I beg to move,
That this House
takes note of and approves the Report pursuant to Section 3(11) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 - Gambling, which was laid before this House on Wednesday
I present to the House a report that provides an update on the current nature of the gambling laws in Northern Ireland. As many Members will be aware, the gambling legislation in Northern Ireland differs from that in place in Great Britain, and the report recognises the challenges associated with the likes of online gambling and fixed odds betting terminals and notes that existing legislation has not kept pace with industry and technological changes.
A high-level strategic review of gambling policy, practice and law is currently being carried out by the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland. There have been some moves towards more thorough regulation of gambling in Northern Ireland in recent years. As a result of the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014, for example, it is an offence for an online gambling operator to advertise to Northern Ireland consumers unless it holds the appropriate GB Gambling Commission licence and complies with its codes of practice. However, the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which regulates gaming machines in Northern Ireland, has become increasingly outdated and contains no provisions related to online gambling. The introduction of any measures to address online gambling will require primary legislation. The report also highlights the lack of specific services commissioned by the Health and Social Care Board to help those suffering from gambling addiction. No data are kept on the number of people dealing with addiction, but we are all aware that this is a growing problem among all age groups. There are no statutory codes of practice in place in Northern Ireland, nor is there any statutory or voluntary arrangement with the gambling industry requiring any contribution to funding support services for problem gambling.
Gambling operators in Northern Ireland have taken some positive steps towards addressing the impact of gambling addiction, by reducing the maximum stakes in fixed odds betting terminals from £100 to £2, for example. That mirrors the law set out in Great Britain under the Gaming Machine (Miscellaneous Amendments and Revocation) Regulations 2018, but it is voluntary, rather than statutory action. In addition, the industry’s main trade associations, the Northern Ireland Turf Guardians Association, representing more than 80% of bookmaking offices, and the Northern Ireland Amusement Caterers Trade Association, representing 60% of the amusement arcade/gaming machine sector, state that they are committed to implementing social responsibility measures. Both organisations state that their members voluntarily adhere to industry codes of practice and protocols, and provide induction and regular refresher training to staff on all aspects of social responsibility. Both organisations state that members operate self-exclusion schemes for customers who wish to avail of them.
Many operators contribute to Dunlewey Addiction Services, one of a number of resources available for problem gamblers. Dunlewey operates a free confidential helpline service, 365 days a year, between 9 am and 11pm, for individuals affected by their own or a family member’s problem gambling issues, with a 48-hour referral commitment, and has local access to counselling available across Northern Ireland. The NHS has services dedicated to all forms of addiction, including problem gambling, and where a person who is struggling with problem gambling has a mental health issue, whether related or unrelated to the gambling, such as anxiety or depression arising from the consequences of gambling, they should receive the appropriate help and treatment in the health and social care system for that condition.
As I said at the outset, there is no doubt that regulatory arrangements for gambling in Northern Ireland differ greatly from those in place in Great Britain. Following a review of the legislation and a public consultation, the Northern Ireland Executive agreed, in 2012, to the drafting of new legislation to modernise the law on gambling, which would have delivered some element of alignment. However, the then Minister for Communities decided not to progress this legislation. So I welcome the opportunity to open this topic for debate in the House and look forward to hearing from hon. Members across the House on this issue.
I rise as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for gambling related harm. The Minister alluded to the fact that legislation in Northern Ireland fails to protect problem gamblers. For example, there is outdated regulation. He mentioned FOBTs and how the gambling companies so “willingly” reduced the stake to £2 from £100, but the law in Northern Ireland would be that the stake could be 25p, which is a considerable difference from what those companies have done out of the goodness of their heart. Online gambling is technically illegal in Northern Ireland, so the online gambling companies are advertising illegally and making vast profits illegally.
Given the Gambling Commission’s reluctance to challenge these companies to make sure that they pay for their misconduct in Northern Ireland, there is something amiss and we need to act to make sure that people in Northern Ireland get the same protections as those in the United Kingdom. Shockingly, no gambling-specific services are currently commissioned by the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Board, as a result of which there are no data on the number of problem gamblers in Northern Ireland. We used such statistics very effectively in the United Kingdom when tackling the FOBT problems, so may we have some clarity on what more we can do to bring gambling legislation in Northern Ireland into line with that in the UK, so that we can protect gamblers?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. One particular challenge in Northern Ireland—[Interruption.] Had she finished?
