Plan to clamp down on numbers game shelved

Government reconsidering changes to gambling legislation

Government has shelved plans to increase penalties for illegal gambling amid calls for a review of the prohibition of gambling in the Cayman Islands.

The Gambling (Amendments) Bill was scheduled to be heard at the most recent session of the Legislative Assembly but was pulled at the last minute.

The bill proposed massive increases in penalties – in some cases 25 times greater than in the current legislation – as a deterrent for people running underground lotteries, known as the numbers game, and other forms of gambling.

The proposal caused some public outcry, with former Sports Minister Osbourne Bodden among those calling for government to reverse its position and formalize the numbers game in a legally sanctioned lottery.

Attorney General Samuel Bulgin confirmed Friday that the bill had been withdrawn to allow government to take a further look at the provisions of the entire law.

He gave no indication of what form the review would take but insisted the current penalties, which have not changed in 54 years, were inadequate.

The shelved amendment proposed that fines for the use and ownership of premises for gambling, the publication of lottery numbers and dealing with money resulting from gambling activities would increase from $400 to $10,000, and the maximum prison sentence would increase from one year to three years.

Independent legislator Kenneth Bryan said the bill had been pulled from the order paper without explanation. He said he believed the proposals were out of step with what the majority of the country wanted and suggested a wider national discussion was needed.

“It is not reflective of what the majority of people in this country feel. Does the country still believe that gambling should be illegal? They [government] don’t know because they have never asked.”

He said if the bill came back to the Legislative Assembly, it would inevitably lead to a debate over the legalization of gambling. He said raffles and other forms of gambling were frequently used by charities and churches to raise funds, and the local numbers game had been entrenched in Caymanian society for decades.

“How can you increase penalties on something that is almost institutionalized?” he said.

Mr. Bodden made a similar point in a letter to the Cayman Compass last month saying the current approach was riddled with hypocrisy.

He added, “The numbers game has been entrenched in these islands for many years now and many at the lower economic spectrum in Cayman benefit daily from their little winnings. The church people play, the police play, the courts staff play, the prison officers play, and the lawyers, doctors and politicians play. All people play. Let’s be real and honest here.

“To stiffen these penalties now, we run the risk of criminalizing many otherwise law-abiding citizens in Cayman.”

Instead he suggested the numbers game be legalized, with licensed sellers, in the form of a national lottery.

Any move to legalize gambling in the Cayman Islands could expect some opposition from the local churches.

Bishop Nicholas Sykes said it was a complex issue, but he believes there is a distinction between lotto games like the numbers, and church and charity raffles.

He said, “While it may sometimes indeed be difficult to make a clear-cut distinction of principle between the gambling of a lottery or numbers and the charitable gaming of a service club or a church, my view is that because in many cases it is possible and reasonable to make such a moral distinction, to do so is not necessarily hypocritical.”

He said he was not against increasing penalties for illegal gambling, such as the numbers game, particularly if it could be linked to other crimes.

And he suggested legalizing and taxing numbers was not something that he would support.

“I do not consider making a portion of such gains over to the state coffers any sustainable contribution to a principled or sane society,” he added.