HC Deb 16 May 1990 vol 172 cc907-8 4.42 pm
Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to empower local authorities to prohibit in their area the use by children of amusement machines. There is good support from both sides of the House for a measure along the lines of what I am proposing. That may not be immediately apparent from the number of hon. Members in the Chamber, but I know that I can muster good support for the measure should it come to a Division.

The Bill aims to give local authorities teeth to deal with the serious problem of arcade addiction. It is right that the Bill should specify the age of 16. If local authorities felt that the problem was serious in their areas, they would be given powers to ban those under 16 from amusement arcades. Young people under 16 are not yet responsible for their own actions and need guidance from adults. Sixteen is the right age limit and will achieve maximum support in the House.

We have legislation to protect those under 16 from under-age drinking, smoking or buying cigarettes and solvent abuse. More recently, measures have been introduced to prevent them from using chatlines. We should also protect them from the evil of gambling.

I have been involved in the campaign against under-age gambling for at least two years. The misery caused by addiction to amusement-with-prize machines in arcades is real among young people and their families. Many cases have been brought to my attention in Norwich and in all parts of the country. I am grateful to the National Council on Gambling, Westminster city council and the associated amusement arcades action group and other organisations for bringing all those cases to my attention. There are on record cases of theft, attempted suicide, broken homes, child prostitution and more serious crimes as a result of arcade addiction. Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) and for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Dunnachie), have had serious cases of arcade addiction brought to their attention.

Arcade addiction is more serious than official statistics suggest. Even on the basis of Home Office figures. as many as 1.3 million out of 5 million children in the 10 to 16-year-old age group are spending money on amusement-with-prize machines. Of those, at least 250,000 children could be gambling in arcades unaccompanied by parents or friends. A recent survey conducted by the Gaming Board for Great Britain showed that, of 151 arcades visited in 1987, 94 were admitting under-16s and 53 of them were members of the British Amusement Catering Trades Association. Yet there is a code of practice that seeks to prevent under-16s gambling in arcades. In spite of that, the code of practice is still being flouted and that is why legislation is necessary.

I do not want to place too much emphasis on statistics, but the facts call into serious question the view taken by the Home Office that a change in the law is unwarranted. I do not agree with that view and I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department for being present to listen to my ten-minute Bill. I have had the opportunity to discuss the matter with him on a number of occasions. However, I commend the various initiatives that the Home Office has taken with local authorities and with BACTA. The display of notices outside amusement arcades and the code of conduct are good practice. I thank the Home Office for its support to that extent, but I seek to persuade my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Department that a change in the law commands good support in the House, and I hope that the Bill will eventually be enacted.

In Norwich there are very good liaison arrangements between the education and youth services, the social services, the city council and the police, in dealing with arcade addiction. But all those initiatives do not address the main issue. Access to arcades is all too easy for young people, many of whom are also playing truant from school. The figures are extremely disturbing, but time does not permit me to go into detail on that serious connected issue. The attraction of the bright lights is causing young children to go into the arcades and gamble. Even if the numbers were small—it is difficult to ascertain the exact numbers because so many of the cases that have been brought to our attention have been confidential, as families do not seek to publicise the problem—there is a real risk of serious addiction and it is important that we should address it.

Under present legislation, potential arcade operators have to apply to local authorities for permits and for planning permission. The wording of schedule 9 of the Gaming Act 1968 makes it more difficult for a local authority to refuse to renew a permit than to deny an applicant a permit and planning permission in the first place. Local authorities are therefore wary of refusing to renew permits unless they are denied access to inspect or unless there are serious problems with the operation of the machines.

That is why I believe that it is sensible to give local authorities discretion, as the Bill seeks, to ban under-16s from amusement arcades should they feel that the problem is serious in their area. It is reasonable to make the age limit of 16 a legal requirement.

Acceptance of the Bill would bring amusement-with-prize machines and arcades in line with the law on other forms of gambling. The distressing cases that have been brought to my attention and to that of other hon. Members provide all the evidence that is needed to justify the Bill or a similar measure, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Patrick Thompson, Mr. Jack Aspinwall, Mr. Andrew Bowden, Mr. Simon Coombs, Mr. Derek Fatchett, Mr. Tony Favell, Mr. Paul Flynn, Mr Roger Gale, Mr. Conal Gregory, Mr. Kenneth Hind, Sir Charles Irving and Miss Ann Widdecombe.