Sean Murray: Government must take steps to stop problem gambling

Sean Murray: Government must take steps to stop problem gambling

Politicians are now seeing the urgent need to modernise regulation but the State is already behind when it comes to gambling.

The impact of gambling addiction and the need to impose limits on the betting industry has been laid bare this week.

On Wednesday, a cross-party report by the Oireachtas justice committee recommended a ban on “all forms of advertising” by betting companies before the 9pm watershed.

The following day, the personal impact of gambling addiction was revealed at Cork Circuit Criminal Court when an addict faced charges of duping a man out of €56k to feed his habit. 

The court heard the man tried to combat his gambling addiction by closing his BoyleSports account a number of times but each time they sent him a €50 free bet and he ended up gambling again, the accused said.

A regular reader of court stories will often see problem gambling cited in criminal cases as bearing some factor in the accused’s alleged crimes.

Politicians are now seeing the urgent need to modernise regulation but the State is already behind when it comes to gambling. 

The UK’s gambling regulator assumed its full powers in 2007 but, 15 years later, Ireland doesn’t yet have a regulator.

The Oireachtas justice committee came up with 16 recommendations under the new regulatory regime.

Committee chair James Lawless said he fully understood that many people enjoy a bet and a day out at the races. 

 Oireachtas justice committee chair James Lawless. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Oireachtas justice committee chair James Lawless. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

“Like many things, it’s all about moderation and these measures will help differentiate the problem user from the occasional flutter, and steer interventions and more importantly regulation at the source so as to stop problem gambling," he said. 

Recommendations

Among the report’s recommendations are:

  • For the new regulator to immediately set out to gather data on the market and user base;
  • A specific reference to a ban on gambling with credit cards; 
  • That consideration be given, bearing GDPR in mind, to allow background checks to be carried out on an applicant when they register for an online gambling account to ascertain whether they may have any financial vulnerabilities;
  • A series of escalating fines to deter harmful behaviour from the gambling industry and to better protect vulnerable customers; 
  • That operators should be liable to dependents and creditors of gamblers where they know, or ought to know, that gamblers are making losses beyond their means and that this should be established in legislation. 

These are major interventions, should they be adopted.

Mr Lawless also singled out the data gathered by gambling companies as something that must be looked at closely.

"What gets measured? Gets managed? At the moment it’s something of a black art," he said.

Witnesses from the big firms told the committee they collect up to 200 data points on an individual during their online sessions

"While the websites say that data is used to predict and avoid problem gambling, it is not too hard to envisage scenarios where it could be used to drive on behaviours also.” 

Finding out what data the big gambling firms have on their customers is, at the basic level, not hard to find. All the big firms will have a privacy policy online, telling you what data they collect from you.

In its submissions to the Oireachtas justice committee, Flutter, which owns a number of brands including Betfair, said it used the data it collects on customers to identify problem gamblers and take action.

The committee report said: “In terms of the measures they employ to help identify those with gambling addictions, Flutter stated that they use predictive models, which employ a data-informed approach to build an individual risk profile for each customer; behavioural reports of each customer; and they equip customer-facing staff with the training to recognise when the language used by customers when interacting with them may display signs of an underlying addiction habit.” 

Dedicated staff

Flutter also says it has dozens of dedicated staff members in the problem gambling area and works to intervene when it identifies potential problem gamblers.

In a statement responding to the committee’s report, Flutter’s UK and Ireland chief executive Conor Grant said it welcomed this as another milestone in developing a gambling regulatory authority in Ireland. 

“A well-regulated and properly enforced sports betting and gaming market in Ireland both accommodates the vast majority of individuals that enjoy a bet safely while protecting those who are potentially vulnerable,” Mr Grant said.

In its statement, Flutter said the recommendations made by the committee should each be examined in detail to make sure they are both practical and effective.

With the Government due to look at drafting its bill and introducing it to the Oireachtas, it’s clear that many eyes will be upon them.

Given Mr Lawless’ use of the phrase the “black art” of data gathering, it’s little surprise the Oireachtas committee is focusing on this area.

New regulator

The Oireachtas wants a new regulator — a position that is due to be established soon — to “gather comprehensive data on the behaviour of those who gamble in Ireland to ensure effective and evidence-based regulation of the Irish gambling market”. 

Whether the new legislation will underpin that remains to be seen.

In his submission to the Oireachtas justice committee, Barry Grant from Extern Problem Gambling laid out his reasoning for why such close attention needs to be paid to the online aspect.

“Many of these operators have artificial intelligence systems which can flag harmful gambling behaviours and automate interventions,” he said.

“It is imperative that Ireland’s future gambling regulatory authority have access to anonymised, randomised data sets in order to have a real-time overview of the level of problem gambling within operators’ customer bases.

“In the recent past, many household name online gambling companies have received substantial fines from the UK's Gambling Commission for using this type of data to incentivise people with gambling problems to gamble more, rather than intervening to encourage the person to stop and seek help. 

"In the ongoing absence of gambling regulation in Ireland, how many people have been on the receiving end of these tactics here with no oversight? 

"How many vulnerable people with gambling problems and their loved ones have suffered as a result?” 

With interventions like this and the one by the Oireachtas justice committee, a clear message is being sent to the Government — Ireland’s new gambling laws must have teeth.

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