A Look at MP Watson’s “Bookie Tax” Pledge to Fund Problem-Gambling Help

UK Labour Party MP and Shadow Culture Secretary Tom Watson made headlines earlier this week when he pledged to make his party own the issue of problem gambling, including ways to fund and treat addictive gambling behaviour and to penalize those operators who willingly prey on those exhibiting such behaviours.

Labour Party MP Tom Watson

Watson pre-released the text of the brief speech he then gave on Tuesday at a Labour Party conference in Brighton. The gambling world traditionally presents itself as an overripe target for social warriors, and there are certainly certain aspects of the industry much in need of reigning in — FOBTs, in the minds of many people, lead that list.

Watson issued two separate statements on his pledge via his personal website. First came a brief overview, which began by citing the latest Gambling Commission survey of gambling habits in the UK, which we reported on here a while back.

LABOUR’S GAMBLING ADDICTION REVIEW

A report by the Gambling Commission published in September 2017 estimated that around 430,000 people in the UK suffer from a serious gambling habit. More than more than 2 million people in the UK are either problem gamblers, or at risk of addiction.

Despite this – some gambling companies, driven by greed, are deliberately targeting our poorest communities even as hundreds of thousands of lives are ruined by addiction.

This has to stop. Gambling companies must be held to account for this abuse of trust and power. That’s why I’ve announced that Labour will conduct a review into NHS mental health services’ ability to deal with gambling addiction, in the face of mounting evidence that the UK’s hidden gambling addiction is growing. The review will look at whether the NHS has the resources and expertise it needs to treat those affected by gambling addiction, and what improvements could be made.

It will also investigate whether the gambling industry should make a greater contribution to funding the cost of treatment, including through the use of a compulsory hypothecated levy.

Watson waived the “bookie tax” banner — that’s that “greater contribution” thing, even as he misrepresented some of the Gambling Commission’s findings. Overall, the UKGC found an overall but slight rise in addictive gambling behavior, roughly commensurate with the increased availability of gambling services (including online). The claim by Watson that problem gamblin had risen by a third was extracted from a very marginal finding of the study. That percentage, though it was quickly seized upon by UK anti-gambling factions, was both out of context and likely subject to significant rounding error.

In other words, an outlier. Which didn’t make it any less the example of low-hanging fruit an opportunist politician such as Watson needs, particularly when his party, out of power since 2010, is looking for issues upon which it can calim to represent the public’s needs.

Watson waxed rather longer when he spoke at Brighton, stating:

Some gambling companies, driven by greed, are deliberately targeting our poorest communities even as hundreds of thousands of lives are ruined by addiction.

Research by the Gambling Association published last month shows the number of problem gamblers in this country has risen by a third in just three years. 2 million people are either problem gamblers or at risk of addiction.

Children and young people are being targeted by betting advertisers more than ever. And we now know that when vulnerable people try to opt-out of online gambling, companies don’t always block their accounts, as they should.

Gambling companies are even harvesting data to deliberately target low-income gamblers and people who have given up gambling. Can you imagine the uproar that would ensue if drinks manufacturers targeted members of Alcoholics Anonymous by selling vodka outside AA meetings?

We wouldn’t tolerate that – and we should no longer tolerate the same pattern of irresponsible behaviour by some bookmakers.

Gambling companies must be held to account for this abuse of trust and power. And addicts must be given the help they need. Gambling addiction is an illness and it’s about time it was taken seriously.

That’s why today, I’m announcing that together with Jonathan Ashworth, our shadow Health Secretary, I’m launching a thorough review of gambling addiction in this country and current provision for treatment on the NHS.

It will assess the feasibility of making the gambling industry pay a compulsory levy to fund NHS treatment and help lift problem gamblers out of the destructive cycle of addiction. At the moment, the industry is asked to make voluntary contributions of 0.1 per cent of profits – but it doesn’t.

So my message to gambling firms today could not be clearer: stop targeting vulnerable people. Start acting responsibly. And meet your obligation to help those whose lives been blighted by addiction. You can do it now, because it’s the right thing to do. Or you can wait for the next Labour government to do it for you.

And mark my words – we will.

Watson’s speech incorporated virtually every headline of late that’s slagged the gambling industry, and if you’ve been keeping tabs on the Guardian, there are a bunch of them. Yes, gambling companies are greedy, though most mugs understand that as a part of the business. Gambling companies really should be making that voluntary contribution, though whether Watson’s and Labour’s pledge to shake that money out of them might not quite have as much bite as bark.

A bookie tax specifically to fund a problem-gambling mandate probably won’t happen in the near future. But that doesn’t mean books shouldn’t be taking a wider view of what’s going on, meaning a growing public reaction against some of the worst gambling-industry practices, compounded by an ongoing series of public-relations blunders. The industry really does need to clean itself up a tad, because if it doesn’t, the Tom Watsons of the world will increasingly find themselves empowered to do that cleaning… under much harsher terms.

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