieving permanence.

The interests of civil liberty should require governments and regulatory bodies to apply conditions to emergency measures so that it is clear how and when they are to be reviewed and repealed; but in a crisis, good governance is often one of the first items to be jettisoned.

The enactment of emergency powers ought to be greeted with scepticism – particularly as governments have a habit of forgetting to repeal them once the all-clear has been sounded. In 1916, David Lloyd-George curtailed pub opening hours in a bid to increase the output of Britain’s munitions industry – a move that took almost 90 years to reverse in full. Operators of pubs, restaurants, casinos and bingo clubs will hope that it does not take quite so long this time around to return to normal.

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