I do not think she had given way. Let us just clarify this. Have you finished your speech?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and I apologise to Carolyn Harris. I thought she had given way, but it was clear from her demeanour that she had not.
I want to raise the particular problem in Northern Ireland, which is that online gambling and gambling appears to operate under the regulation of the Gambling Commission but if something goes wrong with that, there is no body to complain to. I am dealing with a case where there is an issue with online gambling. I have tried to make a complaint, but I have been told by the Department for Communities and by the Gambling Commission that they have no remit over it. I have been told that they make the regulations under which these sites operate, but if there is a breach of those regulations there is nobody to complain to and nobody to investigate that breach. Does Fiona Bruce agree that that needs to be urgently addressed, given the scale of the issues in Northern Ireland?
I do; in fact, as I understand it the oversight in respect of gambling responsibilities in Northern Ireland is completely unco-ordinated. The report admits that licensing responsibilities currently rest with a mixture of
“the courts, district councils and the Department for Communities.”
That is unacceptable.
This brief report on gambling law and policy in Northern Ireland was a demoralising read. That is no reflection on the good and caring Minister who presented it, but early in his speech he recognised the fact that in Northern Ireland this policy area has been left behind compared with elsewhere. That leaves me with great sadness. The report was meant to outline progress on six specific, enumerated areas. For years, little progress, if any, has been made on this hugely important matter that so devastatingly affects people’s lives. I am always a little thoughtful—I will not use the word “suspicious”—when a response to questions that are enumerated fails to repeat the enumeration, as in this case. It is sad, because we know from what the Assembly has done on human trafficking, which we have just heard about, that innovative policy and legislation in Northern Ireland are possible.
We all know from the many debates and discussions in the Chamber on gambling about the huge damage that gambling addiction can cause. It can destroy individual lives. Children and families suffer. The flaws in gambling law and policy have been debated at length in this place. We have taken positive steps in the form of reducing the stake on fixed-odds betting terminals from £100 to £2, following widespread campaigning. I pay tribute to Carolyn Harris for her leadership in much of that campaigning.
We continue to debate and consider this issue. The all-party group for on gambling related harm is currently conducting an extensive inquiry—it has been going for several months—into the harms related to online gambling. We have looked into how we can increase the support provided on the NHS for those suffering from gambling addiction, and we have looked at how to increase the amount of money provided by betting companies to support those suffering from gambling addiction. Of course, we need to go further, and there is no room for complacency, but it is entirely evident from the report that the lack of progress in Northern Ireland must be causing real harm there—and that in a place where I understand gambling may be far worse than it is here.
So, what are some of the problems? As we have heard, the fact that gambling in Northern Ireland is still governed by an order, passed under direct rule, that dates back to 1985 is quite remarkable. That legislation predates the invention of the internet and widespread access to mobile phones, which have revolutionised how individuals gamble in the UK. It is no surprise to discover that the legislation struggles to cope with how the modern gambling industry operates. That is especially evident with regard to FOBTs and online gambling. I, too, have heard that there is no clarity as to whether FOBTs are even legal in Northern Ireland, and the report itself states that
“the legal position of these machines is unclear”.
I, too, have heard that there is a strong argument that they are in fact illegal in Northern Ireland because they do not meet the definition in the 1985 legislation that states how slot machines are supposed to work.
The Northern Ireland Department for Communities estimates that currently around 800 to 900 FOBTs are operating in Northern Ireland, although in January the main trade association, the Northern Ireland Turf Guardians Association, estimated that there were 620. The differential is of major concern. The fact that the Department can only provide an estimate highlights a major issue: an inadequate understanding of the extent of this form of gambling—a form that we have recognised does such damage and that has been referred to more than once as the crack cocaine of gambling. I welcome the fact that some betting shops have voluntarily reduced stakes for FOBTs in Northern Ireland, but the people of Northern Ireland should not have to rely on the good will of operators to determine the way that gambling operates in the Province. The fact is that only the main operators—not all providers—are operating a £2 maximum stake. Consumers are not being given the protection they need.
It is obvious that the law in Northern Ireland is not fit for purpose any more. Indeed, the report says that the order of 1985 has become increasingly outdated, has not kept pace with industry and technological changes and contains no provisions that relate to online gambling. It needs to change as it simply cannot cope with the reality of how individuals gamble today and the operation of the industry. It is not protecting consumers who are vulnerable to gambling addiction. It is in desperate need of reform.
