Saturday, July 13, 2024

Activists hold breath over gambling legislation amid ‘barrage’ of lobbying

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“It would have had a huge impact on my life, because in some ways, I was allowed to continue gambling with millions of turnover in my account,” says Tony O’Reilly on long-promised gambling legislation.

“Even from a money laundering point of view, lodging tens of thousands every week was never flagged and if that had been flagged a bit earlier, it might not have got as serious as it did,” he adds.

In 2012, the former post office manager was sentenced to four years in prison, with one suspended, after stealing €1.75 million from An Post to fuel his gambling addiction, which he developed over 10 years.

The Gambling Regulation Bill, led by Minister of State for Law Reform James Browne – and first presented in 2022 – is currently before the Seanad, having passed the second of five stages last month. In the next stage, the legislation will be examined section by section where amendments can be made.

It primarily provides for the establishment of the Gambling Regulatory Authority of Ireland (GRAI) and a social impact fund, both of which will be funded by the industry. It also provides for advertising restrictions, and a self-exclusion register.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said Browne was “hopeful” that the Bill would be enacted in the “coming months”.

When asked if the proposed gambling legislation has been a long time coming, O’Reilly pauses, laughs and simply says: “You could say that.”

Stretching back as far as 2011, promised legislation on gambling has failed to emerge and now with the Bill on the horizon, those working on the front line fear it will be watered down due to the sheer level of lobbying from stakeholders.

Others worry it will not reach the finish line, given previous experience.

‘A complex piece of work’

“I know it’s a complex piece of work but it’s been well overdue and we need it in place as soon as possible,” says O’Reilly.

Gambling addiction is generally regarded as a disease in its infancy. Yet, more than 130,000 Irish people suffer from problem gambling or are at risk of it, according to research published by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) last year.

These figures are likely to be underestimated, according to ESRI’s behavioural research unit and addiction experts.

“It doesn’t need to get to the levels of money in my story, it’s how it impacts relationships, households and children’s lives within those households as well,” says O’Reilly.

Now a counsellor specialising in gambling addiction, O’Reilly also provides workshops, particularly targeting younger audiences in schools.

During these talks, it emerges that students as young as 15 are already gambling, an increasing trend since the pandemic, which he says points to the vital need for stronger age verification.

For older age groups, there are different levels of harm, he says, with extreme cases seeing the problem gambler “secretively” spending money set aside for their family’s mortgage or essential costs such as food and bills.

Even those considered to be “moderate gamblers” find themselves spending entire days gambling on the weekends, or using money put aside for holidays, he says.

“Sometimes, the person with the gambling problem won’t believe they’re doing as much harm as they are to the people around them until it hits rock bottom,” he says.

Although it is “brilliant” to have legislation on the horizon, “until I see it over the end line, I’ll always hold my breath, because there’s been a lot of false dawns before,” he says.

‘Barrage’ of lobbying

The legislation has led to a “barrage” of lobbying of politicians and Government officials from stakeholders in the industry, most notably Paddy Power owner Flutter Entertainment, Horse Racing Ireland and Boylesports.

Since 2022, Flutter Entertainment alone has contacted 37 TDs, 19 senators and five ministers “to communicate Flutter’s support for the Gambling Regulation Bill and to seek clarity on certain matters”.

It has also lobbied officials, including secretary generals at the Department of Justice, the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Finance, according to the Lobbying Register.

Boylesports, meanwhile, wrote to more than 50 politicians and Government officials seeking “clarity and understanding” or engagement on the legislation.

Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) has lobbied both Browne and Tánaiste Micheál Martin to raise “awareness of the potential implications of the Gambling Control Bill”.

In a statement to The Irish Times, HRI said it is “fully supportive” of all efforts by the Government to address the numbers affected by gambling in Ireland.

“Horse Racing Ireland’s view expressed to the Minister is that the prescriptive nature of the advertising ban on broadcast will have a disproportionate impact on the racing and breeding industry,” a spokesman said.

The HRI argued that a loss of television coverage as a result of the ban would cause “significant damage” to the Irish horse racing and breeding industry, “which is worth almost €2.5bn to the Irish economy every year”.

Lobbying also came from charities that feared the impacts of ad restrictions on their fundraising activities, with Browne saying a possible exemption would be considered.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice said the Bill reflects the considered outcome of “extensive consultation” with stakeholders while maintaining its commitment to developing legislation “with public safety and wellbeing as its focal point”.

“There’s obviously pressures for legislation not to be developed, contrary to some of the soundbites from the industry that they want legislation.

“My sense is that they don’t because the status quo is a lot more appealing,” says Prof Colin O’Gara, head of addiction services at Saint John of God Hospital in Dublin.

O’Gara says Browne has faced a “barrage” of lobbying but has stood firm on “big ticket items”.

Despite this, he fears the Bill being “watered down” due to the level of lobbying and “pushing back” from stakeholders to date.

The gambling landscape has completely changed, he says, with the advent of smartphones and the development of online gambling.

The speed of its development has created a “chasm” between the harm caused and the provision of care, he says, adding that a robust social fund that would provide adequate services to those struck by gambling addiction is a must.

“When you have such huge profit emanating from the industry and really insufficient, if not non-existent, services then that is a substantial social justice issue,” he says.

The pre-watershed ban is a critical component, he says.

“So much damage has been caused, in my view, by exposure of children and adolescents in particular to incessant sports gambling ads, which is just unacceptable on any level and we have seen the effects of that in our clinics and continue to see it,” he says.

He believes it should go further, with a complete advertisement ban, and says “time is of the essence”.

“Every year after 2012, I thought we would have legislation. I was clearly naive in that regard,” he says.

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