With parliamentary business on Malta back on track after the summer recess, the proliferation of betting shops on the Mediterranean island has been high on the debate list this week.
Finance Minister Tonio Fenech has assured the legislature the government does not want to see Malta "being turned into one big casino", and would therefore be amending various gaming laws designed to introduce tougher enforcement measures.
The Times of Malta reports that Fenech outlined various actions under the Lotteries and Other Games (Amendment) Bill, including a regime where licences would be issued for periods of 12 months, renewable only if there were no pending court proceedings against the operator at the time of renewal.
The Finance Minister said there were diverse opinions on what sort of gaming was to be tolerated in Malta, and it was better to regulate than prohibit gaming activity.
He gave as an example the fact that Malta was the only EU country (excluding the UK) that had introduced regulations to control and license remote gaming, a sector that provided 2 500 jobs on the island.
The Minister said that the government would be legislating so that gaming was open to adults who were conscious of what they were doing. The Bill was also designed to protect minors and other vulnerable people against compulsive gambling, he said.
Emphasising that regulation did not amount to liberalisation, Fenech said the government did not want to create a situation where every town or village would have its own casino. Gaming outlets would be monitored by the relevant authorities to ensure that this activity was conducted fairly. It would set standards aimed at eliminating any criminal or money-laundering activity, and heavy fines would be imposed on those infringing the regulations.
The gaming authority would have more legal powers and human resources to enforce the regulations, he said.
There needed to be a clear distinction between gaming and entertainment or amusement machines, the minister said. Only three types of gaming or amusement machines would be allowed, which would be licensed for use in places where only gaming was allowed. No other activity could take place in these outlets and operators would have to observe a code of conduct.
Manufacturers of amusement machines, suppliers to the market and the places hosting amusement machines would also require licences. These would not be subject to those restrictions which applied to gaming machines.
Fenech said that the Lotteries and Gaming Authority would retain the right to object to the issue of a licence, and also to the renewal of a licence, on justifiable grounds and following due diligence procedures.
Simulators, skill games and video games would not be restricted in the same manner as gaming machines. But gaming machines were not to receive stakes of more than Euro 2, while billiard tables and similar games would only be able to accept a Euro 1 coin. Neither could accept paper money.
Amusement games would not give out coupons which could later be exchanged for prizes, and operators could not give any reward to players, not even in the form of soft toys or sweets, as this developed the culture of gaming for profit. The designation of a machine as an amusement or gaming machine would initially depend on the assessment of the Lotteries and Gaming Authority.
Regulations for gaming would aim at trying to provide a level playing field, even though current licences were to be respected. The Bill proposed that players would only be able to access gaming machines at the age of 18, while the age of 25 for entrance to casinos would be retained. This age restriction would also apply to lotteries such as those provided by Maltco as soon as the licence of Maltco expired in a year or two.
LGA inspectors would be given access rights to gaming premises. Monetary penalties were being increased and illegal machines would also be subject to destruction. The authority would be given the right to directly participate in judicial proceedings on gaming issues.
A share of the revenue from such gaming would be used to campaign in favour of responsible gaming.
In general, the Bill would regulate the place of gaming, the gaming machines themselves and persons who could enter such places. It also sought to safeguard the players.
Employees in gaming places would also be licensed by the authority, and would receive training as to their responsibilities and the relevant code of ethics. A code of practice to regulate sponsorship and advertising by gaming operators would be drawn up. Internet cafés offering internet gaming would also be subjected to licensing procedures.