Not only is the law clearly failing, but support for those suffering from gambling addiction is clearly completely inadequate in Northern Ireland. The report makes for especially stark reading in this regard. It notes that
“there are no statutory codes of practice in Northern Ireland, nor is there any statutory or voluntary arrangement with the gambling industry requiring any contribution to funding support services for problem gambling.”
This in and of itself is a major concern as it appears that the gambling industry is simply operating on trust in Northern Ireland, unlike in Great Britain. Relying on the gambling industry, as the report says, to implement socially responsible measures is simply unacceptable.
In reading the report, we also discover that
“there are no gambling specific services commissioned by the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Board”, as we have heard,
“and therefore the Board does not hold data regarding the number of people who are seeking treatment for problem gambling.”
I am informed that, in fact, only one of the five health and social care trusts operating in Northern Ireland holds data on the number of individuals coming forward suffering from gambling addiction. Is it any wonder that the significance of this issue has not come to light when no data are collected about it centrally?
Before I conclude, may I recognise that it is positive that, as a result of some local authorities calling on betting providers to adopt that £2 stake in their area voluntarily, that is happening? However, as I have said, these arrangements are not backed up by the force of law. People can still walk into some betting shops in Northern Ireland and place a much higher stake than £2. However, I do want to pay tribute to the campaigning charity CARE, which has worked very effectively with local councillors in Northern Ireland to achieve these positive council resolutions.
In England, in a really welcome step forward, the current Government recently announced that the NHS would fund 14 clinics for individuals suffering from gambling addiction, with one focused on children and young people. In Northern Ireland, there is not a single clinic.
We then read in the report that the trade association contributes only £24,000 per year to one addiction service provider—the Dunlewey Centre. I must confess that, when I read that figure of £24,000, I thought that a couple of zeros were surely missing, but apparently not. This is a drop in the ocean in terms of what is necessary in a jurisdiction that, according to statistics that I have been given, has a problem gambling prevalence of 2.3% of all adults in Northern Ireland. That equates to 30,000 to 40,000 adults in Northern Ireland today. The only figure produced in this report of people who have been helped is just 82 users at the Dunlewey Centre. There appears to be less than £1 provided for each person who is experiencing problem gambling.
The situation with gambling in Northern Ireland is nothing less than tragic—I do not think that that is too strong a word to use to describe the current situation. It highlights yet another reason why the Northern Ireland Executive need to return. I believe in devolution. I want Northern Irish politicians, alongside others, to solve this problem. I appreciate the huge difficulties between the parties in Northern Ireland, but what this report highlights once again is how real people are suffering owing to the lack of governance in place.
Northern Ireland, as I have said, has a high rate of gambling prevalence. It is possibly as much as four times higher than in England, but it has virtually non-existent support for individuals suffering from problem gambling and legislation that is not fit for purpose. This has to change—real people and their families, particularly their children, are suffering because of this sorry situation which has been allowed to develop. I sincerely hope that the Northern Ireland parties can get the Executive back, so they can act in this matter as well as in so many others.
Whatever people’s views about the purview of the reports and the appropriateness of talking about them within this particular piece of legislation, I think they have really shone a light on some situations in Northern Ireland that have shocked many people in the House. People who have worked in this area for some time have been asking some very valid questions on behalf of people and families in Northern Ireland, and that must be a good thing. We would also like the Assembly up and running to take this work and legislation forward. In an outpouring of unanimity around some of these issues, I agree with the Minister; the situation is clearly outdated and there is a real lack of specific services.
It is estimated that problem gambling in Northern Ireland may be up to four times that in England. That really is quite an extraordinary figure. It is really important to shine a light on that and to understand the real impact on individuals, families and communities. The other thing that has struck many of us who have looked at the report is the hard work addressing this issue will involve and the pressure on local authorities, which are already heavily overstretched. They try to do great work, but are they really in a position to be able to manage this level of workload on top of everything else? That needs to be taken into consideration.
