Analysis: Tom Watson’s grouping of gambling issues will not help industry problems

Taking aim at the gambling industry once again, Tom Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich East and Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, recently wrote: "It is obvious to anyone that the system is in a mess."

TomWatson

But exactly what system is he talking about?

In an article published on Politics Home, the UK Parliament’s magazine, Watson once again reemphasised his desire for online operators to reapply for their licenses and "undergo proper scrutiny."

He mentioned the speed at which technology has outpaced legislation, referenced four Gambling Commission fines from last week and took a stance on an "African child betting epidemic." That's quite a range of systems up for discussion, and while there are of course issues to iron out, they would be best done separately and wholeheartedly. Addressing them in what appears to be a recycled statement will not help problem gamblers or anyone else with a detrimental relationship with gambling.  

Let’s look at a recent example of how a specified approach better suited those looking to make a difference, and more importantly, those who need help.

The fixed-odds betting terminal (FOBT) saga dominated industry headlines and made the rounds with mainstream media. Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Ayelsford, led the campaign to drop the betting terminals' maximum stakes. Although the changed date of implementation prompted her to quit her post as Sports Minister, the decrease of maximum stakes from £100 ($125.93) to £2 was eventually brought in.

Several operators feared the drop, saying shops would shut up and down the country. Those businesses are currently feeling the effect of the new legislation, and second-quarter financial results will give a better indication of the fall out. But whichever side of the argument companies, politicians or campaigners find themselves, it is clear a singular, focused approach is the most proactive way to come to a solution.

This is not the first time Watson has trotted out some of his favourite phrases against gambling. In February, the politician promised his party would limit online betting stakes if it gained power in the UK. He argued Labour’s proposed rules would help tackle "Britain’s hidden epidemic" and said the current laws are outdated. In the same statement he said gambling should be treated as a "public health emergency."

Looking back at Watson’s most recent article, a lot of the phrases are the same. He talks about epidemics and a public health emergency. These serious terms should be dealt with individually and not grouped under the usual anti-gambling umbrella.

There’s an argument he must return to the same points to draw attention and change them. But they also appear more and more like publicity statements, drafted in and out of use when needed.  

Watson said gambling reform has been a policy priority of his since his early days as an MP. He was government whip when Labour introduced the Gambling Act in 2005. He wrote: "Little did we know at the time this piece of analogue legislation would almost immediately be overtaken by the pace of digital change."

Have the last two decades seen rapid changes in the capabilities online industries can deliver? Yes, of course they have. But the question should be: Was this predictable? Again, yes; legislators should have seen it coming. Admittedly, it would have been difficult to put a scale on the growth. But the trend of business moving online is clear across any industry.

Watson rounds off his article by discussing advertising and missing a crucial point. If he wants to see an overhaul of online operator application systems to help prevent problem gambling in Africa, surely he should also demand a rethink of how advertising works in the UK.

Operators will always want a way to publicise their brands, especially in hugely popular competitions like the English Premier League. Where it is legal to do so, they have the right to proceed. As Watson has grouped together so many major gambling issues into a single statement, perhaps he should chuck in a review of advertising law to top it off.  

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