Bishops propose gambling amendment to Northern Ireland Bill

newcastle230119bOn 15th July 2019 the Bishop of Newcastle moved an amendment on behalf of the Bishop of St Albans, to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill: “(f) delivering regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom in regard to gambling”. The amendment was accepted by Government and agreed by the House without a vote.

The Lord Bishop of Newcastle: My Lords, my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has been unavoidably detained in his diocese, so has asked me to speak to his amendment. This is a probing amendment attempting to address an issue that causes regulatory anomalies, in that Northern Ireland does not have the same standards for gambling as Great Britain. This amendment is an opportunity for the Government to enable greater harmony in gambling regulation and legislation. The existing lack of alignment has appeared piecemeal in nature since the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and has led to confusing quirks. For brevity’s sake, I will quickly outline the differences the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has identified as being of difficulty to the people of Northern Ireland, who do not have a well-regulated gambling industry with safeguards for all.

Northern Ireland does not use the Gambling Act 2005. Instead, it relies on the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has suggested that this outmoded basis for a modern gambling industry has led to a lack of safeguards. As the Department for Communities writes on its website, one in 50 Northern Irish adults has a gambling-related problem, which is,

“three times higher than in GB”.

A review into future regulation took place in 2011, but regulatory and legislative harmony has not occurred. Arguably, a lack of oversight has been the result. Courts and district councils license gambling activities, the Department for Communities controls licences for track betting and the PSNI enforces the law. Take, for example, the confusion over Gambling Commission regulation. The 2005 Act created the commission, with no authority in Northern Ireland, yet exceptions exist. Under Section 5 of the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014, for example, the regulator has oversight of the offence of advertising unlicensed remote gambling. This regulatory confusion is not anyone’s desire, not least those who must understand these distinctions.

I turn to another quirk deriving from the lack of legislative harmony. The Gambling Act 2005 underpins much of industry behaviour, including the spirit of the CAP codes, which inform Advertising Standards Agency regulation. As gambling advertising is overseen by the ASA, which has oversight of Northern Ireland, it makes the situation unclear. The advertising regulator states:

“The Gambling Act 2005 does not apply outside Great Britain”.

Therefore, licensees should ensure that:

“Specialist legal advice should be sought when considering advertising any gambling product in Northern Ireland”.

It is not just regulators based in London that struggle with the lack of clarity. The Department for Communities told the BBC in 2018 that the mere legality—not the stake, but the legality—of so-called fixed-odds betting terminals is a grey area. I quote,

“their legality can, therefore, only be definitively determined by the Courts”.

Many of your Lordships are aware of the work from these Benches on stake reduction of electronic gaming machines. The situation we were in, until a stake cut, was a consequence of the 2005 Act, yet devolved legislation never had the categories of A, B, B2, et cetera. While there is no certainty of the legality of these machines in Northern Ireland, the industry has flourished. When the rest of the country saw a stake reduction, the estimated 600 fixed-odds betting terminals in Northern Ireland did not see a legally enforced stake cut. These confusing loopholes do not even begin to touch upon notions of no-purchase-necessary rules, Sunday trading or casinos. The anomalies and confusions abound: gambling operates inconsistently within the UK, and this affects lives.

It has been a steep climb through this complicated legislation. Clearly on some things regulation and rules are the same, and then on another matter they diverge. While these Benches, alongside the Church of Ireland, deeply regret Westminster legislating on Belfast matters, Northern Ireland deserves clarity as soon as possible. Harmonisation can offer this, and I hope the Minister considers it in the Government’s report. I beg to move.

Lord Bruce of Bennachie: My Lords, I welcome this amendment and recognise the activity that the Bishops’ Benches have shown on this issue over the years. I hope they recognise that the Liberal Democrats have also been active on this, with both my noble friend Lord Foster in this House and Ed Davey in the other House putting on pressure to get rid of the £100 limit for fixed-odds betting terminals. It is fair to say that that pressure and the campaign that came with it, despite a number of false starts, has had results. But as the right reverend Prelate made clear, the situation in Northern Ireland is not legally enforceable. Therefore, observing the £2 limit is only voluntary for the industry. It would be beneficial to report that, even if it has in the short run, it should not lapse, but be maintained at that level so that abuses do not take place.

The other issue raised by the right reverend Prelate relates to the advertising of gambling. Nobody is suggesting—yet—that there should be a complete ban on advertising gambling, but the way it is focused should be monitored. One of the most insidious aspects of gambling and its promotion is the way it draws people in and becomes addictive to the point that it destroys lives, not just financially, but emotionally and, as we know, people have literally committed suicide. My noble friends and honourable friends have met too many families of those who have committed suicide. This has reinforced their belief that advertising gambling should be strictly controlled and done in a way as to make it clear what different types of betting, bonuses and gimmicks involve, and how much they could cost and draw people in.

The industry should also fund the help provided to people who become addicted to gambling. If the gambling industry is to have a justifiable existence—killjoys might want to stop it, but that is not necessarily the objective—it has to accept responsibility for the dangers associated with gambling and their consequences, and put resources into helping people who have become addicted. It should also put resources into ensuring that people do not become addicted in the first place, certainly not from the way the industry is promoted.

Given the practicality of the amendment, requiring the Government to report with a view to bringing the laws of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom together, I hope that the Minister will be able to accept it. That would be beneficial. It may be perfectly right and proper to say that we can have different laws in different parts of the country—we have had this debate in Scotland as well—but the fundamentals of safe and responsible gambling should be UK-wide. It should be possible at least to establish a practice that applies across the United Kingdom even if there might be slight variations in the law—devolution can allow for that. The fundamental objective should be that gambling is non-addictive and does not draw people into levels of loss that they simply cannot support, leading to tragic consequences.

Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con): [extract] My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle, on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, is quite right to raise the outdated gambling laws in Northern Ireland and I thank her for her remarks…

The Lord Bishop of Newcastle: My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have spoken in support of this amendment and warmly thank the Minister for his response. I know that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans would value a conversation with the Minister to discuss the variations in regulation of the gambling sector in other jurisdictions across the UK.


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