ew amendments to the Lotteries and Gamings Act, which place more onerous conditions on applicants for gaming hall licences, were approved by parliament without much ado on 18 December: a time when public attention was focused more on the festive season than on political polemics.
New conditions can be issued without requiring parliamentary approval, the report explained. The new amendments have been the object of much speculation and controversy since June this year, when the authorities clamped down on the previously unregulated ‘Video Lottery Terminal’ (VLT) industry, closing down several of the myriad unlicensed gaming halls to have mushroomed in practically every town and village in Malta.
Partly on account of the same government’s earlier decision to relax gaming laws with an eye to attracting the international online gaming industry, many had taken advantage of unforeseen loopholes which enabled shop owners to convert their establishments into unlicensed gaming halls overnight.
The June clampdown, coupled with the government’s declared aim to issue new licence conditions, ostensibly formed part of an initiative to regulate this socially sensitive sector, which was felt to have compromised Malta’s previously tough stance on gaming in general.
But subsequent revelations this summer that Finance Minister Tonio Fenech had accepted a ‘freebie’ trip on casino operator George Fenech’s private jet last March, together with entrepreneur Joe Gasan, opened a veritable can of worms regarding the real intentions with the plans to revise the gaming industry regulations.
At the time of the unorthodox trip to watch Arsenal in Spain, George Fenech was poised to take over a third casino to add to his two licensed ones at the Oracle in Qawra and Portomaso in St Julian’s. These amendments have now been in the pipeline for almost two years. Originally the deadline for their finalisation was March 2008, but as this coincided with the last general election, it was decided to postpone to June last year.
However, by June 2008 it appears there was a change in policy, and former LGA chairman Mario Galea was instructed to keep things on hold. These regulations – such as the zoning of gaming shops away from schools – have been in draft form for over two years, and have never been approved by the LGA.
Applications to MEPA for gambling halls were now also being refused on the grounds of ‘bad neighbourliness’, citing the Structure Plan’s guidelines. In the meantime, operators now claim that all their revenues have been diverted back to the casino industry. Now that the proposed amendments to the gaming law have been approved, Fenech can issue the new conditions by legal notice, which require no parliamentary approval.