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MP for Multiplayer

Labour MP Tom Watson on tax, TIGA and Panorama

A few years ago, the idea of having an MP in the House of Commons who openly admitted gaming would have been almost inconceivable. Now we have Members who embrace and support its cause, fighting the industry's corner in the face of reactionary media and a generational gap in understanding.

Tom Watson, MP for West Bromwich East, is one of the proudest proponents of the gaming agenda - a strong advocate of tax breaks for the industry as well as trying to get gaming on the agenda in other ways, Watson is also an actual gamer in his rare free time.

Read on for his thoughts on student fees, the tax break question and that Panorama episode.

GamesIndustry.bizThe most pertinent thing to ask first, given recent events, is how you think the new student fee charges will affect the flow of graduates into the industry?
Tom Watson

I think it will have a knock-on effect on all parts of industry and higher education, but I think the outcomes are yet to be defined. There is no doubt that some able students will make price decisions on where to attend university based on the course level.

So we may lose some of the very brightest developers from poorer backgrounds because their courses are not affordable to them. It's too early to tell yet - we don't know what kind of money games courses are going to cost.

GamesIndustry.bizAnd what's your reaction to the story about ELSPA privately advising the government of the negative effects of offering cultural tax breaks, seemingly at odds with their public support? Do you think that was dishonest or were they acting in what they thought were the industry's best interests?
Tom Watson

I've not had a chance to talk to ELSPA about this. What I can tell you is that I thought the tax break was an extremely practical measure to help a growth industry in ruthlessly competitive global market. Anything that undermined that - I thought was detrimental for the UK games industry itself and the UK economy.

I'd be very disappointed if it transpired that people were lobbying against the industry tax break, but it's far too early for me to form a judgement.

GamesIndustry.bizDo you think it's at all feasible now that we'll see the tax breaks before the next election?
Tom Watson

Well I asked Ed Vaizey this at the Culture, Media and Sports committee. He said he was still broadly in favour of the tax breaks, but he would like industry trade bodies like TIGA to stop lobbying for them for 3-4 years. When a government minister says that, it usually means that you should continue to lobby for it for 3-4 years because there's a chance of it happening.

We're clearly in a difficult period, and the government have clearly set themselves against any fiscal targeting, so it's tricky. But when you actually look at the figures produced by TIGA, that there's been a nine per cent downturn in headcount in the UK games industry, and a thirty three per cent upturn in the Canadian industry in a comparable period - then something is clearly going wrong in the partnership between industry and the UK government.

I think that at every potential spending round, the case should be made. That means the pre-budget report in autumn and the budget in the spring. I don't want it to go away, I think there should be a steady drum beat for the rest of this parliament.

After all, the industry was promised this tax-break and I think it deserves it.

GamesIndustry.bizDo you think it's still possible for the UK to catch up with somewhere like Canada, or have they got too much of a headstart?
Tom Watson

Well I think that, in many senses as a policy maker you can only deal with a situation as it exists and some parts of the industry are saying it's too late for the UK now. I don't happen to think that.

We've still got a very capable, imaginative, innovative and quite quirky group of developers in the UK. I don't know what it is that's created that culture, but it exists. It's not beyond the wit of man to get some of the great British developers back to the UK with the right tax arrangements and the right deals with publishers.

So no, I don't think we should give up. I'm not going to run away from the fact that it's looking pretty bleak for some sections of the industry right now but I have to say that I think they've badly let down by the government.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat else can people and industry leaders be asking of their government?
Tom Watson

I certainly think that, notwithstanding the cuts we're seeing in higher education, there's no doubt that there's still more work to be done to ensure that undergraduates are trained with the right skills for the industry.

So I think that there's a much greater role for a coordinating partnership between TIGA and the Department of Business and Higher Education, government and universities to make sure that courses are regularly updated that the right stuff is taught, that the graduates are sent into a marketplace where their skills are in demand.

That's actually a very complex task and it does require a lot of energy, but I think it would be very useful to the industry if we could continue down that path.

Let's also not forget - we all saw Panorama last week and tore our hair out - we've come a long way in challenging some very negative misconceptions of the gaming industry, to the point that many in the UK parliament now are fervent supporters of the industry, whereas it would have been very difficult to find an MP to go on the record and say that they enjoyed playing video games as little as three or four years ago.

But there is still a role for the industry to make a positive case for the industry per se.

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