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Analysis: Balanced Tom Watson speech offers outstretched arm to gaming firms

By Tim Poole

So I have to say: this wasn’t necessarily what I was expecting. As Tom Watson addressed an audience full of gaming executives on the first morning of ICE London, here was a far more balanced approach than we’ve seen in the past.

Perhaps this was because Watson was addressing the industry directly, rather than having his quotes sensationalised by journalists from national newspapers. Who knows?

To my surprise, I found myself agreeing with a lot of what one of the Great British gaming industry’s biggest critics in the recent past was saying. Perhaps this was because Watson was no longer speaking as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. Perhaps it was because he knew a room full of gaming CEOs wouldn’t listen to a berating of their industry.

Either way, he began by stating an important distinction – one a lot of active politicians fail to make. He stated what to the industry is obvious but to its fiercest critics conveniently ignored: that regulated gambling, when offered correctly and responsibly, offers fun, entertainment and a perfectly acceptable pastime.

Watson separated himself from moral objections to gambling and this is where I took note. He clarified gambling is not an ‘evil’ industry and that other industries can offer more in the way of harm to consumers.

This all made his calls for positive reform stronger. It is difficult – and should really be impossible – to argue against regulation carried out for the right reasons. Consumer protection is of the utmost importance when providing a product like gambling and industry collaboration, rather than obstinate opposition to regulatory change, will only benefit the sector. Maybe I'm starting to sound like Watson himself.

Here, he spoke against ‘draconian’ measures and pitched himself firmly in a position where he wants to work together with the industry. "Very few," in his words, want "total prohibition."

Like I’ve said, it’s worth considering his recent resignation as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and the fact he was not on neutral territory as contextual drawbacks. You could sense this in the room a little, as not many willingly engaged in the Q & A.

When Watson was questioned, you could argue he was perhaps a little fluffy. He did not make clear why, for example, the industry would need an independent ombudsman when the Gambling Commission is already considered to be very restrictive in its approach towards the sector.

He also didn’t necessarily answer the question of why a new Gambling Act is needed when the old Gambling Act still has some secondary powers which could empower the Commission. Nor did he dismiss the Gambling-Related Harm All-Party Parliamentary Group's recommendation of a £2 ($2.61) maximum stake for online slots – which, pitching himself as a moderate voice of reason, he certainly could have done.

But what he did do was praise the new Betting and Gaming Council and highlight valid concerns with game designs. There were no fabricated numbers and no Tracey Crouch-esque claims gambling directly leads to two suicides a week. Instead, he sensibly remarked that if gambling causes harm to just one person, it’s one too many.

It's interesting to assess what this address means for the industry moving forward. This can be considered an open, outstretched arm from a man who will have enough contacts within Government to actually make a difference. If the industry can avoid the "rancour" of the fixed-odds betting terminal (FOBT) saga, as Watson once again stated, we can perhaps avoid a similar outcome with online slot limits.

Watson however, has arguably raised what is currently demanded of gaming CEOs. If he is capable of adapting and appearing more balanced, any gaming representative who can’t do the same is at risk of being left behind – a remnant of a more archaic approach to gaming regulation.

If the proponents of gambling change are offering reasoned, sensible arguments, the industry should be willing to meet them halfway. As Watson mentioned, it is already showing signs of doing this through its voluntary whistle-to-whistle advertising ban.

Naturally, voices from shocked politicians representing angry constituents – perhaps far less moderate than Watson, as he claims – will always exist in Parliament. But maybe the sector can use Watson’s outstretched arm to limit these overly aggressive voices.

The former Deputy Leader and MP was very willing to speak with those in the industry, including myself, and we will put his willingness to collaborate to the test in future.

Overall though, there was no denying his reasoned and inclusive approach. From reputation, this wasn’t what I was expecting. How exactly will gaming firms react?

If the gaming sector can work more collaboratively with Government, regulation may end up not being as restrictive as it once was with FOBTs. At the same time, if those calling for more regulation are coming across as far more balanced and skilled orators, we’ll need the same level of presentation and compromise from the leaders representing gaming.

The stakes, unlike on FOBTs, are as high as ever.

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