HC Deb 10 January 1989 vol 144 cc815-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Gorel-Jones.]

11.45 pm
Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the gambling addiction that can affect young people who play amusement-with-prizes machines. I am pleased to have support from hon. Members on both sides of the House, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Dunnachie) who, I hope, will have the opportunity to intervene during the short debate. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for attending the debate and for his courtesy in receiving a delegation from Norwich on this subject last summer. We have also had further discussions since then.

The Eastern Evening News in Norwich has been running a series of strongly written and effective articles on the extent and nature of the addiction in Norwich and the surrounding area and the misery that can be suffered by families. The newspaper has referred to horror stories such as the mother at her wit's end who said that she was afraid her son might kill, the teenager who slashed his throat with a broken bottle to mask his shame over his addiction, and the woman who sobbed and said she still loved her husband but had to throw him out because of his gambling. Such stories have come to the fore in Norwich and elsewhere. This is a serious matter.

Although there have been many calls for reform of the Gaming Act 1968, I raise the issue again because I am convinced from interviews and research conducted in Norwich that the problem is real and serious. Arcade addiction is widespread nationally and has been the subject of much attention in the national press and on television. The experience of Mrs. Cindy Elliff in Norwich is typical. When speaking about her son, Simon, she said: Simon's personality changed … he changed into a sullen, mean and aggressive person… it was like living with a drug addict … you wouldn't see him for three or four days until he'd turn up filthy dirty and smelly, white and drawn because he'd had nothing to eat during the period he'd been away … he got funds wherever he could illegally. He has put the whole family in debt over this".

Disturbingly, I have had several similar tales from other parts of the country. Therefore, this problem is not associated just with Norwich or my constituency. It is a national problem. there is a story about a killing in Gwent which was associated with the problem and about a young boy, from the area close to that represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown, who committed suicide. There are stories from all over the country about the problems facing families.

Time does not allow me to quote from the many surveys that have been conducted, but a picture of truancy and deviant behaviour emerges. The trouble with surveys is that they finish up as statistics and we all know what can be done with those. I prefer case histories, and I have heard many of those. Norwich social workers have described behaviour ranging from borrowing money to child prostitution. Many cases go unreported because families, not surprisingly, wish to protect their children. A child psychiatrist in Norwich confirmed that the problem is widespread; she said that it is better to reduce the opportunities for children to develop the gambling addiction than to treat them afterwards. After all, the same argument applies to alcohol or any other addiction.

The question we must debate tonight is whether a change in the law is called for. I believe it is, and I hope the Minister will discuss this, not only tonight but in future, and will keep the question of a possible tightening of the law under review and will keep an open mind on this matter.

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

As the amusement trade has itself said that there should be legislation, that should have great influence on the Government in introducing a Bill. Until legislation is introduced, it is vital—I know that this is the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale)—that there should be the closest co-operation between the industry and local authorities in each area in operating voluntary control schemes.

Mr. Thompson

I agree, and there is increasing, sensible and well-thought-out pressure for a tightening of the law and for such legislation. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) in his place. I am aware of his keen interest in this subject.

Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie (Glasgow, Pollock)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, when somebody under the age of 18 is found gambling in an amusement arcade, the owner of the premises should be held responsible, that a financial penalty should be imposed on him and that, should he continue to allow people under 18 to gamble on his premises, his licence should be revoked?

Mr. Thompson

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I am aware that he has a Bill of his own that he intends to present to the House. His thinking is along similar lines to mine and many others.

Some local authorities have expressed concern, and a dialogue with the Home Office has clarified their powers to an extent. Although amusement-with-prizes machines can be removed from cafés, fish and chip shops and so on, attempts to stop the spread of arcades have met with remarkably little success. Under schedule 9 to the 1968 Act, operators must apply for permits to local authorities, and planning permission must also be obtained from them. If either is refused, the applicant is entitled to appeal, and of course planning control cannot take moral considerations into account.

In a recent written question, the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many local authority refusals of permission to open amusement arcades had been overturned on appeal by his Department. Replying, the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley), said that, of 304 planning appeals involving amusement arcades decided since January 1984, the earliest date from which such information was available, 203 had been allowed. Those figures make the point more effectively than anything I might say.

