A number of ex-Paddy Power directors have formed a group aimed at urging investors and legislators to bring their “weight to bear on the [betting] industry to curb those parts of its activities that can do serious and sustained harm to society”.
Stop Gambling Harm was founded by former Paddy Power CEO and founder Stewart Kenny, the former director of Mercury Asset Management and Paddy Power’s first institutional investor Ian Armitage, and former chairman of the bookmaker Fintan Drury.
All three have been public in their criticism of the industry in recent years.
“This isn’t about Paddy Power,” Mr Drury told the. “It’s not just about Ireland. This isn’t a local problem. It’s happening globally. It’s about legislators. It’s about the owners of these companies. It’s institutional.”
The trio discussed forming the group over the summer and launched Stop Gambling Harm at a time when the Irish Government finally began to move on the issue.
The Government had been dragging its heels for some time when it comes to gambling regulation.
As far back as 2013, a Gambling Control Bill was proposed that would move betting legislation in Ireland into the 21st century.
Gambling has long since evolved from going into a bookies and placing a bet behind the counter.
You can still do that, of course, but every smartphone can also act as its own betting shop, with all the betting companies having apps that people can bet on twenty-four hours a day.
The 2013 act would have introduced a dedicated regulator, enshrined safeguards for vulnerable persons and children, and reflect how the sector had changed with the advent of smartphone and online gambling.
That bill never became law, and spent years in the doldrums at Leinster House.
Recently, however, there has been movement on the issue with Junior Justice Minister James Browne last month publishing the general scheme of a new bill it is understood should be enacted in the new year.
Mr Browne said he was aware the current legislation for gambling in this country was fragmented, outdated and in need of reform.
“Now is the time to finally address this issue comprehensively, once and for all,” he said.
The new gambling regulator will have powers over licencing, advertising and sponsorship, and will aim to prevent gambling from being a source or support to crime.
It’ll also have the power, like the regulator in the UK, to issue fines and other sanctions to entities that breach regulations.
That legislation won’t be enacted until next year at the earliest, and it may still be some time before a gambling regulator is in place.
Mr Drury did not comment on the specific legislation being put forward by the Irish government but said that all of its aims and planned actions could be found on its website.
The group says that the gambling landscape has been “altered dramatically by how technology has enabled it to become a 24/7 business where almost anyone can gamble at any time”.
“Stop Gambling Harm has a single mission; that using the varied experience and insights of its promoters, would urge both institutional investors and legislators to bring their weight to bear on the industry to curb those parts of its activities that can do serious and sustained harm to society.” Mr Drury said that as people who were at the coalface, it’s important that they voice their concern.
“[It’s important] but it’s also to try and focus minds where there’s the greatest chance of making change,” he said.
The group wants immediate action such as more restrictive controls to be put in place for customers under the age of 25, mandatory deposit limits for everyone with a ban on VIP schemes and free bets, and rigorous controls on advertising around sport and the broadcast of sport.
It aims to achieve its goals by pressuring institutional investors, or owners, to insist boards and management balance profit growth while also acting in a way that reduces the risk of social harm.
It also wants to meet with legislators and lobby for action, rather than rely on regulatory interventions.
Mr Drury said that it’s an action that needs to be taken and rejected the idea that it was a lofty ambition to achieve their goals.
He emphasised it wasn’t about trying to stop gambling altogether, but about issues they felt it was important to highlight and raise.
Campaigners and charities in the area have long pushed for the Government to bring Ireland’s laws into line with how the industry has changed in the past two decades.
Barry Grant, CEO and founder of charity Problem Gambling Ireland, said that it’s now important that the Government stick to its own deadlines in enacting the new legislation.
He said that, if the current proposals are what comes into effect, it would represent a “robust, progressive piece of gambling legislation”, but said it was important it wasn’t watered down.
Mr Grant added that the creation of Stop Gambling Harm was to be welcomed, and said the group has the potential to have a strong impact given their background and the manner in which they’re approaching it.
A position paper published last year by the College of Psychiatrists in Ireland indicated a concerning rise in gambling disorder referrals since the first of the Covid-19 lockdowns.
It called for advertising controls, treatment services, research into problem gambling and the urgent enactment of new legislation to regulate the area.
The paper said the stresses of Covid-19 had challenged the resilience and coping strategies of many, but particularly for people with addictions who were finding it harder to continue in their recovery and avoid relapse.
Consultant addictions psychiatrist Professor Colin O’Gara, lead author of the paper, said: “Betting has become strongly linked with the enjoyment of sports. We are normalising gambling as a behaviour.
Flutter Entertainment — the parent company of Paddy Power — said it welcomes the progress being made on regulation of the industry in Ireland.
Its CEO of UK and Ireland Conor Grant said: “We believe that Ireland has an opportunity to develop a world-class regulatory authority for sports betting and gaming, with the ability to adapt and evolve over time given the dynamic nature of the sector.” He cited measures taken by the company such as a ban on the use of credit cards and a pre-watershed “whistle to whistle” advertising ban on televised sport.
Such efforts are part of an “ongoing commitment to use evidence and technology to do all we can to promote safer gambling, while actively supporting efforts to introduce regulation in Ireland.”