Belfast Telegraph

Fixed odds betting: Northern Ireland 'outdated' law change on hold as confusion continues over civil service powers

Alliance calls for Bradley to explain blocking of MLA pay cut

By Jonathan Bell

A Stormont department is refusing to introduce new gambling legislation designed to protect people from addiction and losing thousands of pounds because there is no minister.

Laws greatly reducing the stake people can put on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) has been cut to £2 across the rest of the UK in a bid to reduce the risk of “gambling-related harm”. The terminals – dubbed the “crack cocaine” of gambling – can lead to people placing bets of up to £100 every 20 seconds.

The Department of Communities, which is responsible for devolved gambling legislation, said Northern Ireland's laws, dating back to 1985, had long been overtaken by advances in technology.

Stormont officials said the new laws would not be adopted from the UK saying it would be for the courts to decide on the machines legality in Northern Ireland until a minister is in place to change any legislation.

It means machines in Northern Ireland can still operate under current laws.

Northern Ireland has been without devolved government since January last year leading to confusion as to who is in charge.

The Department of Infrastructure announced it was appealing a High Court decision which found civil servants acted unlawfully in approving planning for a large incinerator project just outside Belfast.

The department said it will stop taking decisions on "regionally significant" matters while head of the civil service, David Sterling explaining the decision to appeal said it was important civil servants were aware of the matters they could and could not decide upon.

Meanwhile Northern Ireland's 90 MLAs continue to be paid their £50,000 a year salary despite the Reaney report recommending a cut of a third to recognise the lack of legislative work.

Alliance repeated calls for the Secretary of State to reduce pay and called on her to explain why she has not already done so.

"Why has Karen Bradley not cut the pay, we have asked here what's going on, where is the blockage coming from. She needs to explain that," Kellie Armstrong told the BBC Stephen Nolan show.

"It is time for the secretary of state to say why she is dragging her feet on this."

She continued: "Pinch points are coming up very soon. At the end of July we are going to go bankrupt.

"Karen Bradley has to shift this, either a change of gear and get everyone back round the table with a focused timetable and targets.

"Or make a decision and enable legislation that allows civil servants to make decisions and move Northern Ireland forward."

TUV leader Jim Allister said the Secretary of State should formally suspended the devolved institutions to allow legislation to be introduced.

"There's an easy answer to this. Reverse the foolish steps brought in at St Andrews preventing suspension, appoint direct rule ministers and let's get government," he added.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Communities said: “This Department notes the announcement made by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport regarding a reduction in the maximum stake permitted for Fixed Odds Betting Terminals in response to their recent consultation.

“Gambling is a devolved matter and is regulated here by The Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (NI) Order 1985. This legislation predates the development of electronic machines such as Fixed Odds Betting Terminals; their legality can, therefore, only be definitively determined by the Courts.

“Any proposed changes to Northern Ireland gambling law would be for an incoming minister to determine.”

The Northern Ireland Office, in response, said: "The Secretary of State has already taken action to halt the £500 inflationary increase on MLA pay.

"She was also clear during last week's Northern Ireland Questions in the House of Commons that she is minded to reduce pay in line with the recommendations by Mr Reaney, and will provide a further update on this issue of MLA salaries shortly."

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