Under the leadership of Westminster Councillor Robert Davis, more than 80 authorities have joined the Amusement Arcade Action Group, which was set up in 1983 to campaign for a change in the law. Many of them have wisely used the Home Office advice given in 1969, which states that an authority can refuse a permit on grounds of social considerations. But this advice cannot be used in the courts, so many appeals result in victory for arcade owners.

Westminster city council has been ingenious in using its powers more effectively. Indeed, it is interesting to note that Brighton borough council is also pursuing a policy of zoning in the allocation of permits. In my area, Norwich city council is also concerned about the issue. So far, it has confined its energies to calling for a change in the law, but it too is striving to use its powers more effectively. I hope that the Minister will comment on that and add further advice for local authorities in my area.

Recent attempts to change the law include the Amusement Arcades Bill in 1983, introduced into the other place by Lord Campbell of Alloway; an attempt in 1984 to insert a clause into the Greater London Council (General Powers) Act; and attempts to amend the Criminal Justice Act 1988. All those attempts failed. Lord Campbell's Bill would have refused access to those under 16 unless they were accompanied by an adult, and extended local authority powers to impose conditions on arcades. It is interesting that that Bill passed through all its stages in the House of Lords, again demonstrating the pressure that exists for a reform and for a tightening of the law.

I acknowledge the fact that the British Amusement Catering Trade Association has introduced a code which instructs owners to prohibit entry to inland arcades to those under 16. This week I hope to meet representatives of that organisation to discuss it further. But it is voluntary and easily can be ignored. Certainly parents in Norwich have challenged the effectiveness of the code. In a survey of 119 arcades conducted in 1984, Westminster city council found that only 55 per cent. were actually members of that trade association.

Recently, the Home Office research and planning unit published a study entitled, "Amusement Machines, Delinquency and Dependency", which is very critical of many earlier reports and surveys. It concluded: there does not seem to be any substantial evidence to support the notion that young people are generally at risk of becoming dependent on playing machines".

It must be clear from my remarks that I am not sure that the Home Office has reached the right judgment. The pressure for change is greater than the Home Office judge it to be at the moment. I hope that this debate is part of the process of consultation for which the Home Office is anxious and which my hon. Friend the Minister will speak about when he replies to the debate.

I hope that my hon. Friend will also be willing to discuss the change in the law to which I have referred before, but I stress again the importance of keeping it under review. In a letter to me last summer, my hon. Friend the Minister said that the present powers of local authorities are substantial. He pointed to the procedure of the planning and licensing stage and reminded me of local authority powers. However, recent cases in Norwich and other parts of the country make a strong case for a change in the law.

Like the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollock (Mr. Dunnachie), I am considering possible changes which might be achieved via a suitably drafted Bill. One option would be to strengthen the law so as to incorporate Home Office guidance as contained in the 1969 circular, although I gather that it would be difficult to draft. Other approaches involve an age limit, either at 16 or, as has been suggested earlier today, at 18, for example the proposed amendments to the Criminal Justice Act 1988. There could be an age limit imposed nationally or discretionary powers could be given to local authorities to impose such a limit.

Given that the seriousness of arcade addiction varies between different locations and that different interpretations are put on the evidence available, I favour the second approach. The industry itself accepts the need to ban children from arcades. That is why there is a voluntary ban in inland arcades therefore they have nothing to fear from the tightening of the law being suggested.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for listening to my remarks. I hope that the Home Office will recognise that there is a great deal of concern about arcade addiction and the distress experienced by many young people and their families. I hope that he will accept the case for a tightening of the law on gambling and that I shall have the opportunity to discuss it with him further. I assure him that there is real distress among young people and their families as a result of this addiction. I strongly believe that prevention is better than cure.

11.53 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) for once again contributing to the debate on an important subject of considerable concern to the House and to those outside, and for making sure that it is kept at the forefront of our minds. I was glad to hear the brief intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kempton (Mr. Bowden) and to note what was said by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollock (Mr. Dunnachie), who presented his own Bill on the matter earlier today. I also note the presence in the Chamber of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) who has a long-standing concern over these issues.

