In many areas of life, no matter where you live in the United Kingdom, you are subject to the same rules and regulations. There are some national differences, however, as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can pass legislation specific to their own nation. This is why, for example, Scotland is able to provide free universal NHS-funded eye tests, the only country within the UK to do so. Exciting stuff.
Although Scotland is the odd one out in the example above, when it comes to gambling it is Northern Ireland that is very much the outlier. Across the Irish Sea, although many basic rules are the same – e.g. you must be at least 18 to bet at a bookmaker or casino, gambling is dealt with in a significantly different way. What these differences are, and why they exist, is something we will be looking at here.
Just before we do though, it is worth having a very quick geography lesson to avoid any potential confusion. The United Kingdom consists of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Great Britain on the other hand refers to just the island where you will find: England, Scotland and Wales. Last of all, though not relevant to this piece, the British Isles includes the UK plus the Republic of Ireland, Isle of Man and various other small islands.
Gambling Within Great Britain
All forms of gambling that take place in England, Wales and Scotland are subject to the rules outlined in the Gambling Act 2005. Although this piece of legislation was an Act of the UK Parliament, it did not cover Northern Ireland. It put members of parliament based across the Irish Sea in the slightly unusual position of voting on legislation that has no impact on their constituency nor country. Despite this, they are still fully entitled to engage themselves in the process should they desire.
Gambling Act of 2005
The Gambling Act of 2005 is available in full online, should you want to read it but it will keep you busy for an extremely long period of time. It is broken down into more than 350 subsections, written in language that is hardly poetic. Like with lots of major pieces of legislation such as this, it is designed to be improved and modernised over time while keeping all its core aspects in place. Several amendments were passed in 2014, one of which saw off-shore gambling brands hit with a 15% point of consumption tax on gross profits.
To help enforce the laws set out by the Gambling Act, Parliament also established the Gambling Commission in 2007, replacing what was formerly known as the Gaming Board for Great Britain. This non-departmental public body regularly issues fines for casinos, bookmakers and other betting companies that are in serious breach of the rules. Dealing with regulatory failings and ensuring betting companies fulfil the terms of their licence is one of the Gambling Commission’s main responsibilities. They are a watchdog with some rather large teeth as seen by the £17m fine they handed to the Entain Group for social responsibility failings.
The Gambling Commission established by the UK government is often referred to as the UK Gambling Commission, or more commonly the UKGC. Type this into a search engine and you will see an abundance of results from a variety of different websites. To call it the United Kingdom Gambling Commission is misleading, however, as they are only responsible for gambling within Great Britain and not Northern Ireland. It would make more sense to refer to the Gambling Commissions as the GBGC (Great Britain Gambling Commission) but alas, this is not the case. So, just remember, whenever you see the term UKGC, Northern Ireland do not fall within its jurisdiction.
British Horseracing Authority
This separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of Great Britain within gambling is also present within horse racing. Racing on the east of the Irish sea is regulated by the British Horseracing Authority. Across the water however, all activity on the island of Ireland falls under control of Horse Racing Ireland (HRI). It is for this reason why prize money for races at the two Northern Irish courses, Down Royal and Downpatrick, is in euros rather than pounds.
Elements of the Gambling Act of 2005 That Apply to Northern Ireland
To be entirely accurate, it should be noted that two small elements of the Gambling Act of 2005 do apply to Northern Ireland. These are:
- Chain gift schemes dealt with in Part 35 of this guidance
- Section 340 of the Act (foreign betting provisions of Betting and Gaming Duties Act 1981 ceasing to have effect).
Additionally, section 5 of the 2014 Gambling Act, covering advertising of licensed remote gambling also applies to Northern Ireland. Otherwise though, the legislation is specific to Great Britain, so how is gambling controlled in Northern Ireland?
Gambling Within Northern Ireland
For a very long time, the situation in Northern Ireland was that all gambling, aside from the National Lottery, was regulated by the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries & Amusements (NI) Order 1985. Now, although this is an old piece of legislation, it was updated over time, but only with relatively minor changes.
Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022
The various revisions are available to view here, however, in April 2022, having been in the pipeline for some time, a new and more up-to-date gambling Act was officially made law after receiving royal assent. Replacing the 1985 piece of legislation was the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022, available to view here. This was the first ‘significant change’ to gambling laws since 1985, something which the Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said was long overdue.
