Richard Curran: ‘Don’t bet on a new gambling regulator arriving any time soon’

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Richard Curran: ‘Don’t bet on a new gambling regulator arriving any time soon’


The gambling industry has moved fast to embrace new technology and online betting but regulation reforms have moved at a glacial pace. Stock photo
The gambling industry has moved fast to embrace new technology and online betting but regulation reforms have moved at a glacial pace. Stock photo

Betting firms move at lightning speed when it comes to using new technology or even new marketing or advertising techniques. Gambling regulation on the other hand is more glacial.

This week the Cabinet approved a plan to set up a gambling regulatory authority.

This had been recommended in the Gambling Control Bill (2018), which itself was derived from the Gambling Control Bill (2013), which in turn had all begun with a review of gambling legislation back in 2008.

So 11 years later this growing multibillion-euro industry will finally get a regulator. Not quite. The Taoiseach said it could take another 18 months. This seems optimistic given that the legislation will have to make its way through the Oireachtas.

Given the length of time, prevarication and amendments made on the alcohol bill, the gambling bill could be a real political dogfight. It will also be a lobbyist’s dream.

The new regulator cannot get going until the best model or structure is found for the office. Law firm McCann FitzGerald was contracted in December 2018 by the Structural Reform Support Service of the European Commission to conduct a research project on a modern regulatory environment. Their work will conclude by mid-summer 2019.

Then there is the Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Bill 2019 which will govern the regulation of gaming machines of which there are believed to be thousands around the country which are unlicensed.

This bill proposes a series of interim reforms before the establishment of a regulator. This at least might fast-track some aspects of regulation but the whole sorry saga has taken far too long.

The question is why? There have been more stories of problem gambling and addiction in recent years but in general politicians have sat on their hands on this issue. Why?

The biggest betting firm in Ireland, Paddy Power Betfair, welcomed the idea of a regulator years ago. The political will has simply not been there.

Applying for a betting licence in Ireland is done under 1931 and 1956 legislation. Some betting firms have sought to self-regulate in the absence of a proper regulatory structure.

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They have voluntarily donated money towards treating problem gambling and curtailed some of their betting offers, in a show of social conscience and social responsibility.

In the UK the situation is very different. Aside from the proliferation of fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) which are not allowed in Ireland, there has been a tight regulatory regime.

If you want to operate as a bookie or online betting firm in the UK you must go through a strict and detailed application process. The Gambling Commission, which regulates the sector, was set up 14 years ago.

It clearly shows the weaknesses of token self-regulation. After years of regulation in the UK, it still handled several complex legal breaches even among large well-known firms.

It carried out 75 regulatory and criminal investigations in 2017, and applied penalties including £7.8m on betting firm 888 following serious social responsibility failings. It also took action against Gala Interactive (£2.3m) and William Hill (£6.2m).

It took 318 calls to its confidential phone line and logged 2,200 intelligence reports on gambling activity.

So, if firms break the rules with the full knowledge they may be caught out by a very well-resourced regulator, imagine what they get up to where there is no regulator at all, as is the case in Ireland. Despite this week’s progress, no such regulator will exist here until 2021, if we are lucky.

ESB generating same revenues – but with 400 extra staff

ESB delivered what it called a “satisfactory” financial performance last year. Pre-tax profits were a modest €78m but this came after a hefty non-cash impairment charge of €140m on some of its older assets.

In fact ESB has taken €414m in such exceptional costs in the last two years. It is all part of a transition towards a lower-carbon energy model which also requires considerable new capital investment.

So that is all OK then? Well ESB is doing some necessary heavy lifting to prepare for the future while battling with higher gas prices and competition at home.

But the Irish economy is growing rapidly. These are the good days. In 2018 it reported revenues of €3.4bn. This is exactly the same figure as it did in 2013. Leaving aside the price of electricity, the performance of the economy etc, the employee numbers make an interesting comparison.

In 2013 it had 7,490 employees to generate revenues of €3.4bn. Last year it took 7,874 employees to generate the same revenues. That is nearly 400 more staff.

Average earnings come in at €75,500, which is down slightly on 2017. But when you add on the €51m in pension costs, it works out at an average of €6,500 more per employee.

There is no doubt the state company has a job of work to do when it comes to making the transition from older power generation technology to a bright new sustainable future.

It has even taken the sensible step of owning a 12.5pc stake in an offshore wind farm off the coast of England. The Galloper venture should make money and can generate enough electricity to supply 380,000 homes.

But it should also provide ESB with valuable insight and experience which could be applied back in Ireland as offshore wind becomes a valuable alternative.

Mind you, wind farms require even fewer staff.

Dublin Port’s cruise U-turn shows capital dependence

Another state company making headlines this week was Dublin Port. The port has got some flak for saying it will more than halve the number of berths available to cruise ships from 2021. During the bad old days of the recession, Dublin Port talked up the possibilities of attracting more cruise ships and even having some of them based in Dublin.

It didn’t just talk the talk, it delivered with a huge increase in cruise traffic and extra millions in tourist euros going to the city centre in particular. This major about-turn is enraging retailers in the city centre.

As recently as 2017 the port was talking about the opportunities to be had from greater cruise ship numbers coming to Dublin.

In 2016 it said it wanted to establish the capital as the main port of choice for cruises coming to Ireland. It launched Cruise Dublin to work with the industry.

“We want to promote Dublin as a premium cruise destination directly to cruise companies and work with businesses in Dublin to tailor packages to the needs of the cruise lines and their passengers”, the company said at the time.

Now capacity constraints and growing trade have changed that tune.

Ultimately, the ability of the port to deliver on the trade requirements of getting goods into and out of Dublin, will trump extra tourist numbers.

But it raises a much bigger question about the size constraints at the port into the future, and the huge dependence the country has on Dublin for both trade and tourism.

Sunday Indo Business

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