I thank the Chairman. I am very happy to have the opportunity this morning to inform the joint committee of the Government’s efforts and intentions on regulation and control of the gambling sector. I apologise for having to leave, but I would be quite happy to come back at any time to engage with the committee and to hear its views on this very important issue.
Gambling activity is of considerable economic importance in Ireland. In 2017, the returns from the 1% betting duty and sales of national lottery ticket sales alone suggest an industry with a turnover in the order of €6 billion annually, and it might be even more than that. There are no figures published for revenue from online gaming, gaming in arcades and private members’ clubs, bingo, or the thousands of local community lotteries and raffles in the State. It would not be unreasonable to estimate the turnover of the Irish gambling market annually as being between €6 billion and €8 billion. As members of the committee will be aware, the Government's efforts to bring about reform were signalled by the publication in 2013 of the general scheme of the Gambling Control Bill. That scheme was examined by the justice committee at the time, but unfortunately did not progress. Since assuming responsibility for this area in 2016, I was determined to review the provisions of the 2013 general scheme to take account of the complex and ever-evolving nature of the gambling environment, both domestic and international. Increasingly, gambling is an activity that is moving to an online environment, and traditional gaming arcades and other places are diminishing in importance. As the gambling industry changes, so must the State’s licensing and regulatory approach. The development of modern, fit-for-purpose legislation is necessary and is a priority for the Government. A modern regulatory approach will enhance consumer protection in all forms of gambling, increase the protection of vulnerable persons and potentially increase Exchequer revenue from the gambling industry. Incremental change is not a viable approach to this reform. Effective reform will require fundamental and significant change. This will take some time to develop and it is essential that significant resources are committed to support the reform.
The Inter-Departmental Working Group on the Future Licensing and Regulation of Gambling was established in January 2018 to review the provisions of the general scheme of the Gambling Control Bill 2013, and to determine if they remained fit for purpose in the light of the significant developments in both the domestic and international gambling industries in the intervening period. The Government approved the working group’s report and published it on 20 March. I hope that members of the committee have had a chance to examine it since, as there is a lot in it, and it is quite detailed. Critically, the report recommended that all future responsibility for licensing and regulation of all forms of gambling be vested in a proposed new gambling regulatory authority. The working group also proposed the following measures - the rationalisation of the lengthy list of licensing categories for gambling activities recommended in the 2013 scheme, given the increasing move to online gambling; that significant background checking be required in determining applications for gambling licences; that all gambling licences should have appropriate terms and conditions attached to protect consumers and vulnerable persons, and for assisting in combatting fraud and money laundering; a range of possible options on the future approach to regulating advertising, sponsorship and promotion of gambling products, taking into account impacts for related sectors; and an improvement of the current minimal protection for consumers of gambling products to ensure fairness for all parties involved. An alternative disputes resolution, ADR, mechanism should be developed to settle disputes.
The working group was conscious of the issue of problem gambling in Irish society, which can involve severely negative impacts for the person involved as well as his or her family. It considered that the approach taken in the 2013 general scheme towards the protection of vulnerable persons remained broadly valid. This included establishment of a social fund, funded by levies on licensed gambling operators, to assist with research and information campaigns and to support dedicated gambling addiction treatment by those professional and expert organisations involved in this field. Since I assumed special responsibility in this area, my guiding principle has been that we must license and regulate the many legitimate gambling pursuits in which many citizens choose to participate in a modern, transparent and proportionate manner. In doing so, we must ensure the best possible enforcement of the law and compliance with licensing conditions, increase revenue to the Exchequer, improve services to the consumer, and support the optimal protection for persons who may be vulnerable to addiction.
The main element of the Government decision on reform of 20 March 2019 was approving the establishment of a new gambling regulatory authority as an independent statutory body. The Government is clearly of the view, and I hope it is one that can be shared by the committee, that without the establishment of a new gambling regulatory authority, modern effective licensing and regulation cannot be achieved. Independent regulation would mirror the situation in most EU member states. Our current legislation does not provide for a coherent licensing and regulatory approach to gambling activities. Responsibility for licensing is shared among a number of Departments and agencies. This fragmentation does not facilitate a consistent and effective approach to ensuring consumer protection and the protection of vulnerable persons, including underage persons. Committee members will appreciate that effective modern licensing and regulation will require significant additional resources, primarily for the operation of the new regulatory authority. The working group agreed, however, that any new regulatory authority should, to a large degree, be ultimately self-financing, with income from licence fees, fines imposed on operators, and other duties. The group also examined the issue of advertising, sponsorship and promotion of gambling products, and looked at a range of possible options on the future approach to these activities. These matters have attracted much public interest and comment. Suggestions of potential restrictions in this regard must be carefully considered, targeted and be effective. Sectors of Irish sporting activity depend heavily on gambling advertising and sponsorship and would risk being very negatively impacted by restrictions.
The committee wished to be informed as to the Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Bill 2019.
I am pleased to report that yesterday evening in the Seanad we launched the Second Stage debate on this Bill, which amends the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956. Second Stage was completed in the Seanad yesterday evening. That Bill contains the existing provisions governing the permit and licence approach to gaming and lottery activity. The Bill provides for the modernisation of the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956 by bringing clarity to the permit and licensing approach to small-scale local gaming and lottery activity, updating certain stake and prize limits and standardising the minimum age for engaging in gambling at 18, along with other provisions. The Bill further provides for an amendment to the Totalisator Act 1929 to introduce a minimum age of 18 years for betting with the Tote.
I must emphasise that this Bill is very much an interim reform measure pending the development of comprehensive reform of the licensing and regulation of all gambling activities. The amendments to the 1956 Act will help the promoters of local gaming and lottery activity, primarily sporting clubs and community organisations, by bringing greater coherence and clarity to the application process for permits and licences.