Among other things, the 2022 act brought gambling in Northern Ireland more closely aligned to the rest of the UK and also Ireland.
Bookmakers & Bingo Halls Allowed to Open on Sundays
One example of this was that bookmakers and bingo halls were now allowed to open on Sundays and on Good Friday, something that had been banned previously. This was something influenced by a public consultation in 2019 that found 66% of respondents believed that trading hours should be relaxed.
No One Under 18 Can Use a Gaming Machine
It is also now an offence to allow anyone under the age of 18 to use a gaming machine, with anyone guilty of this potentially facing up to six months in jail. Whether a custodial sentence is ever handed down for such an offence remains to be seen but it does give Northern Ireland the power to crack down on offenders. This was already the case in the UK but via a fine of up to £1,000 rather than potential jailtime.
Gambling Contracts Enforceable
Other changes include that gambling contracts are now enforceable in law in Northern Ireland, just as they are in the rest of the UK. Additionally, the offense of ‘cheating’ has been broadened to include attempted cheating, making the action rather than the outcome the most important thing. In several instances though, the new legislation only creates the potential for various changes already in place in the UK, such as a statutory levy on gambling operators, or introducing a code of practice. The Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 has provided the foundation for this to happen at a later date but these did not come automatically with the initial passing of the legislation.
This means, for the time being at least, that Northern Ireland is still yet to establish an independent gambling regulator.
NI: No Gambling Commission in Place
So, while the rest of the UK can call on the Gambling Commission to act on any regulatory infringements, Northern Ireland has no equivalent to turn to. Instead, it is the police that would deal with such matters. There are calls for a regulator to feature though and this is something that has the backing of the Minister for Communities, Deidre Hargey, the person who introduced the new bill.
NI: No Legislation That Mentions Online Gambling
There is also demand for an extension of the legislation that will specifically refer to online gambling as this was not mentioned in the 2022 act. As this is something Great Britain’s Gambling Act of 2005 includes, it is a fairly notable omission. So, while a big step forward, and one that has brought some parity, Northern Ireland’s new law is still lacking in some areas. This will be highlighted even more should the UK government press ahead with information collected during Gambling Act Review.
Areas the UK Wishes to Review
As the name suggests, the UK government conducted a review into the existing 2005 Gambling Act and identified areas in which it could be improved and modernised. Calls for evidence began in 2020 with three main objectives in mind:
- Examine whether changes are needed to the system of gambling regulation in Great Britain to reflect changes to the gambling landscape since 2005, particularly due to technological advances
- Ensure there is an appropriate balance between consumer freedoms and choice on the one hand, and prevention of harm to vulnerable groups and wider communities on the other
- Make sure customers are suitably protected whenever and wherever they are gambling, and that there is an equitable approach to the regulation of the online and the land-based industries.
With this review likely to result in a modernisation of the 2005 Gambling Act, this could well put Great Britain significantly ahead of Northern Ireland. It should be noted there are no guarantees though as progress was put on ice following the announced departure of Boris Johnson. A white paper was due to be published in Spring 2022 but when he stepped down, the former Prime Minister stopped pressing forward with any policy changes that were in the pipeline. Who needs a PM anyway, it’s not like there were any pressing matters in 2022 that needed urgent attention!
UK: Affordability Checks in Future?
Should the government press ahead though, one major change they are looking into relates to affordability checks. There is a proposal that once a punter hits a loss of £125 a month or £500 in a year, they will need to prove they earn or have enough money to comfortably sustain such losses. These plans have been opposed by some in the industry, including Betting and Gaming Council chief executive, Michael Dugher. He warned that punters would simply refuse to provide such financial documentation. Some compromise could well be reached but it will only apply to Great Britain, leaving Northern Ireland with no such affordability checks.
UK: No Gambling Companies to Sponsor Football Shirts in Future?
The review also looked at advertising of gambling companies as a growing portion of the public believe they are too visible, especially when children are watching. One suggestion has been to ban gambling sponsors from appearing on football shirts as they have become especially prominent in more recent years. Again, something like this would be specific to Great Britain as the more limited Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 includes no such restrictions. Changes are certainly likely in the coming months and years and whether these are implemented solely in Britain, or in NI as well, remains to be seen.