Why bookies are fighting for laws that would see them face tougher regulation

A gambling bill has been gathering dust in Leinster House for years, but all sides say it’s needed now.

By Fora Staff

IN THE PAST decade or so, watching a sporting event on television has become ubiquitous with watching advertisements for gambling companies during breaks in the play.

However a proposed set of laws that have been gathering dust on a shelf in the Department of Justice for four years have the potential to significantly change that situation.

The heads of the bill suggest allowing the government to ban gambling ads that feature “endorsements by recognisable figures who would be regarded as idols by young persons”, advertisements that suggest “gambling is a rite of passage” and ones that suggest “gambling … is a way to gain control, superiority, recognition or admiration”.

Would these adverts stand up to scrutiny if this became law?

This Ladbrokes one features a group of young men, drinking beer in a pub and describes how each of them gamble. It closes with the tagline: “This is the Ladbrokes’ life.”

And what about this, from BetVictor, featuring the Liverpool Football Club manager Jurgen Klopp?

But it’s not just advertising that this bill could affect. It’s a mammoth document detailing how the government would regulate the sector.

Numerous groups have been lobbying the government to enact the laws. Perhaps surprisingly, gambling companies themselves have also lent their support to the proposed legislation.

This is what you need to know about the plans:

What’s the need?

Betting is widespread in Irish society, but problem gambling has come to the fore in recent years with a number of high-profile sports stars helping to thrust the issue into the spotlight.

They include Galway hurling star Davy Glennon, who went on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live to describe how he funded his addiction with loans and even resorted to selling his car.

“My life was turned into a gambling rut, and I couldn’t get out … There were so many lows. I isolated myself. I became a compulsive liar,” he said.

Another well-known case is that of Cathal McCarron, a Tyrone GAA player, who said he took part in a gay porn movie to fund his crippling addiction to gambling.

International football players – among them Keith Gillespie, Joey Barton and Kyle Lafferty – have described how they’ve spent money, in some cases millions of pounds, on gambling.

International research has indicated that as a nation we lose an average of around €470 per adult per year on different forms of gambling.

The UK’s regulatory Gambling Commission, which doesn’t have an Irish equivalent, has published comprehensive statistics on gambling rates there.

It says that 48% of people – and 53% of men – have gambled in some way in the past four weeks. A survey of students in UK universities found that 54% of students who gamble do so to make money, and one in four are in debt because of gambling.

Worryingly, a survey conducted last year on children aged 11-15 in England and Wales found 16% had gambled in the past week. That compared to 5% who had smoked and 8% who consumed drunk alcohol in the same period.

The Department of Health has its own data on gambling use, with the most recent figures for 2014/15 showing that more than 64% of Irish people aged 15 and over had gambled in the past year and around 41% had done so in the past month.

This data is far from robust, compared to the likes of the UK, Australia and New Zealand, according to Rutland Centre CEO Maebh Leahy.

“We don’t have any up-to-date research in Ireland. If we have, we believe that the figures for problem gambling in the country could be far higher,” she said.

“Our figures say that 1% of the population are problem gamblers. Figures just published in Northern Ireland say 2.2% of people are there. That’s a massive difference. If the true figure was the same here, it’d mean about 80,000 people in Ireland are problem gamblers.”

Activists here say that many who access their services start gambling as teenagers and they fear that the rates of gambling among young people here are broadly similar to the up-to-date UK figures.

“Problem gambling can have a ripple effect,” she said. “Getting this legislation would give us a regulator that would actually go and compile this data.”

Why do problem gambling bodies want it?

For Leahy, an independent regulator would go a long way to addressing the issues around problem gambling in Ireland.

Currently, the industry is largely self-governing. The Lobbying Register shows extensive lobbying, particularly from addiction services, on the bill, but an entry from the Irish Bookmakers Association is also of note.

Sending a request to meet with Minister of State David Stanton, its “intended result” was to “make government aware of services already in place and being funded by the sector. Also to express support for Gambling Control Bill being introduced ASAP”.

Leahy said: “A key feature of the bill is the establishment of a gambling regulator that’s independent of industry, duties of regulator to regulate advertising, sports sponsorship, access for young people, a social fund for access to treatment and also prevalent information and research.

