By Fay Simmons
Tribune Business Reporter
Gaming regulators are mulling measures to ban persons receiving welfare benefits as part of a package of reforms that would also eliminate discrimination against Bahamians playing in hotel casinos if approved.
Officials from the Gaming Board, speaking yesterday at the Caribbean Gaming Conference, said they are also studying the possible removal of restrictions that presently disqualify Cabinet ministers and their relatives from working in the sector or holding a gaming licence provided the regulator is satisfied there is no conflict of interest.
Ian Tynes, the Gaming Board's secretary, confirmed that banning recipients of welfare and social security benefits from gaming is "a consideration" to protect vulnerable families and prevent irresponsible members from driving them further into poverty. He revealed that the regulator already has software that can block persons receiving welfare benefits from gaming.
“There is a component of [the tool] which has all compliance checks, everything. It is so sophisticated that if you're receiving benefits from the Government in terms of social services, it blocks your name. You will not be able to gamble. However, that's just a consideration for now. It's up the policymakers," he added.
Crystal Knowles, the Gaming Board's chief counsel, added that it is also mulling removing the condition that gaming licence holders and their relatives cannot be a member of Cabinet in its entirety, or editing it to allow for the inclusion of such persons once the Board is satisfied there is no conflict of interest.
She said: “It is envisioned that section 25 1C of the Act, which currently provides that a person may not hold an employment licence if that person is a member of the Board, a member of the Cabinet or was a family member of such person... it is proposed that that will be deleted.
"Or it will be amended to either remove a member of the Cabinet from the list of persons who are currently disqualified from holding an employment licence, or it will include language from section 25 1D to the effect that the Board may condone such disqualification if it is satisfied that no material conflict of interest will arise by reason of such employment.”
Ryan Brown, a Gaming Board official, also told the conference: “We must eradicate discrimination in all facets Bahamian. Gaming is no different. Therefore, we propose removing in its entirety section 69 of the Gaming Act. This provision, informed by section two of the Act, defines who a domestic player is. Currently, residents, including citizens and permanent residents, cannot sit at a slot machine at Atlantis, Baha Mar or Resorts World.
"This should not be in a modern country. Likewise, casinos are limited to two islands in our country, but tourists go throughout. So conversely, because tourists cannot take part in our gaming and number house activity, we believe that that section should be eradicated to allow all persons to take part in gaming. We believe that will benefit the industry as a whole by increasing revenue to the licensees; all of them. It will increase taxes to the Bahamian people as well.”
Ms Knowles confirmed this thinking, saying: “Consideration is being given to removing the restriction that precludes tourists or domestic players from gambling and commercial casinos. In turn, it is proposed the restriction that prevents tourists from gambling in gaming house premises will also be removed, especially on the islands where no commercial casinos are present. It is intended that gaming will be accessible to all.”
Mr Brown recommended a national lottery, and noted that the Gaming Act already makes an allowance for its formation upon approval by the Chester Cooper, the minister presently responsible for the industry.
“Another recommendation is the concept of a national lottery. Currently, section 58 of the Act allows the minister to simply approve a lottery. We believe that we can do it in an innovative way if we were to take that step," he said.
Ms Knowles added: “Possible amendments may also involve including a provision whereby the Government or the Board can incorporate a corporate soul that it would own for the purpose of operating the National Lottery. In order to determine the best approach, the Board is considering having a feasibility study conducted to examine the structure of a national lottery in the context of our existing gaming sector.”
A fee structure change is also being considered by the Board, which will charge gaming houses based on the number of locations or size of premises. Ms Knowles said: “The Board is also currently considering amendments that may involve the incorporation of a tiered approach to the fee structure that is attributable to gaming house premises in the domestic sector. The amendments therefore may be based upon the size of the gaming house premises or the number of locations.”
Ms Knowles added that the Board is also considering permitting standalone casinos for Family Islands only. She said: “Proposed amendments may involve adding a new section, under which a gaming license authorises the operation of a standalone casino without reference to a designated area of a casino resort.
"Consideration has also been given to establishing a maximum number of standalone casinos, and restricting the construction and operation of such casinos to the Family Islands only to prevent any further saturation of the gaming market in New Providence.”
Ms Knowles said the Gaming Board is currently reviewing allowing digital verification technology that would permit domestic players to open accounts without face-to-face verification. She added that the regulator is considering accepting crypto currency for gaming transactions.
"The proposed amendments seek to support the use of digital online verification technology provided that stringent KYC requirements are met. This proposed amendment is specific to the domestic sector," Ms Knowles said. "The Board is currently considering amendments that could potentially facilitate the acceptance of crypto currency as a method of payment for gaming transactions.”