Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 Section 4

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:27 pm on 30th September 2019.

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Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Scotland Office) (jointly with the Northern Ireland Office) 8:27 pm, 30th September 2019

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 4 September.

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Amusements (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which regulates gaming machines in Northern Ireland, has become increasingly outdated and contains no provisions related to online gambling.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.