The report repeatedly mentions the need for the Health and Social Care Board to provide mental health services, but those of us who spend time in Northern Ireland know that its ability to provide additional mental health services is compromised in an area that is already so heavily stretched and in a community where the demand for mental health services is so much greater than in Great Britain, owing to Northern Ireland’s recent history. I would question the board’s ability suitably to provide the services needed by individuals, families and—as I think the hon. Member for Congleton mentioned—children. We are only just beginning to understand the impact of addictive behaviours on children, and we really need to be able to have that learning read across from England, Scotland and Wales into Northern Ireland somehow, with or without the Assembly.
The reports we are discussing really highlight the need for—dare I say—some greater harmonisation with Great Britain in some areas where people’s wellbeing is so starkly affected. I agree that the report we see today is limited in scope, but maybe the work will continue, given that the issue has now been so starkly highlighted. The system is obviously desperately in need of reform.
Once again, we have to ask the question: where are they? The House is silent. There are hardly any Members here who called for these reports to be issued. The Labour Benches are not heaving with people ready to give us their weighty opinions on matters that they claimed to care about, such as gambling and problem issues in Northern Ireland. The Labour Benches are silent; the air is not pervaded with their wonderful views and wisdom. No, the House is silent—yet, those Members told us they wanted to ask numerous questions of the Government: to hold them to account for what they are doing in Northern Ireland. They wanted so much to legislate on these matters, but I cannot hear anything because their Benches, with the exception of one or two Members who have their own commitments to these issues, are empty. It is amazing, and my constituents are asking, “What conclusion are we to draw? Is it that they actually don’t care?” That is a fair conclusion to draw if those Members want to legislate on these matters, and then, when we come to discuss the reports on them, they do not bother to turn up. One is left with the conclusion that they actually do not care.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I am here and I did speak up? It is a matter of record that I have a real interest in this, in any part of the United Kingdom—I am not invisible.
We are dealing with section 4. I understand that, quite rightly, the point has been made and the hon. Gentleman has got it on the record, but I am sure that as the spokesperson for the DUP on gambling he desperately wants to get to the points that are relevant.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Of course, as I have said, the hon. Lady—my hon. Friend—has a particular and well-known interest in this, but the Members who brought forward the legislation are not here, and I think that is a fair point to make. It is important for my constituents out there watching this event to understand who really cares about these issues, and to see that we are left to mop up the political issues that Members bring before us.
I am sorry to say to the Minister that this report on the Executive Formation Act and gambling is utterly irrelevant. It says that there is no work done in this area. In 2016, the Department of Health, and then the Department for Communities and Local Government, commissioned a report on the prevalence of gambling. They found that the levels of gambling in Northern Ireland were slightly higher—about 2% higher—than in England, about equal with Scotland, and slightly higher than in Wales. That is not mentioned in the report. It did not talk about those issues of prevalence. It was about setting down a measurement of where the issue of gambling rests. We should be targeting issues that it has identified, such as how we cope with problem gambling—the actual figures.
Facts are stubborn things. The facts were recorded by the Departments, and that should have been reflected in this report. I do not blame the Government for bringing forward an utterly irrelevant report. They were asked to commission a report in a fit of pique by some Members of this House, and now they have rushed into bringing forward a report that is irrelevant because it has not even dealt with some of the issues that exist.
The laws that pertain to gaming and gambling in Northern Ireland are already very different from those that obtain in the rest of the United Kingdom. Indeed, this matter, as Members across the House have rightly said, ought to be left to the Assembly unless we are prepared to introduce a root-and-branch change to all gaming and gambling legislation in Northern Ireland and make it identical to the rest the UK. Let us look at where things would then be different. For example, in English high streets we see four or five competing gambling companies running the same shops, neighbour to neighbour, on the same street, whereas in Northern Ireland we see maybe one gaming or gambling shop in a street, and then several streets away there might be another one.
I have heard Members of this House demanding that that sort of thing should happen in England. The fact is that it happens in Northern Ireland by agreement among the betting shop owners. There are, in effect, only about three major betting shop owners in Northern Ireland, and they have made that agreement among themselves. Yet that is not reflected in the report either. Would we like to import what has happened in Northern Ireland, which is a good thing, to the rest of the United Kingdom, or would we like to import what has happened in England and have numerous betting shops lined along street after street in Northern Ireland? I think that my constituents, and all my colleagues, would object to seeing their streets having loads of these shops. We do not have the prevalence of these shops that England has. We have no Sunday betting at all. In England, people can bet seven days a week. It is not possible to go into a betting shop in Northern Ireland on the Sabbath and bet; we have that restriction. Will we just import those regulations into Northern Ireland and change Northern Ireland’s culture? That would be crazy.
