Until now, gambling in Ireland was like the lawless frontier of the American Wild West. The principal law, The Gaming and Lotteries Act, dates from 1956. The Betting Act is even older, enacted in 1931.
That meant that gambling legislation in Ireland is well over half a century old. And completely useless. To all intents and purposes gambling in Ireland has been unregulated for decades. It was a problem 30 years ago but in the last decade and a half – with the explosion of online betting – the need for reform has become critical.
It’s not just the activity. It’s how the nature of betting has changed. There are the guerrilla tactics and inducements used by betting companies to lure punters; the explosion of online betting and gaming; the sponsorships; the in-your-face advertising; the emergence of ‘live betting’ on games and events. The later have acted like a virtual opiate for many young men who bet continuously during a game on their smartphones.
The Gambling Regulation Bill has been on the table for over 15 years now. There have been six successive ministers who progressed it without ever getting it over the line. It had become a little bit like Seanad reform – a worthy objective but something that was continually long-fingered.
It is a singular achievement by James Browne, the Minister of State for Law Reform, to finally get the Bill over the line. He decided when he was appointed in 2020 that the time for talk and consultation was over. His priority was to publish.
It is far more than a box-ticking exercise. This is a comprehensive and tough piece of legislation that will not only regulate the betting industry but will impose restrictions on advertising, marking and sponsorship. The underlying rationale is that the young and vulnerable need to be protected – in addition to those who have fallen prey to addiction. In that regard, it has achieved its aims. When enacted this law will fundamentally change the gambling landscape in Ireland.
It is sometimes forgotten how big the industry is in Ireland. It is between €6 billion to €8 billion.
The industry has been essentially self-regulated until now. Until a few years ago, the budgets allocated to awareness and treating problem gamblers was minuscule compared to the lavish spend on marketing. There has been a rethink and correction since then. But it’s not credible – and the industry acknowledges this – for this deeply unsatisfactory situation to continue.
At the press conference on Tuesday, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee referred to the devastation that addiction has caused to young men in particular who have run up unimaginable debts. Dozens of elite sportspeople, including Armagh hero Oisin McConville, and Galway and Westmeath hurler Davy Glennon, have spoken publicly about their addiction.
“I acknowledge that people get enjoyment from gambling but it has a detrimental impact on some people. It can have huge ramifications for their family and extended family,” said McEntee.
So often, many people want to get help but find it very difficult to do so,” she added.
Trying to capture everything that happens online is like King Canute trying to stop the waves But the new Bill makes a game effort. It defines betting services as widely as possible, including physical, online, virtual events, betting exchanges and gaming services. It essentially endeavours to cover everything which involves a stake, with the possibility of loss or gain.
At the heart of the legislation is the seven-member Gambling Regulatory Authority of Ireland and its chief executive, Anne Marie Caulfied. It will have sweeping powers, not only in requiring mandatory licences, but also in setting down conditions for licences. Its remit will also cover advertising, sponsorship, protecting problem gamblers, and ensuring children are not exposed in any way to the industry.
There are substantial administrative penalties (up to €20 million or 10 per cent of takeover) for companies that breach the terms of their licence or fall foul of the more serious provisions. It is backed up by criminal sanctions, including imprisonment of up to eight years for those who fail, for example, to protect children from gambling.
The list of restrictions goes on. Social media advertising is prohibited. Children are also prohibited form entering a gambling premises. Inducements such as ‘free bets’, VIP treatment, free credit, and free hospitality are all banned. Adults will have to actively ‘opt in’ to receive betting advertisements online.
There’s a ban on TV and online advertising between 5.30am and 9pm. Sports clubs with players under the age of 18 cannot be sponsored by a betting company. Browne actually told the press conference he considered banning advertising completely but felt it was ultimately disproportionate.
The Bill will introduce a Social Impact Fund, financed by a levy on the industry. It will be used for education, awareness and treating problem gamblers. Credit card betting is banned. There is a new national exclusion register. Every licensed company will be obliged to ensure that a person who excludes themselves from gambling will not be able to access their services.
If the Regulator can’t deal with an unlicensed betting company based outside the jurisdiction it will have power to apply to the courts to get the Irish internet service provider to block that site across all online platforms.
James Browne said on Tuesday that the new law was tougher than many had expected. It certainly looks that way and is a tribute to his perseverance. Time will tell if it will have the desired impact.