The last group of amendments concerned casinos. Casinos are an important issue, but the number of people in the country who use them is, in fact, relatively limited. We considered the potential impact if the new casinos were allowed, and there were a significant—
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but will hon. Members who are not staying for the debate please conduct their conversations outside the Chamber?
As I was saying, we considered what impact the new casinos would have in the event of a significant increase in the number using them.
Amendment No. 110 is of vital importance to the existing 960 family entertainment centres, many of which can be found in our seaside resorts. They are long established and play a vital part in the local economy of many such resorts. In total, they employ some 8,600 people and spend about £100 million in doing so. More importantly, perhaps, they are a central part of the traditional British seaside holiday. They have undoubtedly brought pleasure to the millions of families who spend their summer holidays at the seaside, and there is no evidence that they have ever led to any harm. It seems extraordinary that, at the same time as introducing a Bill that will allow new and untried casinos—potentially leading to a considerable increase in gambling addiction—the Government seem intent on striking a series of hammer blows to existing seaside arcades. Such blows will do enormous damage and perhaps jeopardise their survival, even though there is no evidence that they do any harm.
Several later amendments deal with specific matters relating to seaside arcades, particularly machine stakes and prizes and the question of trading up. Amendment No. 110, however, deals with a power in the Bill that many regard as a sword of Damocles hanging over the industry: the Secretary of State's having a reserve power to ban children from using category D machines. Let us be clear what such machines are. One example is the "crane grab", whereby the player manoeuvres a crane in an attempt to grab a cuddly toy from the collection within the machine. A further example is the "penny falls", which involves rolling a coin down a slide, in the hope that it will push a number of coins over the edge and one will get one's money back, plus a little more. Such machines are not exactly examples of the hard gambling that leads to the worst examples of problem gambling or addiction.
This Government have come up with many different ways of imposing the nanny state, but I agree that this is one of the worst examples, particularly given that this provision appears to have been introduced without any supporting evidence whatever.
The whole point of such attractions is that they are part of what are called family entertainment centres. The latest published survey shows that some 47 per cent. of the population visited such a centre at least once in the past year. Like many people, I remember visiting seaside arcades during my childhood—in Weymouth and in Lyme Regis—and playing on the machines. Indeed, one of the strongest advocates of such machines, and opponents of this clause, is my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin, who represents Lyme Regis.
In her letter to Labour Members, the Secretary of State made it clear that the Government are
"committed to taking an evidence-based approach to all gambling issues."
She continued by pointing out that
"low-value gaming machines have been available in amusement arcades for many years, and there has never been compelling evidence that it is harmful . . . for children to be able to play low-value gaming machines."
So the Government accept that we need to proceed on the basis of evidence, and that there is no evidence that such machines have ever caused harm to anyone.
My hon. Friend will also be aware that, according to a survey carried out by the British Amusement Catering Trades Association, 90 per cent. of those of its members who run arcades in seaside towns will restrict their investment if clause 58 goes ahead unamended.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I shall come to the devastating effect that the clause will have on the industry if it remains in the Bill.
The only justification that the Secretary of State has been able to give for having this reserve power is the possibility that evidence supporting the need for it might emerge in future, or that some technological change might cause the Government to reconsider. However, as my hon. Friend Mr. Gibb said, this power will threaten investment throughout the industry and 90 per cent. of such businesses will restrict their investment.
I received a letter from Mrs. Fletcher, of the Fletcher Group, who has been involved in the seaside entertainment industry for almost her whole life. She said that
"such a damaging clause hanging over the industry will cause a level of uncertainty that will restrict the level of long term investment. How can we be expected to plan and invest in the future expansion of our businesses if with one stroke the government can eradicate around 75 per cent. of our customer base? The potential loss of customer levels will eradicate the majority of seaside establishments as we know them today, the traditional seaside will no longer exist."
The British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions, which represents amusements and other such attractions, says:
"We cannot accept it is necessary or desirable to grant the Secretary of State a reserve power to prohibit children playing Category D games . . . There is no academic evidence to substantiate such a draconian measure. Such a power will blight the industry and mean that our members will be unlikely to invest in new equipment."
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many find it rather strange that while the Government are saying that people can play category A machines in mega-casinos, they are also giving the Secretary of State a reserve power to ban children from playing category D machines and winning cuddly toys? The clause is crazy and should be removed, and it is indeed an example of the nanny state gone mad.