Although some aspects of the legislation in Northern Ireland are perhaps positive, many aspects require reform. Does my hon. Friend agree that, although there is no gambling in shops on Sundays, given the evolution of gambling—for example, online and through devices—the situation has moved on, but our laws have not, and we now need and are committed to bringing forward new, fit-for-purpose legislation?
Yes. I will come back to that point, because it is very important that we change the law in that way.
I turn to the matter of FOBTs. It has been said in the House tonight—wrongly—that people can walk into any gambling shop in Northern Ireland and place a £100 bet. They cannot. Betting on FOBTs is now the same by agreement in Northern Ireland as it is in England, with only up to a £2 stake. Whether we would like to see that stopped altogether is a completely separate matter. The fact is that Northern Ireland’s betting shops regulated themselves. They recognised that this was changing, and instead of waiting, as they could have, until the Northern Ireland Assembly came back and continuing to rake in the funds that FOBTs would have given them, they decided to self-regulate and impose that restriction themselves. It is therefore not possible for someone to walk into a betting shop and place those bets.
People can, however, walk into an illegal club and place bets on FOBTs. They can walk into a pub that should not have FOBTs and place those bets. Most of those pubs and clubs are run by paramilitary organisations, but is there any regulation or policing of those matters? I understand that when the betting shop owners ring up and report those illegal clubs, dens and vices, the police say, “That’s too much hassle for us. That could cause major problems. We don’t want to run into the paramilitaries on those particular issues.” That is where the real problem lies, and that is where we should be focusing our attention and pushing to ensure that those illegal activities are stamped out.
The major contribution that betting shops make to horse-racing in particular in Northern Ireland is very different from how horse-racing is regulated here on the mainland. Horse-racing is regulated through a completely different system. The only reason we have a racetrack—one functioning racetrack—now in Northern Ireland is that betting shops have to pay a levy. Every single shop that exists in Northern Ireland has to pay, I think, £1,600 per year to the company that runs the racetrack. If we regulate betting in Northern Ireland in the same way it is regulated in the rest of the United Kingdom, racing will come to an end in Northern Ireland. That is a fact of life. As the betting shops will tell you, people bet more on athletics, football and other things than they do on horse-racing. The betting shops subsidise the horse-racing industry in Northern Ireland, and that would go.
Those are the facts. People can make their own judgment on whether that is a good thing, but those matters need to be addressed, and they are not addressed through this report. If we bring things into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, those would be the impacts. The big issue is illegal gambling. That has to be addressed, and the sooner it is addressed, the better.
My hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly put her finger on the key point: we have a largely unregulated industry. It is done by voluntary agreement. It is run by 35-year-old legislation. That is completely and totally unacceptable, and it needs to be brought up to date. But there is only one place competent to bring it up to date. It is not this Chamber—look who is interested. Let us not kid ourselves. It is the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is why the Opposition Members who pressed the Government to legislate should have realised how big a mess they were creating, because they are not addressing the real issue. That 1985 legislation is so antiquated that only the Assembly is fit to grapple with it.
That is why we would like the Assembly to be encouraged. That is why I encourage the Minister, as I did in an earlier debate in the House, to call a meeting of the Assembly tomorrow at 10 am and see who turns up. My party will turn up in total and other parties will turn up, but I bet that not one Member from Sinn Féin will turn up, because they have the Government and this House over the barrel. They do not have to turn up, and that is where the real disgrace lies.
Nationally, as my hon. Friend intimated, the issue is online gaming. Someone drunk can pick up a phone and gamble away to their heart’s content. They can lose their wage by playing with one of these toys or a gaming machine all night. Someone drunk cannot go into a betting shop and cannot be served alcohol in a betting shop, but they can drink away and play on a phone. Where does the money go when they play on this? It goes to Spain and other parts of the world, and the Government reap no benefit from it whatsoever. Unless the Government grapple with this issue, the companies that run online gaming are going to make the most out of gambling, and the taxpayer and the tax collector are going to receive zero.
