Gaming and Lotteries Legislation

I thank the Minister of State for being here at 10.50 p.m. on a Wednesday night to respond to this Adjournment matter, the focus of which is on the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956 which urgently needs to be updated. It was introduced at a time when raffles, sweepstakes and lotteries were the main focus. However, times have changed; we are now living in the electronic era. We must, therefore, amend the legislation. Vulnerable persons are often sucked into a cycle of gambling and betting, with no definite return at either a minor or modest level.

In researching my contribution I examined whether legislation had been introduced in other countries, for example, America, Australia and France, which had been tackling the issue, with specific reference to on-line gambling. Three years ago I was lucky enough to visit Australia where there is an extraordinary amount of gambling. In 2004-05 average gambling expenditure per person was over $1,000, with $655 of this spent on gaming machines alone. In New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory there is a legislative range of minimum payout returns and ratios of up to 85%, 87.5% and 90%. In Queensland and Western Australia the minimum payout return is 90% to be returned to the users and players of games. I am aware that in other countries, specifically Australia, there is extensive postering in pubs, clubs, hotels and casinos to highlight pay-out rates and figures and provide information on how one should complain if one is dissatisfied.

The Minister for Justice and Law Reform has been doing an excellent job in ploughing through legislation, but this issue is urgent and needs to be addressed.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to outline to Senators the position on the major review of gambling under way in the State and to speak, in so far as is possible, on the establishment of a minimum percentage payout on gaming machines. The Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, regrets that he cannot be here in person and has asked me to convey his apologies to the House.

Senators will know that gaming is governed by the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956, as amended. The legislation has served us well, but has in the Minister's assessment, with which the Senator will agree, passed its sell by date. The major review of gambling which the Minister initiated in May last year involves critically examining a code that has remained unaltered in many of its fundamentals for over 50 years. A starting point for the review was the report of the casino committee, Regulating Gaming in Ireland, which was published in 2008. While concentrating on the core issue of recommending a regulatory system to accommodate casino gaming in the State, it also cast in its 32 recommendations a wide net over the fundamental weaknesses in one of the legislative pillars supporting our gambling architecture, the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956, as amended. Our current laws, not only with regard to gaming but on all other aspects of gambling also, require a major overhaul. That is one of the reasons the Minister initiated a major review of gambling, with the objective of providing the Government with options for a new policy to inform our gambling architecture.

The Minister's objective is to put in place a modern, responsive code that will recognise the fact that some gamble and enjoy gambling and at the same time acknowledge that there are inherent dangers involved that need to be addressed, not least in terms of problem gambling. Three important considerations, the hallmark of most well regulated gambling codes, inform the review: that young people and the vulnerable are protected; that gambling should in all respects be fairly and openly conducted; and that gambling be kept free of crime. The keyword in all of this is "regulation". The Minister's objective is to regulate better, strictly and appropriately.

The consultation phase of the review has been completed. The Minister was pleased that over 70 organisations and groups had considered the topic important enough to submit written submissions and that many had followed up their submissions with face-to-face meetings with the review team. The Minister hopes to be in a position to seek Government approval for policy proposals for a new gambling architecture in the State, following an evaluation of the material received. The policy proposals which the Minister intends to publish will be based on an examination of the submissions received, as well as the recommendations contained in the report of the casino committee and, of course, consideration of modern gambling regulation. The review team is engaged in developing the appropriate proposals for consideration.

Senators will appreciate that developing a revised gambling code that will be capable of generating broad public support and which will provide the best possible protection for the vulnerable is a complex task. Any new policy aimed at modernising our gambling code must take account of the challenges and threats but also opportunities presented by new technologies, particularly the Internet. It is a matter of record that Governments of different hue have shied away from attempting any significant reform of our gambling laws. The Minister is resolved to make our gambling laws relevant to the 21st century. To this end he makes no apology for taking the necessary time to make sure this is done properly.

On the specific subject of minimum percentage payouts on gaming machines, Senators will appreciate that the Minister cannot provide any precise details of proposals in this area until such time as the Government has had an opportunity to consider these matters and new legislation is prepared. It goes without saying, however, that any new Act regulating gambling will introduce a new regime for gaming machines. The Minister has asked me to state categorically in this regard that it will be a strict regime and that gaming machines will only be permitted in places licensed and approved for that purpose and that there will be specific standards applied to these machines. That is what good regulation and player protection is all about. The establishment of a system of categorisation of games and gaming machines will inevitably mean that such machines will have to have transparent rules governing stakes, payouts and a guaranteed player return.

Following the settling of policy for a new gambling architecture for the State, arrangements will be made in the normal course to address the necessary legislative change. As the first comprehensive review of our gambling laws, effectively since the passage of the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956, draws to a close, it is reasonable to expect that any new legislation that may arise will be both complex and comprehensive.

I appreciate the Minister of State's comprehensive reply. While we can learn from other countries such as Australia, we should be aware that we may also inherit some of their problems. Australia, for example, has a huge problem in that gaming machines have been installed in almost every public house in the country. I hope we will not take the same path. As the Minister of State said, we need strict and appropriate regulation. I look forward to the outcome of the comprehensive review.

The Seanad adjourned at 11 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 30 September 2010.