Watson: Engage and compromise to future-proof industry

3 February 2020

Former Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson painted an optimistic picture of the industry’s future in his keynote speech at ICE London, provided operators and executives were prepared to engage and compromise when it came to new controls and restrictions.

Speaking at the Vox conference today (3 February) Watson told the audience that he recognised that betting is part of the UK’s national culture, which employs thousands of people and generates millions for government coffers.

“Free markets, if left unfettered, can create both great wealth and great misery,” he added, however. “And the role of regulation is to ensure the former, while preventing the latter.”

At a time when calls for new controls on the industry, including an overhaul of the 2005 Gambling Act, are expected to lead to widespread changes, Watson said it was important for the industry to engage with politicians and its critics.

He said that the fixed odds betting terminals (FOBT) debacle, which ultimately saw the maximum stake slashed from £100 to £2, showed what the industry faced if it refused to engage with those calling for new controls of the industry.

“The result of industry intransigence [when it came to FOBTs] was a much worse outcome than if it had engaged with good grace,” he said. Regulation was ultimately a quest for finding what worked, and striking a balance between those that wanted a total prohibition of the industry, and those advocating a total liberalisation - both potentially disastrous outcomes.

“One delivers Peaky Blinders, one delivers Dodge City,” he added.

While the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm caused a stir with its interim report, in which it recommended a maximum £2 per spin cap on online slots, Watson said this was a case of “shaking the tree”. By setting out its initial recommendations, this gave the industry an opportunity to negotiate.

Watson has called for an overhaul of the 2005 Gambling Act, which he previously described as “analogue legislation not fit for the digital age”. This, he said, was necessary to protect society’s most vulnerable from gambling related harms - something the previous legislation would struggle to do, considering it had more mentions of postal betting than online gambling.

“When her Majesty signed the Gambling Act in 2005, the technological terrain was markedly different,” he explained. “It’s the perfect example of legislation marooned by technological advances.”

He was “delighted” to have seen the industry take the initiative in tackling issues such advertising with the whistle-to-whistle ban, but argued that going forward, it wasn’t just down to the gambling operators to make changes.

“The banks, the loan providers and credit card providers also have a role to play,” Watson explained. “It’s not all on the shoulders of the gaming industry; the tech giants, local councils can also play a part.”

Ultimately, he concluded, a “bare knuckle fight to the death” similar to that over FOBTs would do no side any favours. Collaboration would be key to safeguarding the sector’s future, he said, noting that much of this could be facilitated by his former parliamentary colleague Michael Dugher, the incoming chief executive of the Betting and Gaming Council.

“If we can’t forge a reasonable evidence based consensus, the result will be tougher, more draconian controls from those who believe what the industry does is morally wrong.”