The report touches on one other absolutely crucial matter, which is that there is no support for people who require treatment. Fiona Bruce touched on that. It is a disgrace that there is no assistance. The Government are quite happy to lift the levy from betting shops, but put that levy elsewhere. That money should go towards the treatment of people who are problem-gambling. I will leave those thoughts with you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I, too, thank the Members here for making the effort to be present. Carolyn Harris is always here when a debate on gambling is taking place, and Fiona Bruce never misses an occasion to comment on these issues. The fact that there may not be as many here tonight does not mean that it is of any less interest to the people in this House. It is important to put that on the record. Those of us who are here are here for a purpose, and we are here to have our voice heard.
I am very grateful for the report on gambling, which has been produced under section 3(11) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act. The report proves to be a sobering read about the state of the law on gambling, and the support provided for those suffering from gambling addiction.
I have had the pleasure of being with Peter and Sadie Keogh, who are working with a newly formed charity, Gambling with Lives. They were in Westminster earlier this year. I have known them for some time, and I have met them in my office. They are not my constituents; both Pete and Sadie are from Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. Their son Lewis tragically took his own life after a battle with gambling addiction. Therefore, their story is of critical importance. Their experience really brought home to me the dreadful reality of gambling addiction: the damage it can do to individuals and families. They have become diligent campaigners on this issue, seeking to help to ensure that others do not go through the experience they, sadly, went through.
I had the pleasure to attend that event to raise awareness. Does my hon. Friend agree that what was really striking was what a slippery slope there is? It very often started with very young people getting access inappropriately to these sites—it is a bit of fun to put £1 on here and £2 on there—and it really consumed their lives and ended up taking their lives in the most tragic of circumstances. Does my hon. Friend agree that we also need to look at how we protect young people with access to social media and the internet—virtually without regulation—from being sucked into these types of initiative?
The Minister agrees very clearly that those issues also need to be dealt with.
People cannot read the report and not realise that we have a significant problem in this area in Northern Ireland, but the past is the past, and there have been various reasons why gambling legislation and the policy have not been updated. We are where we are, and it is evident to me that change is badly needed.
According to the research published in 2017 by the Department for Communities, Northern Ireland has the highest problem gambling prevalence rate in the United Kingdom: 2.3% of the adults surveyed were deemed to be problem gamblers. This equates to some 30,000 to 40,000 adults in Northern Ireland, and it is proportionally over four times the rate in England, which at the time stood at 0.5%. As the Minister in the other place put it, the situation with problem gambling in Northern Ireland is “extraordinary”. What an understatement that word is when we look at the magnitude of the addiction.
I understand that we have no data on the number of children and young people who are addicted to gambling in Northern Ireland, but according to CARE—Christian Action Research and Education—if the figure is equivalent to what it is in Great Britain, according to Gambling Commission research, it would equate to about 2,360 children —the very point mentioned by my hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly. Again, facts are facts. Northern Ireland is in a serious place, and that cannot be ignored. Each of those individuals matters. Those adults and young people have families, and they come from the different communities in Northern Ireland. Gambling addiction can wreak havoc on their lives at enormous cost. Despite the significant problem we have, we discover that no figures are collected by the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Board on the number of individuals seeking help for problem gambling. Only one health and social care trust, the Southern Trust, collects data on the numbers seeking help in its area. Maybe it is time that other trusts did the same.
In addition, England has 14 NHS clinics for adults and children suffering from problem gambling, but Northern Ireland does not have even one. It is time that that was addressed. The Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Board does not commission any gambling addiction-specific services. It should, indeed must, because of the addiction levels in Northern Ireland, and perhaps the Minister could respond on that point.
In addition to the dearth of support coming from the agencies of the state in Northern Ireland, we also discover from the report that the Northern Ireland Turf Guardians Association provides only £24,000 in support to Dunlewey, which provides support for individuals suffering from problem gambling. That strikes me as a very low figure considering the enormous profits being made by the gambling industry. It is time to shake the sector’s tree and get the gambling industry’s hands out of its pockets.
I was very glad to hear that five of the biggest gambling operators in the UK have committed to providing £100 million over four years to support individuals suffering from problem gambling and for research in this area. I welcome those steps, which are good news, but I would like to ask the Minister several questions. I gave his parliamentary private secretary a copy of my questions in advance. I do not expect the Minister to have all the answers to hand, but I would like responses to my questions at some point in the future. Considering the fact that a number of those operators provide services in Northern Ireland, will any of that money come to us? We should have the benefit of it, because from what we read in the report it could really help to make a difference.
