When I was a kid, my grandparents owned a camping and caravan park in Lahinch, Co. Clare. In the office, they kept a visitors' book, where the occasional guest would leave comments on their stay - like a stone-age version of Trip Advisor. One rainy day (of which there were many), my brother and I, bored out of our skulls, decided to read through the visitors' book. It made for pretty tedious reading, until we came across the following inscription: "It was cold and it rained and I felt like an actor. And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there'. Both of us were massive Bowie fans and instantly recognised the quote as coming from his 1972 track 'Five Years'. The story goes that Bowie had a dream that he would be dead within five years and that this impacted on his behaviour through much of the '70s (including his refusal to get on a plane). Just seeing this quote, brightened our day. We felt a special bond with the rain-soaked suffering of this long-gone tourist.
Five years ago, this week (July 15th 2013), Fine Gael Minster for Justice, Alan Shatter, published the Heads of the Gambling Control Bill. It is a progressive piece of legislation, which has the capacity to revolutionise how the gambling industry in Ireland does its business, how government regulates that business and how government and NGOs prevent and minimise gambling-related harm.
So, in the intervening period, what progress has been made? In a nutshell: none. Fine Gael have continued to be the largest party in government and have had a Fine Gael Minister for Justice, the entire time. You might think that the opposition parties have been holding things up - but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Fianna Fail resubmitted the government's own legislation, calling it the Gambling Control Bill 2018, earlier this year, and it has passed to second stage. The only minor changes to the original Fine Gael legislation related to a levy on gambling industry turnover. This is because opposition parties are not allowed to introduce taxes, without permission ( a 'Money Order') from the government.
When asked, last year, about the delay in progressing their own Bill, the Minister of State with responsibility for gambling, David Stanton, stated, : "it will require some significant updating to take account of developments since 2013". This is a cop-out. There have been no radical changes to the gambling environment since 2013. The 2013 Bill, if enacted today, would be light-years ahead of the current legislation (1929 Totalisator Act, 1931 Betting Act, 1956 Gaming & Lotteries Act). In its current format, the 2013 Bill is already more progressive than legislation in operation, at present, in the UK. The 2013 Bill is perfectly adequate, in its current form, to be enacted - and could always be amended, as new developments in the gambling sector arise.
Our most recent piece of gambling legislation (1956) pre-dates the establishment of Teilifís Éireann by 5 years. Just think about that for a second. It harks back to a time when our nation didn't even have a national television broadcaster. And the Minister is using minor technological changes as an excuse not to progress legislation.
When I talk to problem gambling service providers from other jurisdictions, they don't believe me when I tell them that it is still perfectly legal for a child of any age to place a bet at the Tote, in any race track in Ireland. They don't believe me when I tell them that slot machines, which are in operation in countless towns and villages in Ireland, are actually illegal (and that nobody enforces the law). Most Irish people would struggle to believe that the current maximum legal stake in an amusement arcade is sixpence, or that the current maximum legal payout is ten shillings. Would you believe me if I told you that the entire tax-take from Betting Duty (roughly €50 million per year) goes to the Horse Racing & Greyhound Fund - while the State has never (ever) put so much as one cent into problem gambling services, or even acknowledged that gambling addiction is a public health issue? [It's worth noting that the 2018 budget for the Horse Racing & Greyhound Fund was €80,000,000. This means that, even if you don't gamble, you're still paying for it]
Sometimes I think that our Fine Gael-lead government have been digging out their old Bowie LPs. Perhaps they take inspiration from that immortal opening line: "Pushing through the market square, so many mothers crying. News had just come over, we've got five years left to die in". Maybe they believe that, if they let the Gambling Control Bill fester for long enough, the issues will just go away. The bad news, though, is that Bowie's premonition was wrong. He survived long beyond those five years.
While those of us campaigning for the enactment of fit-for-purpose gambling legislation, want it now - we are prepared to fight for as long as it takes. Ministries change. Governments come and go. That which remains constant is the harm caused by gambling products and services and the impact that it has on individuals, families, communities and the wider society.
As we head towards another General Election. Please consider raising this issue with your local TD. This is the most effective form of lobbying in Ireland. 1 in 10 of us will experience gambling-related harm in our lifetime, either through our own gambling, or that of a loved one.
CEO, Problem Gambling Ireland