Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 Section 4

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:01 pm on 30th September 2019.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:01 pm, 30th September 2019

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 CAREChristian 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.