I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the use of gaming machines in cafés, small shops, amusement arcades, snack bars, fairgrounds and other places by persons under the age of 16 years.
In this way I hope to tighten a loophole in the present law and so protect schoolchildren, at least, from what has become a form of hard gambling. Although the law restricts the availability of jackpot machines to adult licensed premises, schoolchildren have easy access to AWP fruit machines, for they readily find them in fairgrounds, amusement arcades, small shops, cafes, fish-and-chip shops and snack bars, which are established features of their everyday lives.
Schoolchildren are lured to gaming machines by their flashing lights and beckoning noises, but what begins as a game can all too often develop into a tragic addiction which ruins the lives of the young and innocent and puts unbearable strains on their families. Every study which has examined the problem among schoolchildren has shown that young people can get hooked on gaming machines as quickly as they can on drink or drugs, and the effects are no less devastating.
The addiction created by machine gambling has been compared to the compulsion experienced by animals used in reinforced learning experiments in psychology. Young machine gamblers, like the animals, will play with mindless repetition and furious speed in their determination to get it right. Modern technology encourages that, because the nudge and hold features delude the young person into believing that he or she can beat the system.
The addiction produces its own social problems. As children meet regularly in the same places to play machines, they can easily become pick-up targets for the unsavoury and run the risk of gang formation. Many are tempted into lives of crime when they realise that this sort of craving cannot be satisfied from pocket money funds. School-age machine gamblers are children at risk. It is on that risk that recent media campaigns, such as the one launched in Glasgow by the Evening Times, have focused. The media are right to alert public opinion to the need for a moral crusade to change the law before even more young lives are caught in the net of hard gambling.
The urgency of the need to end this form of child exploitation is also stressed in the evidence of the many surveys that have examined the nature and scope of the problem. I refer to the National Council on Gambling's survey of state schools in four London boroughs, to the survey conducted by the Spectrum Children's Trust among 2,500 schoolchildren in the south-west, and to the study of 10,000 schoolchildren that was recently carried out in various parts of the country by the National Housing and Town Planning Council.
The evidence of these and other studies is frightening and demands that we take immediate action to end this growing social menace. Machine gambling is shown to be the major gambling problem in every age group from 11 to 16. Evidence also shows that these young schoolchildren gamble not only in amusement arcades and funfairs but congregate every day in small shops, snack bars, fish-and-chip shops and cafes to spend their lunch money feeding not themselves but the insatiable appetite of the machines.
Schoolchildren who gamble share common problems—poor work, aggressive behaviour, truancy, emotional disturbance and stealing. It is sad to note that all the evidence confirms that those who become addicted to machine gambling were introduced to the machines before they were 13 years old and, in some cases, when they were even younger. The addiction also leads to lying, deceit, shame and mistrust, which are commonly found in the homes of young gamblers. Those problems have become so acute that a support group, Parents of Young Gamblers, has had to be formed.
Addicted children do not suddenly kick the habit when they leave school. Many progress to the betting shops and gambling casinos, while desperation for the money that their addiction consumes drives others to commit serious crimes of violence. The law is lax on this matter, not through any deliberate attempt to exploit but merely because no one foresaw the scale of the potential danger when the machines were first introduced. The problem of school-age gambling is the proverbial one of Topsy—it just grew. If it is not halted quickly, it will produce a gambling epidemic in the not too distant future.
A trade code of practice forbids schoolchildren to gamble on machines, but all the evidence proves that that code is not working. Machine gambling is every bit as common among children wearing school uniform as it is among those who are casually dressed.
The absence of an effective trade code of practice is aggravated by the nature of local planning laws. Although they can take account of factors such as noise and congestion when considering applications, they cannot pay attention to factors of morality. Thus, schoolchildren can become the easy prey of unscrupulous fairground owners, arcade managers or shopkeepers who choose to obey the dictates of their pockets rather than those of their consciences.
Let us not forget the huge profits that can be made from gaming machines. One example of profitability was noted in the recent statement by the chief executive of the Rank Organisation. Referring to bingo profits, he admitted:
Only 30 per cent. of our profits actually come from bingo. We make most money from the AWP, or 'fruit machines', followed by food and drink.
We can be sure that gaming machines in fairgrounds, arcades and small shops are no less profitable for their owners.
It is easy to see how schoolchildren can be exploited, but it is the duty of the law to protect the young and immature from being led into harmful situations, especially those that can ruin their lives. Therefore, with the lives of schoolchildren in mind, I ask the House to preempt any long-term measures that might result from the current Home Office review. The weight of the evidence before us and the strength of public opinion in support dictate that we cannot afford to wait and see. By waiting, we shall put even more young lives a risk.
Therefore, I ask the House to act to prevent young persons under 16 years gaining access to gaming machines in fairgrounds and amusement arcades, and to remove such offending machines from snack bars, small shops, cafes and fish-and-chip shops, which are the regular haunts of schoolchildren. Again, I stress the urgency with which I ask the House to act. If even one more life is lured into the horrendous net of hard gambling as a result of our failure to give protection, it will be a tragedy, not only for the individual and his family but, now that we have been alerted to the scale and dangers of the problem, for the conscience of the House. I ask the House to support the Bill.