I had the privilege of playing a role in seeing an option for online gamblers to have a one-stop shop for exclusion from all gambling websites, through the new GamStop service. We debated the need for that five years ago during the passage of the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014. Given the increasing importance of the online gambling sector, now nearly 40% of the market, the need has become more acute. The Gambling Commission said that GamStop would be in place by spring of 2018. Some 18 months later, it is not yet fully launched. I am never critical of the Minister, as he knows, but I have to ask him what is going on. Despite reports last week suggesting that the roll-out of the scheme across the UK, with all gambling companies being required to sign up to GamStop, would take place in a matter of days, a Gambling Commission spokesman subsequently suggested that that reporting was inaccurate. Some clarity is needed on whether it is in place, when it will be in place and when it will be in action. I understand that as of last Friday over 97,000 people had signed up.
I commend the work of GamStop and the fact that it will be available in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister will indulge me in asking a series of questions. Can he tell us when GamStop is expected to be launched nationally? How will GamStop keep track of whether people in Northern Ireland sign up and whether the numbers are in line with expectations? If not, is it not time to set targets? How will people in Northern Ireland be informed of GamStop when it is finally launched?
That brings me to the concerning lack of regulation for online gambling in Northern Ireland. At the time of the 1985 order, the internet did not exist. Today, most of us cannot imagine life without the internet, but the regulatory framework in Northern Ireland completely ignores it. It is unbelievable that, as online gambling has come in, we have not moved on and responded to what is happening in modern society. That does not mean that online gambling is unavailable—far from it—but it means that it is available without regulation of any sort, and that worries me greatly.
The exception is section 5 of the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014, which makes it an offence to advertise unlicensed remote gambling in Northern Ireland. That means that only an organisation that holds a remote gambling licence with the GB Gambling Commission can advertise in Northern Ireland without committing an offence. We were told that:
“As a result, consumers here can be assured that they will continue to have the same protection as consumers in GB from the advertising of remote gambling.”
I hope the Minister will be able to assure us that section 5 has been effective and that there are no unlicensed operators advertising in Northern Ireland. I hope he can respond positively and, if not, I know that he will respond with the truth, as he always does. I appreciate that.
Could the Minister please tell the House how many times section 5 has been used against unlicensed remote operators? Again, I would be interested to know whether it has ever been used at all; I would certainly like to think that it has. The reassurance given previously related only to protections on advertising, but, given the lack of regulation in Northern Ireland, is anybody checking? If they are not, they should be. Tell us, Minister, who is going to check it? Who is going to make sure it is happening? Does the Gambling Commission review whether the advertising protections are the same as for consumers in the rest of the UK? Are we in Northern Ireland following those on the mainland? Maybe we are not. Maybe the Minister can tell us where we are.
It is not clear whether those licensed operators who legally advertise in Northern Ireland consider that they have any responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland or whether they are required to provide all the responsible gambling protections to Northern Ireland gamblers that they are required to provide to gamblers in other parts of GB under the Gambling Commission’s licence conditions. Are there two rules? What is happening?
For instance, in the rest of GB operators need to conduct age verification of anyone wanting to gamble, and are required to promote self-exclusion and to have policies and procedures for customer interaction where an operator has concerns that a customer’s behaviour might indicate problem gambling, as they should.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is at the heart of the difficulty in Northern Ireland, particularly for young people? These online websites advertise around sport, which many young people watch, but if they do not carry out that verification or do what they are obliged to do in Great Britain in Northern Ireland, there is no mechanism to investigate that breach. The Gambling Commission has no remit in Northern Ireland, and, as far as I can ascertain, there is no body to investigate any breaches of those regulations.
I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for that intervention. I believe that that is the case, which is why we are looking to the Minister to see what we are going to do about it. If we do not have the legislation in Northern Ireland that we should, as the hon. Members for Swansea East and for Congleton want and, I believe, every person in this House wants, let us get it in order.
The gambling report we are discussing today cites Northern Ireland industry groups “implementing social responsibility measures” and
“adhering to industry codes of practice and protocols” to protect people who might be experiencing problem gambling. Again, that is a commitment in words if not in deed.
