Proposed bingo laws fail to impress operators and players

Change championed by Minister of State for Justice David Stanton overhauls legislation

Dozens of bingo players gather on Kildare Street to protest gambling legislation coming before the Dáil this week, which will have the effect of capping the prize money bingo halls can give out at 50 per cent of takings. Video: Kathleen Harris

 

For those who play bingo, new gaming and lotteries legislation is a little like the number 13 – unlucky for bingo operators and players all over the State. They claim the legislation will kill the game in Ireland.

The Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Act will be before the Dáil on Wednesday as it reaches its final stages of deliberation.

However, as the Dáil readies for debate buses from all over the State converged on Kildare Street on Tuesday for a giant game of bingo outside Leinster House. And their reason? They say the new legislation’s rules are inflexible, will make the game unattractive to its tens of thousands of players and will force commercial operators out of business.

The current laws that govern gaming and lotteries date from 1956 and are out of date. The maximum stakes for a fruit machine, for example, remains at about 3 cent with a maximum payout of about 75 cent. The law has been flouted openly for decades by casinos.

As far as bingo is concerned, it is not mentioned specifically in the legislation. Commercial bingo operations were essentially prohibited in the same manner as commercial lotteries and card games. Operators got around that by employing a loophole where clubs were formed.

However, the new legislation championed by Minister of State for Justice David Stanton modernises gaming and lottery laws. The maximum stake for gaming machines has been set at €10, with a maximum prize of €750.

Bingo is also defined as a lottery and the new legislation makes clear that lotteries will not be permitted unless there is a charitable element. The upper limits are generous – up to €360,000 is allowed for prize money for the biggest lotteries. But there are strict rules attached. The first is that 25 per cent of the proceeds must go to a charitable cause. The second is that the operator is allowed to take up to 25 per cent to cover commission, marketing, overheads, fees, and inbuilt entrance fees. That leaves 50 per cent in prize money.

Bingo protesters make their feelings known outside the Dáil. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill/The Irish Times
Bingo protesters make their feelings known outside the Dáil. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill/The Irish Times

That fixed prize money is what has caused the difficulty. Bingo operators say that there will be unintended consequences. Their argument is that on any given night where bingo is being played the prize money varies enormously depending on how many people are playing. If there are few players, the money rises to well over 50 per cent of the proceeds.

Conversely – because there are no strict laws in this regard – if there are a lot of players the prize money will fall below 50 per cent.

Annoyed bingo players?

They argue that a strict 50 per cent pay out each time will not make games attractive for bingo players, especially if a particular game has not attracted a huge number of players. They also argue that dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of games are played in a session and the new laws do not have the flexibility to offer varying prizes: a bumper payout on a game at the end of the night.

They have got a lot of support from bingo players. It tends to be offline because those who play it tend to be older. It means its popularity might be somewhat hidden but anybody who lives in rural, and urban areas, will be familiar with the bingo buses that travel from one venue to another.

Joint leader of the Social Democrats Róisín Shortall calls out the numbers. Dara MacDónaill/The Irish Times
Joint leader of the Social Democrats Róisín Shortall calls out the numbers. Dara MacDónaill/The Irish Times

The argument that the law is inflexible has some validity and might erode the game’s attraction. But then the law requires that 25 per cent of the proceeds must go to a charitable cause, which is a new requirement and will affect profits. And the 50 per cent requirement, in some instances, may also cut into the profits of operators who will act as agents under the new legislation. The flexibility that allowed higher payouts than 50 per cent also allowed lower payments. And that is also a difficulty.

In a statement, Mr Stanton said he was making “a modest proposal” that aims to ensure that charities receive their fair share and make the whole process more transparent.

“It has always been the case under the 1956 Gaming and Lotteries Act that a bingo operator could act as an agent of a lottery licence holder but that licence holder must be a charitable or philanthropic cause. This is not changing,” he said.

“I don’t accept that these changes will stop anyone playing bingo - a game which is renowned for its social appeal. Given its social appeal, people do not play bingo based solely on the prize level, if they did, they would likely gamble elsewhere.”

The Bingo Players Association said Mr Stanton had shown a “total lack of understanding of the game of bingo and the fallout he has caused”.

“If he took the time to meet us, he would understand that bingo with a 50 per cent cap on prize pay-outs is absolutely unworkable,” said the group’s spokeswoman Naomi Reilly.

“The Minister has gone out of his way to deliberately not understand that we won’t play a game where we lose half of our money before we even start.”

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