Saturday, October 1, 2022

Northern Ireland Legislators Advance Major Gambling Reform Bill

In September of last year, a bill was introduced in the Northern Ireland Assembly to reform gambling across the territory. It replaces the original 1985 legislation, and was presented to the Communities Committee for consideration this week in what is aptly called the “consideration stage.” The bill will now advance to the next stage after a few amendments were added, and Northern Ireland is closer to adopting major changes to its gambling infrastructure.

Northern Ireland Gaming Gets Upgraded

The legislation, the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Bill, is designed to strengthen existing regulatory protections for consumers and operators. It would modify a number of rules, including the ban on Sunday trading by bookmakers and ensure that gambling contracts are legally enforced.

In 2019, 66% of respondents suggested that bookmakers’ office hours should be relaxed. A majority also thought that bookmakers should have the right to open on Sundays. The bill, if approved, would introduce these changes to the Northern Ireland market.

The bill also allows the government to tax the gambling industry, permit betting pools in bookmakers’ shops and allow bingo operations without club membership requirements. It also makes it an offense to allow anyone under 18 to use gaming machines.

The bill is part of a larger gambling reform plan in Northern Ireland. After over 30 years without major upgrades, legislators will introduce changes across two phases to cushion the blow.

Full Committee Support, with Caveats

For the most part, the bill has not met any challenges. Paula Bradley, the Communities Committee chair, stated that the committee supports key elements of bill, including legal enforcement of gambling contracts as well as the removal of restrictions regarding promotional prizes and offers. She also acknowledged that most committee members were in favor of certain gambling activities being allowed on Sundays.

However, there are certain items that weren’t initially included that the committee, and others, have called for. The Communities Committee stated that there is no home-grown strategy to reduce gambling harm in Northern Ireland, and that one should be created.

To that end, a gaming regulator would also be required. This would be in addition to existing police enforcement. The committee pointed out that Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey had supported this idea.

The bill is now ready for further consideration. It will need to pass through two more stages – the “further consideration” and the “final” stages. If it makes it that far, it will then be sent to be enacted as law through Royal Assent. Currently, there’s no schedule for completing the process.

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