ELSPA hosted a games Question Time event yesterday 29th March at BAFTA in London, which saw a panel comprising representatives from the UK’s three key political parties debate good-naturedly about some of the big issues surrounding the game industry. The panel was: Tom Watson MP (Labour), Ed Vaizey MP (Conservative) and Don Foster MP (Liberal Democrat). The discussion ranged from the games tax break to the digital economy to games education. Here’s my summary/thoughts based on my notes on the event…
Attitudes to the games industry
All three panel members were pretty emphatic in their personal support for the games industry but also emphasised the change in Parliament’s attitudes to games, which Tom Watson described as a “massive shift over the last twelve months“, which he ascribed to the forthcoming change in games classification and the movement for a games tax break.
Ed Vaizey candidly admitted (as he has cheerfully done elsewhere) that he knew nothing about games three years and was not a gamer himself, but now the position has been reversed; he said “politicians are embarassed not to be gamers“! He said he was particularly impressed at the educational potential games and that culturally he thought they should occupy the same position as films.
Don Foster agreed with Tom and Ed – he said he was not himself a gamer, but believes the UK games industry is an important and successful driver for growth. He said “I think the industry has turned a corner – I don’t think we’ll go back to the days where videogames are seen as some weird fringe hobby“.
Side-note: apparently this “massive shift” in Parliament has even touched legendary games opponent Keith Vaz MP, who Tom Watson remarked has “gone through a journey” in recent months regarding his views on games, both as a result of education from the industry itself as well as pressure from his fellow MPs in the HP canteen. Who’d have thought it?
For which party should a gamer vote?
Johnny Minkley asked a question which was certainly on my mind and probably on others, too – why should a gamer vote for your party?
All three panel members immediately jumped up and down about the election being about more than just games issues (true, but predictable). Don Foster in particular said that games companies are like any other business in the UK, for whom the most important issue is the handling of the economy – and on which they should trust the Lib Dems and not Labour. He also said that his party would support the tax break under any government (he was alluding to the fact that, while the Labour government has proposed a UK games tax break, there is a general election forthcoming in the next few weeks and it is by no means clear which party will form the next government).
Tom Watson’s main argument was the games tax break itself, which signals Labour’s belief in the games industry. He said that, while all of the political parties have been on a steep learning curve over the last two years, his party understands the success and importance of the games industry for the future.
Ed Vaizey, by contrast, said that Labour had done nothing for the games industry over the last 13 years of office. He said that when the games industry first began to suffer due to tax breaks in France and Canada, the government’s response was that this was a matter for the WTO. It was only when Vaizey himself specifically questioned this that the Labour government admitted it was not going to refer the matter to the WTO. He compared Labour offering a games tax break on the cusp of an election to an abusive husband standing in the doorway after 13 years saying “I can change (!)” He said that Labour wasn’t serious about Digital Britain and rounded off by challenging anyone in the audience to name the current Minister for Video Games (which no-one could).
Johnny was then afforded an opportunity for response, and said he felt as though Vaizey’s answer was more about attacking Labour than saying what the Conservative stand for.
Tom Watson then took the opportunity to question Ed Vaizey about whether the Conservatives support the government’s tax breaks (you might remember that, previously, Vaizey said his party supported the tax break in principle but couldn’t promise anything for 2-3 years if they came into power). MCV wrote up the following (fast but good-humoured) exchange:
“Watson: Are you in favour of Alistair Darling’s proposals for game development tax breaks?
Vaizey: Well, they are proposals. Let’s see [how] they turn out, [Labour has] got to get them through the European Commission first.
Watson: Where do you stand on the issue?
Vaizey: We support tax breaks for the videogame industry.
Watson: Do you support Alistair Darling’s proposals?
Vaizey: We support tax breaks for the industry.
Watson: Oh right then. You haven’t answered the question.
Vaizey: Well what are Alistair Darling’s proposals? The European Commission signs it off? You may remember when the Government tried film tax credits, I spent a day in meetings trying to debate this, and then the European Commission rejected it. So when Darling comes back with something we can debate, we will debate it.”
In fairness, after the event Ed Vaizey confirmed that the Conservatives will offer a tax break in their first budget if they are elected.
Ian Livingstone of Eidos then asked what the parties would do to ensure that students are equipped with the right skills to be able to work in the games industry. Admission: I can’t tell you what the panel said, as I had to step out at this stage! More here.
IP protection and the Digital Economy Bill
David Yarnton, head of Nintendo UK, asked the panel where they stood on IP theft and copyright protection.
Don Foster said that these are important issues, which are meant to be addressed in the current Digital Economy Bill (we’ve written about the Digital Economy Bill and games here). He said these concerns fall into two areas: P2P downloading and web sites hosting illegal material. P2P downloading is being dealt with in the bill by the so-called ‘3 strikes’ provisions, which Foster said “we’ve now got it about right” following input from all of the parties.
Regarding “illegal websites” as he put it, he said that his party had proposed a mechanism for shutting down or blocking access to these sites, but that as a result they had been “jumped on from a great height“, which had since led them to back off from their proposal.
Tom Watson pulled no punches in his (personal) views on the Digital Economy Bill, which he thought was “technically futile, politically ignorant and electorally inept“. He said it had had virtually no debate in the House of Commons, risked being blocked in the House of Lords and, if it was nonetheless passed, would constitute a “constitutional impropriety” in his view.
As to its copyright elements, he said he supported copyright, but the creative industries have to recognise that the internet exists and is essentially a giant copying machine – but the current Digital Economy Bill just does not address these issues fully. In Watson’s view, what we really need is “wholesale copyright reform for the digital age“.
However, he also said the reality was that the Digital Economy Bill will become law in the next few weeks because of a “back-room deal” betweeen all three of the parties. On that, his verdict to Foster and Vaizey was: “shame on you, shame on you and shame on [Labour’s] front bench“. He closed by stating that because the Digital Economy Bill simply did not deal with the issues properly, the next government would still have to deal with these issues and in the meantime, “consumers and voters are going to go ape“.
Ed Vaizey was supportive of the Bill. He said he thought its measures were “quite measured and judicious” compared to what had originally been proposed. He agreed that the creative industries need to come to terms with the internet and noted that the games industry is adapting to that far more quickly than others.
As to actually passing the Bill, he said that his party was in an invidious position because the Labour government had not moved quickly enough to pass it into law before the election began to loom. As a result, he seemed tacitly to admit, the Bill now has to be rushed through. Vaizey said that the key risks of letting the Bill becoming bogged down are that it means its proposed reform of games ratings and radio deregulation won’t be passed, which he said would be disastrous.
This was an interesting event, well-attended by some key figures in the UK games industry. All of the MPs worked hard to show their support for the games industry and that itself shows games are being taken more seriously by the political establishment…although you’d have thought by their words that there is no longer any disconnect between games and politics at all, which I’m not sure is right (not yet, anyway). It was also good to see that they plainly get along well with each other, even if they disagree on policy.
The week before this event, everyone thought the main issue would be political support for a games tax break. The goverment took that away partly by then announcing the break after all, but it was interesting to see both the audience and Tom Watson pressure Ed Vaizey about what the Conservatives would do in power.
Lastly, there were no surprises over the panel members’ respective views on IP and the Digital Economy Bill (especially as I’ve heard Ed Vaizey and Tom Watson speak about it before), but still it was good to see again first hand that not all MPs are of one mind about the Bill and that clearly there is still vigorous debate to be had…but if only the government decides to give the Bill more time, of course.
All in all, definitely a worthy event and hopefully ELSPA will host another one in the future.
[image author: Andrew Dunn, obtained via Wikipedia]
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