It’s a question that has plagued many people since the announcement of the 2013 Gambling Control Bill. This troublesome piece of legislation has been fumbling its way around by the Irish Government ever since it was introduced and has still not been passed. Public concern for underage gambling and a recent increased political desire for a solution has meant that the issue has reared its head again – but still, nothing has happened. Unlicensed casinos, members’ clubs and gaming arcades continue to operate across the country – with little or no tax revenue being collected nor protection offered for customers.
There has been some progress. In 2015, the Betting (Amendment) Act came into operation and ensured that the online bookmakers and betting exchanges (intermediaries) came within the scope of the licensing and tax regime. Previously the legislation covers only land-based bookmakers.
But large swathes of the gambling population are spending their money in unregulated venues. According to the independent TD politician, Maureen O'Sullivan: “One per cent of the industry is regulated for money laundering, which means that 99 per cent is not.” Consequently, there are fears that organised crime may find it easy to launder money through these unlicensed outfits.
The dangers of unregulated gambling operators
Unregulated gambling operators present some big problems. They’re not obliged to offer responsible gambling measures, putting problem and underage gamblers at risk. GambleAware.ie estimated that there are between 28,000 and 40,000 problem gamblers in Ireland – including high-profile sportsmen like Oisin McConville. On top of this, there is frequent gambling by youngsters on the outcome of school games.
A well-regulated gambling industry has been known to be good for tourism – the UK, US and Asia all have strict controls around gambling to ensure they’re not negatively impacting the population. Regulation also makes gambling operators more attractive to tourists. Las Vegas, the most famous gambling hub in the world, has a strong regulatory system to keep it attractive to visitors.
One would imagine that the Irish Government would also be very much in favour of adding to the 8.8 million tourists who boosted its economy by an estimated €8 billion in 2016.
What a regulated Irish gambling industry would look like
If legislation in Ireland were finally introduced then there would be some healthy changes that would benefit the economy and society in general:
- Advertising would be limited to licensed operators only and have severe restrictions
- No sponsorship will be allowed for teams or events that appeal to young people
- Operators would be obliged to protect underage gamblers
- No credit will be allowed for customers
- Staff will be licensed and properly trained
The new legislation would also introduce a new gambling regulator – the Office for Gambling Control Ireland (OGCI) – which will control all aspects of gambling in Ireland.
The equivalent in the UK is the Gambling Commission, which regulates all gambling activities – from the National Lottery to the slot machines in pubs and clubs. A huge part of the British Government’s regulation includes visiting licensed premises to give advice and to take remedial or preventative action when and if required. They also review the books of the gambling license holders to police money laundering. This kind of structure is very different to the comparative “laissez faire” system in Ireland.
The 2013 Gambling Control Bill would effectively bring Ireland in line with the 2005 Gambling Act in the UK, which updated the laws and introduced a new structure to protect, in particular, children. The new statute also included the growing online gambling sector, which today represents 33 per cent of all gambling revenue in the UK.
Taxes and duties
However, the 2013 Bill is not clear about how taxes and duties will be applied to gambling operators. At the moment there is a 1 per cent turnover tax for bets placed in retails or remote bookmakers and a 23 per cent VAT charge for revenue paid electronically to Irish customers. All the tax revenue collected by the Irish government is then given to the greyhound and racehorse breeding industries. The horse breeding industry alone achieved revenue of more than €585 million in 2017.
The seemingly unhealthy relationship exists when the Irish Government could be using taxation as a way of limiting gambling activities and raising much-needed revenue to help deal with the gambling addiction problem at the same time. They could, for example, either take a levy on every stake or the bookmaker's profits – or a mixture of the two.
Gambling operators can flourish within a regulated industry
Whatever the pressures keeping the 2013 Bill from being passed, it has to be realised that companies are perfectly capable of successfully operating in tough regulatory environments. An excellent example of this is Wink Bingo, which operates online bingo games and slots in the UK, and is immensely successful despite the regulation. Their commitment to innovation and promising growth led to them being acquired by 888 Holdings in 2009.
The online gambling and gaming industries has really taken off in the past two decades, and some estimates suggest that as many as 12 per cent of Ireland’s adult population wagers in this way, with many preferring to visit popular online casinos instead of their bricks-and-mortar equivalents on the high street. After all, if you have the choice to play your favourite games from the comfort of your own home using your computer or mobile, why would you bother leaving the house? Well, for one thing, some gamblers might be worried about the security of these sites. But online operators are highly secure, with robust systems protecting their millions of players worldwide – and you can spot the good from the bad very easily by following this handy guide.
In January 2018, the Irish Cabinet gave the go-ahead for the 2013 Bill to be updated but no time frame has yet been set. When it does eventually become statute, it will be the first major change to Ireland’s gambling legislation in more than 50 years. It will also open Ireland up to a fairer gambling environment where criminal gangs are less likely to get involved for laundering purposes, the young of the country are protected, and those suffering from addiction can get help. For Ireland, that moment can’t come soon enough.