I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
In June 2000 an interdepartmental group reported on the Gaming and Lotteries Acts 1956 to 1986. It recommended that an age limit of 18 years should apply to the use of gaming machines, the purchase of lottery tickets, the placing of bets with bookmakers and the totalisator, otherwise known as the tote. It also recommended that a new Act should place the responsibility for ensuring that the age limit is strictly enforced on the operators or proprietors of the gaming premises and the vendors of lottery tickets.
In October 2002 in reply to a question to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Minister said that the preparation of legislation to implement the report on the Gaming and Lotteries Act was included in the Government's legislative programme and that the Bill was likely to be published in 2003. These were the words of the present Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform — it was part of the legislative programme and was part of Government policy.
In 2003 I raised the matter on the Order of Business in the hope that it would jolt the Government into some action but to date nothing has been forthcoming. It is because of this lack of will and the lack of action that I have been forced to introduce the Bill before the House. I hope this necessary legislation which obviously clears up an anomaly in the law will be supported by all sides of the House. All it seeks is to implement the recommendations of an interdepartmental report.
At present, one must be over 18 years of age to buy a lottery ticket or to place a bet with a bookmaker either in a bookie shop or on the course but any child can have a bet on the tote in the State. Is this correct? How long more are we, as legislators, prepared to accept child gambling because that is what we are doing by allowing the present situation to continue?
A constituent of mine, Frank Hennessy, has devoted many years to studying this subject and campaigning to have the law changed. I have viewed many hours of video in various racecourses and dog tracks throughout the country where children barely out of nappies and children in communion dresses in some cases were having bets on the tote. Are we prepared to accept this? Some may ask where is the harm in having a few euro on the tote. For most children there will probably be no problem but I have spoken with many parents and adults whose lives have been destroyed by gambling and most, if not all, started having a bet on the tote when they were children.
I refer to the review group's report and its comments on compulsive and addictive gambling. The appetite for gambling is perceived to be greatest among those who can least afford it and this requires protection. The serious social and personal consequences of compulsive gambling behaviour remain as relevant now as when the 1956 and 1986 Acts were framed. Personal problems experienced by individuals include various forms of destructive behaviour such as involvement in crime, including theft from employers to finance gambling, incurring large debts, damaged relationships with family and friends, and, in some cases, suicide and attempted suicide.
These are the words of the experts. I am sure that many Members of the House realise that people have lost farms, businesses, homes and marriages because of compulsive gambling. This House should do everything in its power to prevent children and future generations from suffering similar fates. Addiction to alcohol or drugs is a visible addiction but for many addicted to gambling it is much more secretive and less likely to be discovered until much damage has been done.
I will describe how this country compares to other countries where age limits are concerned. In the UK and other European countries a person must be over 18 years to bet on the tote. In the US, the age limit is 21 years. The Minister may be familiar with Lifford dog track where children can bet at will on the tote and yet a few miles across the Border, children are prevented from betting at the Derry dog track because the legislation is in place and is being enforced. This country is therefore out of line with the US, our European neighbours and with our closest neighbours in the UK.
In 1997, all 166 Members of the Dáil were asked by letter whether they agreed that children under 18 years should be permitted to bet on the tote. Some 87 Deputies, including a number of present Ministers, supported a ban on children under 18 being allowed to bet on the tote. Only eight Deputies did not support a ban, 37 sat on the fence and the remaining 30 did not reply. This showed overwhelming support for the type of action which my Bill proposes and overwhelming support from a number of Ministers currently in caring Ministries.
I expect the Government to put its money where its mouth is and support this Bill which will prevent child gambling. I suggest that a similar proportion of Members of both Houses of the current Oireachtas would support the ban on gambling by children under 18 in what is a semi-State body, the tote. According to expert advice, the current law is wrong and it should be changed.
I am not anti-gambling. I enjoy a bet myself and have gone overboard on betting on several occasions. I have often met the Minister at race meetings. The opportunity for children to bet should be done away with. This would drastically reduce the numbers of people who will become addicted to gambling in the future. If this Bill prevents one person from becoming addicted to gambling, it will be worthwhile.
In a recent survey, 100 gamblers were asked at what age they started gambling. Some 92 stated that they began between the ages of eight and 12. Almost to a man and a woman, they wished they had never been allowed to bet as it only brought misery to their lives.
There are vested interests which regard betting as just a bit of fun and who regard me as a killjoy. A former high-ranking member of the Irish Horseracing Authority stated on television that the authority wanted to develop the customers of the future. In my view it is time enough at 18 years of age to develop the customer of the future. The authority should target them with their marketing machinery rather than targeting young children. Any anomaly should be rectified at the earliest possible opportunity. I appeal to the Government and all Members of the House to support this Bill.
The interdepartmental review group report states:
The Review Group is concerned that no age limit applies at present to betting on the totalisator at racecourses and greyhound tracks. Although the Group acknowledges that the 1929 Totalisator Act does not lie within its terms of reference, it is of the view that it is an issue which should, for the sake of consistency be addressed.
This Bill addresses the inconsistency outlined by the review group and is a tangible and constructive way of addressing this problem. I hope the Minister will not reply by stating that the Government plans to introduce its own legislation in the future. The reply from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in 2002 stated that the Government planned to introduce legislation in 2003. It is now 2005 and children in communion dresses are still being allowed to place bets, with the possibility that several may become addicted.
I have met many people who have become addicted to gambling because of their proximity to racecourses and dog tracks in particular. A visitor to any race track or dog track will see lines of unaccompanied children, in many instances, being dragged through the mire because a State-run body promotes gambling. I am not a killjoy, I enjoy placing a bet. I want to give these children a fair chance. It should be our prime responsibility as legislators to protect these children and give them that chance.