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Northern Ireland Civil Service's 'hands tied' over restrictions on betting machines

By Allan Preston

Civil servants have claimed they have no power to place restrictions on betting machines branded the crack cocaine of the gambling world.

New regulations in England and Wales have clamped down on fixed-odd betting terminals (FOBTs), cutting maximum bets from £100 to £2.

There are several hundred of the machines in betting shops across Northern Ireland, with the legislation governing them unchanged since 1985.

Despite calls for action, the Department for Communities said its hands were tied.

"Any proposed changes to Northern Ireland gambling law would be for an incoming minister to determine," a spokesperson explained.

Charity CARE NI branded the position "untenable" and warned that Northern Ireland had the highest rate of problem gamblers in the UK.

DUP MP Ian Paisley also criticised the impasse, describing FOBTs as "a plague on many families" and calling for measures to regulate them.

"The Government has a difficult balance to strike because many retail jobs and government revenue will be impacted by this decision," he said.

Mr Paisley also claimed that the lack of controls was another consequence of Sinn Fein collapsing the power-sharing Executive.

Sinn Fein culture spokeswoman Sinead Ennis said she supported a change in the law controlling FOBTs, which are mainly found in deprived areas.

"Gambling can get people into debt and with that comes a whole host of problems including mental health (problems), crime, relationship breakdowns and even suicide," she added.

The Northern Ireland Turf Guardians' Association, the body representing local bookmakers, said it would "welcome any evidence-based review of the gambling industry".

It also insisted it would take time to consider the outcome with its membership.

The organisation added it was awaiting confirmation from the Department for Communities on future legislation after a 2011 consultation on issues including the regulation of FOBTs.

There are currently 305 betting shops in Northern Ireland. The industry employs approximately 1,500 people, who contribute an estimated £29m to the economy.

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