I have five questions for the Minister, and I have asked him some already. Will the Minister clarify whether these are voluntary measures for the industry, which would at the minimum be welcome, or, where we are talking about online gambling, they are a requirement of a Gambling Commission remote operating licence? If it is only the former, I would be grateful if he can be clear about the protections that Northern Ireland online gamblers receive as a result of section 5. What redress do individuals have if they feel they have been mistreated by the online betting companies but live in Northern Ireland? If there are player protections for online gamblers in Northern Ireland under the licensing conditions, are these clear to individuals who may need them? It is important that these questions are asked, and I ask them respectfully of the Minister. My constituents have asked me them, and they see possible legislation that does not do what it should or go as far as it should, as my hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly mentioned.
Much needs to be done to bring Northern Ireland legislation into the 21st century. Bring it forward from 1985—wow!—to today. I welcome the news reported in today’s Belfast Telegraph that the Department for Communities is planning to hold a fresh consultation on gambling law and policy in the near future. I wish the near future was this week or next month—this cannot happen soon enough. I should like to hear greater detail of what the Minister in the other place described as a “high-level strategic review”. What does that mean? Both steps are helpful. Where there is good work done, let us welcome it, and where there is other work that needs to be done, let us ask for it. Of course, we need a Minister in place to execute policy change.
I hope that the Executive and the Assembly will get back up and running, so that they can tackle this important issue. Consumers need to be clear about the law and the help and support they can receive in their communities from betting companies. Whenever I think of Peter and Sadie Keogh from Fermanagh, their lost son and the many others like them, I think we need legislation not tomorrow but today. Although it will not bring the Keoghs’ son back, they and others like them are very worried about gambling in Northern Ireland. Hopefully, I have given the Minister much food for thought and many questions to answer. I know that he is well up to answering those questions. The people of Northern Ireland want to see gambling legislation in place that actually works and controls the online gambling that we are all really concerned about. It cannot happen soon enough.
We have heard a range of views in the debate, but I think that everyone has been saying one thing: we want the devolved responsibilities to be fulfilled properly by a devolved Assembly and Administration, and we want Northern Ireland’s legislation to be properly updated. I have listened to the considered views expressed by Carolyn Harris, my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and a number of Northern Ireland Members, all of whom have reached that conclusion.
We can welcome some small steps taken to regulate online gambling more effectively, such as the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014, but I note the concern expressed by Emma Little Pengelly about the enforcement of that legislation. Jim Shannon asked myriad questions about steps being taken and enforcement, and I am of course happy to write to him with as many responses as I can give, but not all the answers necessarily lie within the remit of the Northern Ireland Office today; we will need to consult colleagues in other Departments and in the Northern Ireland civil service. He mentioned the work being undertaken by the Department for Communities, which is indeed welcome, but of course the fact remains that the last ministerial decision taken in the Executive was to not go ahead with legislation, so under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019, it is difficult to see how civil servants could do much further work on legislation.
It comes back to what Ian Paisley was saying: we want these issues to be decided in a Northern Ireland Assembly by a restored Executive. There are important issues to be dealt with. The hon. Gentleman voiced concern about paramilitary clubs and pubs running fixed odds betting terminals. Any evidence of that should be reported to the PSNI. The Department for Communities says it has no evidence of FOBTs in either pubs or clubs, but if that is a concern, clearly it should be taken up with the police.
A number of hon. Members mentioned the welcome announcement of 14 gambling clinics in England. Health is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, and with the extra money going into the NHS and the Barnett consequentials of that, investment in these areas is possible, but I recognise from the debates in the other place the strong feelings about existing pressures in the health system in Northern Ireland. Progress could be made on all these matters by a restored Executive and Assembly, and we want to see them in place as soon as possible.
The Minister is making some very relevant points. He was to be in Northern Ireland last week for a walkabout—I was looking forward to welcoming him to Ballymena. I would encourage him on his next visit to Northern Ireland to speak to the police and for them to arrange for him to have an overview of where these illegal activities take place. I would not encourage him to visit those locations—he might be able to walk in, but walking out may be a problem—but I would encourage him to talk to the police about those places and to see and hear for himself the problems that exist.
I am very happy to take the hon. Gentleman up on that invitation. I was disappointed not to be able to be in his constituency last week, but I look forward to future visits. We have reached a clear conclusion: people would like to see action taken on these issues by a restored Assembly and Executive. We will ensure that all steps are taken to put that Assembly and Executive in place as soon as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
takes note of and approves the Report pursuant to Section 3(11) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 - Gambling, which was laid before this House on Wednesday