The Irish Government has made clear its intention to make Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) illegal in its new gambling legislation. In July it published its Gambling Control Bill 2013 in which it clearly states (on page 53) that no gambling licence will be issued for ‘any device that is or is capable of being a fixed odds betting terminal’. If any device is found to be being used as an FOBT, the licence will be revoked, the device impounded, and the licence holder charged with an offence which, if proved, would result in a fine and/or imprisonment. There is probably at least a year to go before the Bill becomes an Act and no doubt sections of the gambling industry will be lobbying hard between now and then. Meanwhile they have a free hand under the existing 1956 Gaming and Lotteries Act.
Quite apart from the FOBT issue, there are some interesting general differences between how gambling is legislated for, regulated and licensed in Ireland compared to the situation in Britain. For a start, the lead government department in Ireland for gambling is the Department of Justice and Equality, which perhaps reflects a different overall perspective on gambling than the one taken by the British Government where the lead department is of course now the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (although previously the Home Office, until the New Labour Government changed it). The word ‘control’ in the title of the new Bill in Ireland is also interesting, as are the six principles on which it is stated (in Section 2) that policy directions are to be based. The first two in the list refer to ‘The protection of society generally from the ill-effects of gambling’, and, ‘The maintenance of social cohesion’; and ‘The protection of vulnerable persons’ is the third. The fourth, fifth and sixth, admittedly, refer to ‘Securing and maintaining consumer choice’, ‘The protection of State revenues’, and, ‘The protection of innovation and technology’, but it is perhaps telling that they are given a lower position in the order than those principles which imply that society and the vulnerable need protecting from gambling harm. Also of interest is the very different way in which it is proposed that gambling be licensed and regulated. Rather than setting up a regulatory body ‘at arm’s length’ from government, like the Gambling Commission in Britain is supposed to be, and giving responsibility for licensing to local authorities, as in England and Wales, the proposal is that licensing be kept in-house, with the Minister as the sole authority for both licensing and regulation, assisted by an Office of Gambling Control Ireland (OGCI) – note the word ‘control’ again – set up by the Department of Justice and Equality and located within the Department.
Perhaps I am being naïve here, but I do have the impression that the need to control gambling in the interests of the public good is being taken more seriously in Ireland than in Britain. The language used in the Irish Gambling Control Bill, the general approach being taken to regulation and licensing, and the way in which the lesson has been learnt from Britain’s lack of precaution about high stake FOBT gambling machines, give me this impression.
On the other hand there is much in the Bill that suggests that Ireland may, like Britain, be moving in a more permissive direction; for example, it is proposed that gambling advertising be given the go-ahead, and there are many places in the Bill were it is proposed that the Minister be given the power to make changes without requiring new legislation.
An acknowledgement: Many thanks to Brian Lynch, Addiction Counsellor, Specialising in Problem Gambling & Policies, for drawing my attention to the Irish Bill and for giving me his perspective on it.