“It’s not about prohibition. Adults will still be able to bet and gamble, but this is about protecting people from the harmful effects.”

She said that it’s important to change the culture around gambling, particularly for young people, to try to mitigate the risk of developing an addiction.

“Sport and gambling are now almost seen as one due to advertising,” she said. “It suggests you can’t enjoy one without the other. It’s shown as a lifestyle choice, but it never shows the negative.

“They’re selling a dream that doesn’t exist.”

Leahy added that the delay in the bill coming forward was risking the betting landscape changing so much as to make the proposed laws irrelevant.

She added: “We are really asking the government to tackle this. It’s only getting worse. If they don’t get a handle on this now, we’re in serious trouble.”

Why do bookies want it?

The bookies say they also want the industry regulated, which would put overseas companies on an even footing with indigenous operators that have a physical presence in the country.

Irish Bookmakers Association chair Sharon Byrne said members of her organisation, which include Paddy Power, Boylesports and Ladbrokes, are in support of legislation coming through.

“It puts customer safety measures on equal footing across the industry,” she said.

However Byrne added that despite having no official watchdog, the bookmaking sector is already heavily regulated.

“We have to apply to gardaí every year, we have to register premises, and we have eyes on us all year round.

“We’ve already introduced a lot of what is recommended, such as the under-18 code of practice and provisions for problem gambling.”

While the members of the association provide funding to problem gambling agency Dunlewy, it is not an obligation.

The proposed laws would see all services that offer gambling products – both in-store and online – contribute towards problem gambling services, something Byrne said she’d welcome.

That doesn’t mean that the bookies are in favour of everything about the laws, however. Byrne said there remains a lot of ambiguity that the finished bill would need to clarify.

“There’s a provision in there to gain a gambling licence for ‘special events’ including ones up to five days.

“It says to cover race nights and poker nights and things like that but what’s stopping someone setting up their own book for the four days of Cheltenham?”

Byrne said that betting shops in Ireland generally have high revenues but low profits, and after all expenses have been taken into account most shops will only make 1-1.5% profit.

“It’s easy to tax bookies, but we’re not as competitive as what it used to be since the growth of online,” Byrne said. “Our turnover in 2008 was over €4 billion. Last year, it was €2.7 billion.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Boylesports echoed Byrne’s sentiments, saying that the company supported the bill and believed “a well-regulated industry is in everybody’s interests”.

“BoyleSports has always taken its responsibilities seriously and we welcome the fact that this bill will put those responsibilities on a statutory footing for all companies involved in gambling in Ireland,” the statement said.

“If indigenous Irish providers are not to be disadvantaged by the new legislation, it is particularly important it be applied to all companies operating in the Irish market, including online operators based in a foreign jurisdiction.”

What’s the hold up?

The general scheme of the Gambling Control Bill was published by the Fine Gael/Labour coalition in 2013. Four years later, there’s been little progress in signing it into law.

It’s a 90-page document that’s wide-ranging, covering numerous aspects of the gambling sector.

The government has consistently made noises about wanting to make progress on the bill. At the beginning of this year, Stanton began a review of regulation in the gambling sector “with a view to early legislative action”.

Addressing the Dáil on 3 October, however, he said: “The general scheme of the Bill was published in 2013. We carried out further research, published last February, which showed the need to update the scheme and that work continues.”

He said that the government hoped to introduce a smaller bill in the interim to deal with “gambling control”.

“I was hoping to publish it this term but unfortunately it has not been possible to publish the general Bill,” Stanton said. “I hope we will do that next term.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said: “Minister of State Stanton is working to ensure that legislation providing for the regulation of the gambling sector can be published at the earliest opportunity. Discussions with the Office of the Attorney General are under way.”

In March, the government said the bill would be published by the end of the year. In 2016, the answer repeatedly read out in the Dáil was “at earliest possible opportunity”. In 2015, the answer given by then taoiseach Enda Kenny was “next year”.

Leahy added: “There’s a lot of parallels between this and the Public Health Alcohol Bill, in terms of the harm caused by these products and the role that industry plays.

“If the government doesn’t act soon, these laws will be irrelevant. The time was now five years ago. Now, we risk getting to it too late.”

Written by Sean Murray and posted on TheJournal.ie

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