Flutter Entertainment, the betting group behind Paddy Power and Sky Bet, has appointed former Labour party deputy leader Tom Watson as an adviser to its board as the company seeks to improve its treatment of problem gambling.
Mr Watson, a vocal anti-gambling campaigner, will guide the company on best practice in its shops, marketing, customer service and anti-money laundering procedures.
Flutter said the final details were still being confirmed but that it had been in conversations with Mr Watson since late spring and that he would be paid a retainer of “less than six figures”.
“[Flutter] convinced me that they were serious about letting me . . . jump in at the deep end of the company, learn how they operate and let me share my unvarnished thoughts about what they do,” Mr Watson said, adding that the job would only work if there was “good intent on both sides”.
Mr Watson rose to prominence for his criticism of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and the role he played in exposing the phone-hacking scandal at Mr Murdoch’s now-defunct newspaper the News of the World.
This year he faced opposition for taking up a position on the board of trade body UK Music over his role in a bungled police investigation into false claims of historic sexual abuse.
Mr Watson stepped down from the Labour party in 2019 after frequent disagreements with its leader Jeremy Corbyn, but said he would continue focusing on gambling reform and public health.
Several critical reports on the gambling industry have been published this year after a barrage of media reports exposing betting companies’ exploitation of vulnerable customers.
Revelation of practices, such as the use of bonuses and VIP programmes to entice addicted gamblers and aggressive marketing of sports betting, prompted the Conservative party to promise changes to the UK’s gambling legislation in its December election manifesto.
The review of the 2005 Gambling Act, which made the UK one of the most permissive states for legalised gambling, is expected this autumn.
The UK’s largest gambling companies — Flutter, Bet365, GVC and William Hill — have moved to fend off tighter regulation since 2018’s punitive cut to the maximum stake permitted on fixed-odds betting terminals cut into their profits.
The companies have been particularly vocal about improvements to anti-money laundering and responsible gambling processes following an uptick in online gambling during lockdowns.
Flutter revealed in August that demand for online poker and betting had boosted its revenues more than a fifth in the first half of the year, offsetting the near total cancellation of sporting events worldwide and the closure of its betting shops.
Peter Jackson, chief executive, said that by bringing Mr Watson on board, he wanted “to lead the industry’s race to the top”.
“We have to work harder than ever before to find a way to continue to bring great products and brands to our customers while always having the need to protect the vulnerable clearly in mind. Tom will hold a mirror up to help us make sure we are getting this balance right,” he said.
David Zeffman, head of gambling and sport at the law firm CMS, said Mr Watson’s appointment was a “smart move”. Mr Watson had been vocal about the industry’s shortcomings, but was “definitely not an extremist . . . [and] his proposals were often not foolish”, said Mr Zeffman.
This article has been amended to clarify that Tom Watson will not sit on Flutter’s board