Public to have say on tackling problem gambling in Northern Ireland
A public consultation on "extraordinary" rates of problem gambling in Northern Ireland is to be launched by a Stormont department.
Details of the proposals have been disclosed by Christian charity CARE NI as MPs prepare to debate a report highlighting the inadequacy of current laws here and the urgent need for reform.
The charity's policy officer Mark Baillie welcomed the "excellent news" from the Department for Communities (DfC), which he said had responded to its concerns.
"It's crucial this consultation is wide-ranging and focuses on how we can get better information about the scale of problem gambling, as well as reforms to our existing laws," he said.
The department's permanent secretary Tracy Meharg has written to CARE NI outlining its intention to carry out a public consultation in the "near future".
She also vowed to involve all stakeholders and warned the exercise must not be tipped in favour of the gambling industry.
It comes two years after DfC published the results of a major gambling survey. It showed the rate of problem gambling here is four times higher than in England, three times that in Scotland and double the level in Wales.
Earlier this month Northern Ireland Office (NIO) parliamentary under-secretary Lord Duncan described the levels of problem gambling here as "extraordinary" while speaking in the House of Lords. The Conservative peer also said he may commission research to see "if we can understand what on Earth is going on" in Northern Ireland.
The NIO report being debated in the House of Commons later examined gambling law and policy here and found "there are no gambling specific services" commissioned by the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Board.
It also noted that the board does not hold data regarding the number of people seeking treatment for problem gambling.
Mr Baillie warned that while gambling might be harmless fun for some, it causes devastation for a significant minority.
"The effects are felt by individuals, families and whole communities," he added.
"We are calling on MPs to use today's debate to shine a light on the scale of problem gambling here in Northern Ireland."
Mr Baillie also said the exposure of "flaws" in existing laws is another reminder as to why Stormont must be urgently restored.
"So our elected representatives can get on with their jobs of deciding on policies to protect vulnerable people, like problem gamblers," he added.
"We look forward to more information from DfC on this important consultation soon and would only add that it is vital the consultation is not unduly influenced by the gambling industry."