Sinn Fein MLA submits proposal to reform NI gambling laws

19 February 2020

A member of Northern Ireland’s legislative assembly has submitted proposals to reform the country’s gambling laws, which have not been updated since 1985, to introduce a gambling regulator, regulations for online gambling and a ban on bonuses.

The proposals were submitted by Sinéad Ennis of Sinn Fein, Northern Ireland’s largest Irish nationalist party, and consist of the party’s Problem Gambling Policy document. This document was created in response to the Northern Ireland Department of Communities’ consultation on possible changes to gambling laws in Northern Ireland, launched in December 2019.

“The current gambling laws in the north are out of date,” Ennis said. “I have submitted our party proposals to modernise the law to bring it into line with changes in technology and new forms of gambling, such as online, fixed term betting odds and casinos.

The current Northern Irish gambling legislation, the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, does not include any mention of online or mobile gambling due to its age.

Although then-Minister for Social Development Nelson McCausland announced in January 2013 his intention to update and improve gambling laws in Northern Ireland, this has not occured, partly due to the fact that the Northern Irish Executive and Assembly did not sit for just under three years due to a dispute between Sinn Fein and the DUP, the largest unionist party. The Assembly was restored from 11 January this year.

“The reality is, online betting has no closing time,” Ennis said. “Smartphones are a casino open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We need legislation which is properly equipped to regulate these websites and help protect the most vulnerable.

The existing legislation, the Order, only refers to people under 18 not being allowed into a licensed betting office. Northern Ireland also does not have an independent gambling regulator, as the British Gambling Commission’s jurisdiction does not extend to the region.

Sinn Fein’s proposal’s would include the establishment of a dedicated regulator and age verification checks for online gambling.

This regulator’s duties would include administering a Problem Gambling Fund in order to minimise problem gambling, which would be funded by a mandatory levy or license fee on the industry. Sinn Fein cited New Zealand’s “polluter pays” style of formula as a way to determine how much this levy should be.

“Currently, when it comes to avoiding and responding to problem gambling, only voluntary codes of practice exist and these are created by various sectors of the industry themselves,” Sinn Fein explained. “Different sectors of the industry also lay blame for problem gambling at the door of others and call their competitors out either for not following existing legislation or their own codes of practice. All sides paint a picture of confusion, light touch regulation, and inadequate control.

“That said, it is important to recognise these codes of practice as welcome efforts by the industry itself, made in the absence of necessary government action.”

A cross-operator self-exclusion scheme was also included in the proposals, with Sinn Fein suggesting that it wished to see this scheme applied across all of Ireland.

Sinn Fein’s other proposals included a system similar to Svenska Spel's Playscan gambling monitoring program, a ban on bonus offers and restricting advertising until after 9PM.

The party also proposes a ban on gaming machines in pubs, as is already in place in the Republic of Ireland.

In addition, the new gambling regulator would “explore” the introduction of deposit limits and daily time limits for those identified as at risk of problem gambling and enforce rules on advertising.

As an Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein’s proposals are all intended to apply across all of Ireland.

“Problem gambling does not only affect the gambler; it has wider implications for society and lasting impacts on relationships with family and friends,” Ennis said. “Sinn Féin is committed to tackling problem gambling north and south. The most effective way to do that is through modernised and fit for purpose legislation.”

The party may have a large degree of control over gambling policy in the Republic after finishing as the second-largest party in its 8 February general election with the most first-preference votes.

However, a government has not yet been formed, with a grand coalition excluding Sinn Fein and another election both also remaining distinct possibilities.

In November 2018, Sinn Fein called for stricter regulation of online gambling in Northern Ireland in response to a new UK Gambling Commission report into young people and gambling. 

Catherine Kelly, Sinn Féin’s spokesperson for children and young people, criticised Northern Ireland's current gambling legislation in Northern Ireland as being too old and complex. She added that technological developments mean the laws are no longer fit for purpose.