ICE VOX commences with notable speeches from Tom Watson and Neil McArthur

The opening day of ICE VOX yesterday, 3 February 2020, witnessed significant messages conveyed in consecutive speeches delivered by former Deputy Leader of the UK’s Labour Party, Tom Watson and the CEO of the UK’s Gambling Commission, Neil McArthur.

Speech by Tom Watson

Whilst Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Watson was the architect behind his party’s “Review of problem gambling and its treatment” in 2018, which he followed up in 2019 with a speech entitled “We need a new Gambling Act fit for the digital age”, an article in Parliament’s magazine The House entitled “Tom Watson: Gambling companies should have to reapply for their licences and undergo proper scrutiny” and a speech entitled “Labour calls for a Gambling Ombudsman and a new regulatory landscape”

Watson surprised many in the audience with the reasoned tone of his speech, explaining that he did not view “gambling in terms of angels and demons, in terms of black and white”, adding “I’m no prohibitionist, hell-bent on saving souls and closing down the bookies. What I want is a system of regulation which protects the vulnerable, sets sensible boundaries, allows reasonable rewards for the industry, encourages innovation, and lets you get on with your business.”

The UK’s gambling industry will have welcomed his view that reform of the sector is “not all on the shoulders of the gaming industry” on the basis that banks, credit card companies, loan providers, local councils and “tech giants” all have responsibilities and a part to play.

However, that view was tempered with his concern that “free markets, if left unfettered, can create both great wealth and great misery, and the role of regulation is to ensure the former, while preventing the latter …. What I want is a system of regulation that protects the vulnerable …. If good sensible regulation is the price of preventing one bankruptcy or one death, it’s a price worth paying.”

He did not hold back in expressing damning criticism of marketing techniques that amount to “the psychological targeting of these vulnerable people with the most sophisticated forms of suggestion and promotion ever devised by man – that calibrated blend of sound, colour, music and words designed to release chemicals in the brain and generate harmful behaviours – all for profit. This is simply unacceptable.”

He suggested that, had the betting sector been willing to adopt a more moderate approach, it would have been able to retain a higher maximum stake than the £2 ultimately imposed by the UK Government, warning: “the tragedy of our recent history on gaming machines in the UK, called FOBTs, is that instead of being prepared to approach its critics and find common ground, the industry doubled down, denounced its critics, including me, and dug in even deeper. The industry, by its intransigence, ended up with a much worse outcome than if it had engaged with good grace and emollience. The saga of FOBTs should inform our approach in the future. We should all learn from the experience”.

Watson called on the gambling industry to embrace collaboration or risk facing a draconian approach from government and regulators and concluded by saying:

I’m optimistic we can forge a new and productive relationship. There are new faces on all sides, and a new dedication to make progress ….. My final thought is this – if we can’t forge that reasonable, evidence-based consensus on the way forward, the result will not be business-as-usual. No, the result will be a tougher, more draconian approach driven by those who believe what you do is morally wrong, and that the job of government and regulators is to stamp you out, like big tobacco and liquor.”

Speech by Neil McArthur

McArthur’s speech, entitled “Changing Mindsets” that opened this year’s annual World Regulatory Briefing Conference focused on the following three issues:

  • “why we need to make gambling safer”,
  • “what I see as the opportunities to make gambling safer and the risks if those opportunities are not taken” and
  • “how I think a change of mindset can help us – regulators, operators, advisers and suppliers – make gambling safer”

He concluded his speech with the following words:

We will get tougher and tougher if we need to and of course, our compliance and enforcement work will continue but the time to think of this as a competition between ‘poachers’ and ‘gamekeepers’ has gone.  Gambling related harm is a public health issue.  It needs a comprehensive public health response.  We all need to see ourselves as working to make gambling safer.  We each have a different part to play, but that must be our goal. If that isn’t anyone’s goal they need to leave the industry.

Making gambling safer is the Gambling Commission’s goal therefore we stand ready to work with anyone who shares our determination to reduce gambling harms.  To make gambling safer for consumers.  I look forward to working with you all to do just that.

McArthur’s full speech can be downloaded below.

UPDATE: You can view below the ICE VOX interview conducted with Tom Watson on 3 February, accessible on YouTube here:

Tom Watson