Last week’s announcement in the UK that using a credit card to gamble would be banned from April 14th was the latest step in a concerted effort by the Conservative government to tighten gambling regulations.
Of the 24 million people who gamble in the UK, around 800,000 use a credit card to do so, meaning they are essentially betting with money they must then repay and, in some cases, do not have.
For the vast majority of people, gambling is a responsible pursuit and provides a social benefit through enjoyment but, when it comes to those who gamble using a credit card, the number of problem gamblers is disproportionately high. In the UK about 1 per cent of the population are problem gamblers but among those who gamble online using a credit card about 22 per cent of them have gambling issues.
In Northern Ireland, where the ban will also come into effect, 2.8 per cent of the population have a gambling problem while in the Republic that figure is about 1 per cent, or roughly around 40,000 people.
In the UK the new ban on credit cards was imposed by the Gambling Commission who tightly regulate the industry. In the Republic of Ireland there is no regulator. For anyone looking to gamble with a credit card here the option is still very much open.
Barry Grant is the founder of Problem Gambling Ireland which is an independent advice service for anyone suffering with gambling issues. He says that maxing out credit cards and getting into debt is a common theme among people who seek help from his charity.
“It’s one of the first things that people will go to if they’re chasing their losses which is one of the most common factors people with gambling problems will have,” he says.
“So it’s that inability to cut your losses and walk away. People will be chasing their losses and credit cards are relatively easy to get compared to other types of loans or credit so it’s usually the first place people will turn to, get the maximum credit limit they can and quite often we’d see people who’d hit their credit limit within a single session even with a brand new credit card they got.”
While those sorts of cases will now become a thing of the past in the North and across the Irish Sea, customers in Ireland will still be able to rack up the same credit card debts.
In 2005, Tony Blair's Labour government in the UK deregulated the industry with the Gambling Act which led to the boom in bookmakers placing themselves front and centre in the sporting world. That has led to the tidal wave in gambling advertising around football in particular – see 10 of the 20 Premier League teams which now carry a gambling company's logo on their shirt, while Derby County have taken it to a new level recently with a "star player clause" which has allowed online casino 32Red to give the club an extra £1.5 million to fund the signing of Wayne Rooney who, not so coincidentally, wears squad number 32.
Another recent development has been Tottenham Hotspur’s team announcements on Twitter which are now not only sponsored by William Hill but also include a link to the online market to bet on the match with a cursory “(18+)” at the end of the tweet.
But even the £69m that comes into the Premier League through shirt sponsorship from gambling companies could be in danger from new regulations in the UK with The Times reporting last week that jersey sponsorship from bookmakers may soon be banned, as it is in many European countries.
Shirt sponsorship from gambling companies is not really seen in Ireland and last November Bohemians dropped online casino Mr Green, who are owned by William Hill, as their shirt sponsor after wearing the logo for six seasons since 2014. Gambling company sponsorship is also banned in the GAA but it’s in other areas where Ireland continues to lag way behind the UK in protecting consumers from potential dangers.
For instance, in February of last year the Gambling Commission in the UK scrapped the 72-hour window that gambling companies were given to verify the age and details of new customers. New customers must now be verified before they can deposit money into accounts and bet.
In Ireland this is still not the case and it is quite easy for anyone under the age of 18 to sign up to a betting website, deposit money and bet instantly while also availing of the usual free bet offers given to new sign-ups. The catch is that the customer will not be able to withdraw any funds until they provide proof of age.
Add to that the decision last March in the UK to reduce the maximum stake on popular fixed odds betting terminals in shops – often described as the crack cocaine of gambling – from £100 to £2 and it’s clear just how proactive the UK is being in attempting to curb problem gambling.
So, what of the UK’s nearest neighbours over here in Ireland?
Well, in a country widely acknowledged to be tightly wedded to gambling with the third highest rate of losses per capita of any country in the world, there is no regulator of the gambling industry and the current legislation dates from the Betting Act of 1931 and the Gaming and Lotteries Act of 1956 – a time when many people in the country didn’t even have electricity let alone devices in their pockets to gamble at any time of the day or night while credit cards had only just come into existence in the US.
A new Gambling Control Bill has been delayed in the Dáil since 2013 and is currently at stage three of the five Dáil stages it must pass through before then going through five stages in the Seanad, before it is eventually signed into law by the President.
An interim reform measure was signed into law by the President last December which updates a few areas of the Gaming and Lotteries Act, such as increasing the maximum stake on gaming machines from sixpence (in the old Act) to €5 and the maximum payout from 10 shillings to €500, while also setting the minimum age for gambling at the Tote to 18.
A recent report published by the working group described the current two Acts as having “little or no provisions for the appropriate modern regulation and compliance oversight of the activities covered”.
Through a system seen in very few industries, gambling companies are expected to self-regulate in Ireland. It’s not hard to see where the obvious flaws can arise there and any Google search for cases of customers gambling with stolen money in Ireland shows how frequent they are and indeed it is one of the jobs of the regulator in the UK to ensure gambling companies fully investigate customers betting with money that they may not have.
Last March, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the introduction of a gambling regulator in Ireland would take at least 18 months, which gives a timeframe up to September of this year, but there has been very little movement on that since and the recently called general election may delay proceedings further.
Grant says he doesn’t understand why the proposed legislation has stalled for so long in the Dáil but he thinks the tightened restrictions in the UK set a precedent that Ireland should follow.
“If we could get in line with the UK ban on credit card gambling that would be huge,” he says. “They’ve been floating that for a long time in the UK and I honestly never thought they’d get it over the line. I’m very surprised and impressed and it sets a really good precedent as well.
“That’s [the credit card ban] something that’s not in the Gambling Control Bill from 2013 so to bring it in line with best practice of our nearest neighbour would be huge but most of the other stuff that’s in the Gambling Control Bill is good. Even having a regulator in place just to enforce the rules and bring the rules up to modern day levels.
“I founded this charity four years ago and the charity sector, which is not for profit, has a regulator. Now there’s billions at stake in the charity sector, there’s a lot of money that moves around so it’s only right and proper that there should be a regulator. But the gambling industry, which is for profit and whose main goal is to get as much money out of your pocket as humanly possible, has no regulator. It’s just nuts, it’s bizarre.”
When asked by The Irish Times whether or not the legislation currently being discussed might look at a credit card ban in Ireland, a spokesperson for David Stanton, Minister of State with special responsibility for gambling, said it was “a matter for further consideration” and that the current laws “do not contain any restriction on the method of payment for a bet”.
With an election now looming, gambling legislation may be put on the back burner again and while the UK’s impending exit from the European Union makes our nearest neighbours seem further away than ever, moving closer to the precedents set by the UK to protect consumers from gambling problems looks like a wise move for Ireland.
– This article is part of a series of consumer-based sports stories. If you have any queries, stories or issues regarding travel, tickets, sport on television or anything else you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Ruaidhri_Croke.