This debate does two things. First, it gives me a chance to respond to the statement by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North that we need to keep the law in this area under review—and, of course, we do so constantly. Indeed, a little less than six months ago, on 28 July 1988 we made a statement to this House reporting on the research conducted by the Home Office and setting out a set of measures for the House to consider. The second useful purpose of the debate is that it allows me to report to the House on the not inconsiderable progress that has been made in less than six months in this area. I am sure that that will be of interest to hon. Members of all parties.

I should say at the outset that I share the concern about the individual named cases which my hon. Friend has drawn to the attention of the House. I am familiar with some already and have met the mother of one of the cases to which my hon. Friend referred. I remember with pleasure meeting the delegation that he brought from Norwich last summer.

However, that recognition of the seriousness of some cases should not detract from the Government's general approach to the problems associated with the excessive playing of amusement machines by young people. Whatever else the Home Office research did—it was backed up by independent research from the Gaming Board for Great Britain—it did not produce evidence of widespread addiction; it produced evidence of some addiction. I hope that the measures that we are already taking will provide practical assistance both in Norwich and in the rest of the country to help those who are addicted and, more importantly—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North—to try to prevent those who might fall into addiction from becoming addicted in due course. As my hon. Friend observed, prevention is better than cure in this case.

As the House is well aware of the background to this issue, it would be otiose for me to go over it. That applies especially to the research into various cases, as my hon. Friend has already drawn attention to that. Therefore, I can begin by remarking that there are two areas in which action has been taking place since the statement of 28 July. The first concerns the existing law, which is complex—of that there can be no doubt. However, it is not necessarily ineffective law. One problem is that it is not used effectively or to the full and that is something that we want to try to put right. It is evident to us in the Home Office that not all local authorities are using their present powers effectively. We decided that our first priority must be to draw their existing powers to the attention of local authorities. We did so by issuing a circular in November to emphasise the importance to be attached to that point.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North has specifically asked me to comment on those powers, it may be helpful if I summarise the position briefly. The various provisions are contained in the Gaming Act 1968. The control to be exercised by local authorities hinges on the permits that are required under that Act for premises with amusements-with-prizes slot machines, or AWPs as they are known in the trade.

Broadly, premises with AWP machines fall into two main categories: those where the machines are incidental to the main business, such as cafés or fish and chip shops; and arcades and other such amusement places themselves. In neither case can a condition such as an age limit be put on the use of machines, but in premises other than arcades a local authority's powers—I choose my words carefully —are in other respects draconian. In particular, they can, by resolution, ban such machines from some altogether.

In some cases in England—I cannot speak with such authority for Scotland—when delegations from local district councils have come to see me, it has been startling to discover that they were unaware of the extent of their powers.

Where there is no such resolution in force, the grant or the renewal of a permit is, of course, at local authorities' discretion. Some authorities already impose such bans, and I understand that Norwich city council is one of those. Our circular should bring those options clearly to the attention of all local authorities. It is a matter for local decision, which is important, because local councillors understand the local context of social problems, and, where appropriate, they can provide a wide measure of control over premises where children and young adults might otherwise have easy access to such machines in a completely unsupervised environment, such as in a fish and chip shop in a shopping parade.

A local authority's powers over the issue of permits for an amusement arcade might not be quite so sweeping for other premises, but they are nonetheless substantial. I continue to feel that a number of local authorities, in England at least, do not appreciate the range of powers that are open to them, or, if they appreciate them, they do not use them.

An important point is that, when an amusement arcade gets going, two separate and unrelated processes must be observed. There is the planning process under planning legislation and the permit process under gaming legislation. In law, local authorities must consider each case on its merits as appropriate, because an entire business may be at stake. However, they have discretion as to whether or not to grant a permit, which is unaffected by the fact that planning permission may previously have been granted to set up an amusement arcade in those premises. It does not flow from the fact that planning permission has been given that a new permit will be granted. A permit can be refused, and there is, of course, appeal to the Crown court against the local authority's decision.

