Seanad debates

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

2:30 pm

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the opportunity to raise the issue of FOBTs, fixed odds betting terminals. I raise the issue because I have come across a number of things which triggered my memory in recent weeks. I was in New Zealand a number of years ago in my capacity as chairperson of the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. One issue drawn to my attention during that trip was that of betting terminals. If one entered a pub there were several such machines. They were to all intents and purposes not unlike slot machines. One could insert money, touch the screen and buy into virtual horse racing, dog racing or roulette wheels. The New Zealand police and people working in addiction services were concerned because they encountered people who spent their entire wages or social welfare payments in these locations. Given the location of these machines within the social context of a pub, people tended to be more involved in participating at that level, rather than going to a games hall.

The warning of these people came back to me recently. They suggested that if Ireland was to consider moving in this direction, it should be very careful because difficulties associated with gambling addiction could be thrown up and addictions could be created. They tried to ensure those installing such machines in New Zealand would pay a part of the cost of rehabilitating people who encountered gambling difficulties.

This matter is increasingly pertinent given the economic downturn. We must be quite sure of what we do in respect of the legal standing in the area of gambling. I have a flutter on the horses or the dogs like many other people, although I should not say everyone does it. However, the whole process of horse racing, dog racing and such activities takes time and involves watching the race and weighing up the pros and cons, rather than the virtual process of pressing a button with an immediate result. The speed at which one may spend money is phenomenal.

Recently, I watched a programme on this issue as it is unfolding the UK. The potential dangers I saw in New Zealand now seem to be an issue in the UK. Recently, a person handed me his iPhone. This person worked in a particular industry and suggested that what I was shown was the future of gambling. It was a scratch card. There were several ways in which one could buy it but essentially one bought a certain amount of credit and downloaded a scratch card. One could scratch the card in the same way one would a scratch card bought in the shop.

When I play sudoku on my mobile phone I could be at it for quite some time because I may be addicted to trying to find the solution. The same may apply to anyone with an addiction or gambling issue and decisions on the road we take in respect of technology must be addressed. We must not bury our heads in any sense to the potential developments in this issue in future.

I do not suggest this is being introduced to Ireland at present but I wish to know the position. In May 2007 I read a publication which suggested such terminals were well established in the UK since 2001. It was suggested that within 18 months Ireland would be in the same situation. Subsequently, the casino review group met and there was some controversy in respect of whether Ireland should have fixed odds betting terminals.

I do not suggest that I know the best way to proceed on this issue, but gambling is a serious addiction the same way as alcohol, drugs and many other forms of addiction. We must raise such topics of social concern constantly to establish that we are aware of the extent to which technology is moving on, the difficulties such activities create and the stance of the Government on this matter and on the overall issue of addiction and support for those who have an addiction as well as their families.

Photo of Michael FinneranMichael Finneran (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing and Local Services, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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I am grateful, as is the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who regrets he cannot be here in person, for the opportunity to outline to Senators the position in respect of fixed odds betting terminals, commonly known as FOBTs. Senators may well be aware of the Minister's opposition to such machines from statements he has made in the other House on many occasions. The Minister has not changed his view on these machines.

I understand that fixed odds betting terminals are software-driven, often touch screen terminals, through which users can place stakes on a variety of gambling products and services. The outcome of a stake is driven by a random number generator operated by an independent third party and located remotely.

I am advised that FOBTs, were they to be introduced in bookmakers' premises in the current regulatory environment, would be illegal as they would be classified as gaming machines. The Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956, as amended, prohibits gaming except in limited circumstances, for example, in a licensed amusement arcade, at a circus or travelling show or at a carnival; in such circumstances it is subject to limitations. Furthermore, the Betting Act 1931, which falls to the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Finance, severely restricts what business, other than the business of bookmaking, can take place in a licensed betting office.

We do not have data on gambling in this jurisdiction. However, the most recent British gambling prevalence survey 2007 commissioned by the UK Gambling Commission found that while those gambling on FOBTs represented only 3% of overall gambling, the prevalence of problem gambling in those who used FOBTs was 11.2%. The message the Minister takes from this finding is to proceed with caution in respect of FOBTs.

The report, Regulating Gaming in Ireland, deals comprehensively with many aspects of gaming and gambling, including FOBTs. Senators will be aware that the report regarded FOBTs as gaming instruments and, therefore, as inappropriate instruments to be located in licensed bookmakers' premises on the basis that the traditional distinction between gaming and betting should be maintained. The Minister published the report on 10 July 2008 and, among other things, arranged for its circulation to the Houses.

As Senators are aware, and arising from the publication of Regulating Gaming in Ireland, the Minister has initiated a wide-ranging review. The objective of the review is to put in place a modern, responsive code that recognises that people gamble and enjoy gambling and at the same time acknowledges there are inherent dangers involved that need to be addressed, not least problem gambling. Three important considerations which represent the hallmark of most well-regulated gambling codes inform the review. These are that young people and the vulnerable are protected, that gambling should in all respects be fairly and openly conducted and that gambling is kept free of crime.

Through a public information notice in daily newspapers and on the Department's website, the casino gaming control section of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform invited submissions from interested parties and members of the public. The closing date for the receipt of submissions was 30 September 2009. I am informed that more than 60 submissions have been received, with a number of interested parties seeking a time extension.

Senators will appreciate that developing a revised gaming code capable of generating broad public support and which provides the best possible protection of the vulnerable is a complex task. Notwithstanding this, the Minister has instructed the casino gaming control section of his Department to make every effort to develop policy options for a new gambling architecture, including proposals for a draft Bill on the subject, with all possible expedition.

Remote gambling, that is, gambling through the Internet, interactive television and mobile phones, is a huge growth industry. It is the place to which traditional betting and gambling in general is migrating, thereby depriving states of tax and other revenues. Part of the challenge of the review is to establish how best to capture a portion of that industry and at the same time attack the threats posed by this form of gambling. It is certain that it is only through regulation that the downsides of remote gambling will be addressed.

The Minister recognises, therefore, that technological advances over recent years have changed the face of the world in which we live and that consequently the various forms of gambling cannot be immune to such technological advances. However, foremost in the Minister's mind is the protection of young people and the vulnerable. Ultimately, it will be for Government to agree the policy approach to be legislated for in this area.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply. One of its main points was that no one is stating that one should not drink, gamble or do anything that can be addictive. However, worldwide evidence suggests these devices are particularly dangerous and addictive when one starts off. It can be seen that more than one person in ten who uses such devices is in serious trouble. I acknowledge the Minister of State may not have an answer for my supplementary question. I was aware of the request for submissions and the Minister of State has noted that other people have sought an extension of the associated deadline. I seek clarification from the Department because, on the one hand, the Minister has noted that people have sought an extension to the deadline while, on the other hand, he has stated he is trying to expedite the entire issue. Were people to come forward on foot of the raising of this issue tonight, would their views be taken on board? I thank the Minister of State for the overall thrust of the argument emphasising the other aspect that probably was missing, namely, the issue of gamblers and the support for them across the various forms of addiction.

Photo of Michael FinneranMichael Finneran (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing and Local Services, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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I will ask that the Minister or his office would correspond with the Senator to indicate whether an extension of the deadline of 30 September has been allowed or is being considered.