Northern Ireland betting overhaul enters first Assembly stage

The planned overhaul of Northern Irish betting and gaming regulations took another step yesterday, as the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Bill entered the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Having successfully passed the first stage, the first phase of the regulatory adjustment focuses on land-based operations. If fully passed through the Stormont, the Bill will enact the most significant changes to Northern Irish gambling oversight in 35 years by amending the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Northern Ireland) Order 1985.

Betting and gaming operators as well as  hospitality businesses active in Northern Ireland were told to prepare for statutory changes to gambling legislation in May of this year – following the appointment of Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey to oversee the overhaul.

One of the most significant changes made to the province’s regulations will be that high-street betting shops and bingo clubs will be permitted to open their doors on Sundays and Bank Holidays, including Good Friday.

A statutory levy, similar to the Betting Levy utilised in Great Britain, will also be introduced, with funds directed towards responsible gambling initiatives, treatment of problem gambling and community programmes.

An updated Code of Practice will also be implemented, the main focus of which will be on ensuring gambling is conducted fairly and openly, protecting under-18s and making assistance available to people impacted by gambling-related problems.

Additionally, changes to the pool betting system will allow licenced bookmakers to accept bets on a pool betting business ‘linked to such a business carried on by means of a totalisator at a licenced track’.

This will enable customers placing bets at licenced premises through the pool betting business ‘to do so on the same terms and conditions as if the bet were placed by means of the totalisator at the licenced track concerned’.

With regards to age restrictions, the minimum age for playing any form of gambling machine will be set at 18, and it will become an offence for any licensed operator or hospitality venue – such as pubs – to allow anyone under this age to use these products.

Lastly, gambling contracts will be enforceable by law should the Bill pass through the Stormont, whilst the definition of cheating will also be expanded to include attempted cheating on any betting, casino or lottery product, as well as assisting or enabling another individual to cheat.

Disclosing the scope of the overhaul in May, Hagley disclosed that the establishment of a mandatory code of practice, the broadening of trading hours and introduction of a statutory levy would be the primary focus of the Bill.

However, the Minister also added that the second phase will require a much longer timescale in order to address a regulatory framework concerning online gambling.

“Gambling legislation has remained largely unchanged since it was enacted thirty-five years ago,” Hagley explained. “As a result, gambling regulation here has not kept pace with industry and technological changes. In my view change is long overdue.”

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