Although no criteria for the exercise of a local authority's decision are laid down in the Gaming Act 1968, the implication is that, in considering an application, an authority should take careful account of the social considerations that apply in that particular area, such as the numbers of arcades already in existence—I believe that there are four in my hon. Friend's city of Norwich—and whether those arcades are judged to be over-frequented by children and by young adults. That was the advice given back in 1969 in the circular to which my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Norwich, North referred—although, as he rightly pointed out, it has no statutory force. Giving it statutory force is one of the options to which my hon. Friend is addressing his mind.

Nevertheless, we have no evidence that, where local authorities have provided a proper case on these grounds, the courts have taken a different view. Search as hard as we may, we have not found that to be the case. We feel that these powers still strike the right balance for the regulation of arcades. I believe that there is no evidence of a need to specify the grounds for refusal of a permit in statute, or that the present law is inadequate for its purpose.

Another area where the local authorities can already act under present legislation is in the regulation of amusement arcades, especially in their opening hours under byelaws. I can again report to the House that we are having good discussions with local authorities and trade associations about the drawing up of model byelaws to be, made available to local authorities to regulate the opening hours of amusement arcades.

I said that there were two main areas for action. The second is the question of how to warn young people and their parents of the possible hazards of the excessive use of amusement machines and how best to deal with the small number who actually turn out to be at risk. Following the announcement on 28 July 1988, before Christmas we wrote to all interested parties. We wrote to the local authority associations, to those concerned with education and youth services and to a wide range of other organisations inside and outside the industry.

We have made various suggestions in the consultation letter, which is a public document, and I dare say that my hon. Friend has had the chance to look at it. We have said that we believe that there is scope for much better liaison between local organisations such as the police, social services, the voluntary sector and amusement arcade proprietors to try to overcome possible misunderstandings and differences in the local environment where they occur. I repeat that I believe that, often, such problems are best dealt within the local context.

We have already received a good number of extremely helpful and constructive replies from those whom we are consulting and shortly we hope to begin a round of discussions with them with a view to develop ideas further and to turn them into reality.

We are also considering the possibility that further guidance, including advice for parents, should be prominently displayed near the entrances to all arcades and possibly to other premises that have amusement machines that offer prizes. That idea will need to be discussed further with the British Amusement Catering Trades Association and other interested organisations. I know that the former association is keen to participate in the process and it already has established local liaison arrangements in several areas to try to deal with the problem. I was interested to learn that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North will meet that association later this week to discuss the matter further.

At the start of my speech I said that the measures that we announced on 28 July were those currently considered to be appropriate to deal with the situation. Tonight I have taken the opportunity to report to the House the number of steps that we have taken to try to turn the hopes outlined in the July 1988 statement into reality. Tonight's debate serves a useful purpose over and above putting forward particular courses of action.

Mr. Bowden

I hesitate to accuse my hon. Friend of complacency. He has said that the problem is not widespread, but how does one define widespread? Is it not a fact that, sadly, a significant number of young people are spending large sums of money each week on such machines? A significant number of young people are also missing school as a result of that addiction. It is a serious problem and legislation will be needed sooner or later.

Mr. Patten

I am glad that my hon. Friend did not accuse me of complacency. I have never been accused of being complacent at the Dispatch Box, and I should hate to lose my record. I am glad that my hon. Friend drew back from that dreadful suggestion.

When we began the process of looking at how to respond to the public pressure, north and south of the border, about this issue, we had an open mind as to whether playing such machines was leading to large-scale addiction. For that reason, we gave the Home Office research and planning unit, which has an international reputation for its research excellence, a completely open brief to visit the highways and byways, the amusement arcades, the fish-and-chip shops and other places with such machines, to obtain the facts for us. If that unit had come back and said that there was a major problem, our reaction would have been different. However, it said—its view was reinforced by a further independent examination by the Gaming Board's own professional inspectors—that the number of cases of addiction was limited and did not merit immediate legislation.

I repeat to my hon. Friends the Members for Norwich, North and for Kemptown that we shall keep the need for legislation under review. Tonight I wanted to report to the House the considerable progress that we have already made in the six months since the July statement.

Tonight's debate is valuable because part of the solution to the problem may be found in increasing public awareness of the problem and how to deal with it. Tonight's discussion can only help to bring the matter to public attention again and to stimulate discussion and interest to good effect. For that reason, I was glad to be present to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.