Only a judge can decide whether hundreds of betting machines in Northern Ireland are actually lawful, said the Stormont department in charge of reviewing gambling law.
The Department for Social Development (DSD) was responding to a News Letter inquiry, which sought a definitive answer about whether Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) are legal in the Province.
It came after campaign group Fairer Gambling had published its first-ever estimate of how many such machines there are in the Province earlier this month.
It concluded there are over 900 such in use in Northern Ireland betting shops, with millions spent on them every year.
However, the DSD said only a court could decide whether they are actually supposed to be in the Province or not.
Fairer Gambling said that while the 2005 Gambling Act made such machines legal in England, Scotland and Wales, no law was ever passed in Northern Ireland to allow them to operate.
When the claim that they may be unlawful was put to the DSD, it told the News Letter: “FOBTs operate within a grey area of the Northern Ireland gambling law. Their legal status under Northern Ireland law could only be authoritatively determined by the courts.
“In Great Britain, FOBTs are now classified as gaming machines and regulated accordingly. The regulatory framework here has not kept pace with technological developments in the industry and is currently under review.”
It added that as part of the current review, the DSD minister intends to bring forward proposals to “minimise the more harmful effects of gambling”.
Fairer Gambling’s Adrian Parkinson said: “Mervyn Storey is carrying out a review of gambling legislation in Northern Ireland at the moment. It’s been ongoing for a couple of years and Mervyn Storey seems keen to get on with it.
“Within that gambling review he has the opportunity to say Yes or No; these machines should be operated in Northern Ireland or they shouldn’t.”
He said while he does not actually object to the machines operating, he believes they should be capped at £2-per-go, because they allow customers to lose money on games like roulette much more quickly than would be possible in a real casino.
The group’s estimate of 900-or-so machines is only a rough one, based on visiting around 35 shops, noting the number of machines, and extrapolating the number across the country.
Based on this, it estimates that more than £100m is put into the machines every year, with the total value of the wagers totalling upwards of £500m.
Breaking this down, machine-by-machine, this works out at an average of about £302 inserted into an individual machine per day – although a gambling body disputes the figures provided by the group.
When Fairer Gambling’s figures were put to gaming body The Northern Ireland Turf Guardians’ Association, it responded that they were “spurious and drawn from guesswork and extrapolations based on the market in GB, which is not as stringently regulated as that in NI. They are much higher than is actually the case here”.
However, it did not offer any alternative figures.
It continued: “Secondly, it is not our view that FOBTs exist in a legal grey area in NI since these machines are simply self-service betting terminals.
“NI bookmakers take a very responsible approach to problem gambling both in our licensed and regulated betting shops and through our support to Dunlewey which provides gambling addiction services, the contacts for which are prominently on display in all of our members’ shops.
“We welcome discussion on these matters and have been open and transparent at all times in our consultation responses on gambling reform.”