The Opposition abstained from voting on the Gambling (Gaming and Betting) Control Bill on Friday. Since passage required a three-fifths majority, the bill failed to pass, garnering only 20 Government votes instead of the required 26. In lieu of overall legislation that would have strengthened the regulations for the gaming industry, the Government is now forced to amend existing, weaker legislation to add some kind of control to the sector.
The bill, Finance Minister Colm Imbert said in a press briefing following the failed vote, was a carbon copy of the bill passed by the UNC in 2015.
“We never expected them to reject their own bill. (Now) we have to come with some other regulation. (It) would not be as powerful but will certainly close some loophole regarding tax evasion.”
Since the Government can’t deal with this bill, Imbert said, it can instead deal with other “weaker” legislation and put teeth on that, for example, laws on private members' clubs.
The gambling bill was passed in the House in 2015 under the previous UNC coalition government, but before it was passed in the Senate, Parliament was dissolved to make way for the general election, and the process had to be restarted, under a new PNM administration.
The government presented the identical bill for passage but, Imbert said, the Opposition found fault and demanded a joint select committee, including new consultations with stakeholders and international experts – all to which the Government acquiesced. Then today, for the vote, the Opposition abstained.
“All over the world all of these casino industries are regulated by a gambling commission, a special purpose regulatory body because of the amount of money involved and the dangerous pitfalls of money laundering and criminal activity. This was the whole purpose of this bill – a commission with power and that’s why it needed a special majority and what that power would do is keep undesirables out of the industry,” Imbert said of the bill.
Now, the strategy will be to go to a less powerful amendment to address the problems of criminality.
“No reasonable person in this industry would be against regulation because with regulation you can have growth. Right now, these clubs are operating under the radar doing things they should not be doing. But because the law is so weak some can get away with it. I suspect the reasonable ones would endorse regulation. It’s only people who want to avoid paying taxes and engage in criminal activity (who would be against it).”
He suggested the industry might have lobbied the Opposition against supporting the bill.
“The estimate of money lost to taxpayers is $500 million but this is a $16 billion industry that is unregulated. So that could be the motivation for people not supporting the bill,” he said.
In a release late Friday evening, the UNC said the Government was using the covid19 pandemic conveniently “as a cover to rush their Parliamentary agenda without proper scrutiny.
“This is a subversion of our democracy as it erodes the checks and balances that are built into our system of lawmaking,” the release said.
The Gambling Bill was just one such piece of legislation, it said, with others including amendments to the Bail Act, The TT Revenue Authority Act, and the Representation of the People Act.
The UNC has, however, previously stymied attempts by the Government to pass legislation to which it had agreed on and even drafted while in office, including the Anti-Gang legislation and the Fatca Act.