The clause is particularly crazy because although the Government have said that they need this reserve power in case of future technological developments, or in case evidence emerges supporting the need for such a power, there are other provisions in the Bill giving the Secretary of State powers that she could use in such circumstances. For example, clause 226(6) gives her the power to act if there are changes in technology, and clause 230(1) gives her other wide-ranging powers. So clause 58 is not only immensely damaging; it is also completely unnecessary.
Does my hon. Friend recall that when he and I considered the Bill in Committee, the Minister himself said:
"We do not plan to use the power now or in the foreseeable future"? [Official Report, Standing Committee B,
In the light of what my hon. Friend and Geraldine Smith have said, what on earth is the reason for the Government's including this provision in the Bill?
My hon. Friend is of course right: there is no reason for this reserve power. Including such a power in the Bill sends the clear signal that there could be circumstances in which the Government ban children from using category D machines. Sending that signal will blight the prospects of many small businesses in seaside resorts throughout the country—businesses that are already struggling to survive—and as long as the clause remains in the Bill, it will cause real damage to them and will potentially deny enjoyment to many families. I therefore ask the Minister to think again and remove it.
I am happy to follow Mr. Whittingdale, because I agree with much of what he said.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise my constituents' concerns about the implications of clause 58 for family entertainment centres. My constituency contains Portobello, a seaside suburb complete with beach and promenade. Part of the fun of a day at the seaside there is a visit to one of our family entertainment centres. I was asked recently to meet the operators of Portobello's two family entertainment centres—Nobles and Lothian Amusements' fun park. The Noble family has been in seaside amusements for three generations, and the Portobello centre has been in existence for some 100 years. The fun park has been running since 1908, and my constituent Melvin Strand has been in charge of it for more than 20 years. A significant part of the operation of both of those centres is the category D machines. As the House knows, those machines currently have a maximum stake of just 30p and a maximum prize value of £5 in cash or £8 non-cash. Such low-value gaming machines have been part of seaside life for decades, and many people will have fond memories of them. My right hon. Friend the Minister said in Committee that
"arcades with category D machines are an important part of the economy, particularly in seaside resorts. Indeed, they are a part of our history and culture at the seaside. We want to maintain them as part of that structure."[Official Report, Standing Committee B,
As the House knows, clause 58 enables the Secretary of State to bring forward an order that would ban children and young people below a specified age from using category D machines. Clause 342 tells us that such an order would be subject to the affirmative procedure, meaning that a draft would have to be laid before, and approved by resolution of, both Houses. Not surprisingly, my constituents are profoundly alarmed at the implications of such an order for their family entertainment centres. Category D machines account for well over a quarter of their business, and Nobles estimated that in summertime such machines might account for three quarters or more of their trade.
I am aware, of course, that my right hon. and hon. Friends the Ministers insist that they have no intention of banning children from category D machines on current evidence. However, the very fact that the Secretary of State will have the power to do so is a matter of great concern to my constituents. I have seen the clause referred to as a sword of Damocles—indeed, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford used the phrase. As any order would be subject to the approval of both Houses, this particular sword does have a safety net under it, but nevertheless my constituents are worried, and worry in an industry can translate into economic loss.
At present, the manufacturers of category D machines monitor children's interests and develop products that reflect current trends. The operators of family entertainment centres then invest in new machines to keep their facilities up to date, and that investment is serious money. A coin-pusher costs in the order of £10,000 to £15,000. Both family entertainment centres in Portobello renew a number of their machines every season, and expect a new machine to stay in place for around five or six seasons.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that investment decisions are already being delayed because of the uncertainty that the continued inclusion of clause 58 is having? It is not only future investment decisions that are being affected, but today's investment decisions, which will affect tourists in UK seaside resorts in the immediate future.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.
My constituents tell me that the effect of clause 58 will be that investment in the development of new category D machines will cease, and that investment by operators will dry up, to the obvious detriment of jobs in the industry.
The hon. Gentleman overstates his case. I do not believe that my right hon. Friend the Minister wants to decimate the industry, but I do think that the Government need to think again.
The British Amusement Catering Trades Association's survey of its members indicated that 90 per cent. of owners are less likely to invest in their businesses in the light of clause 58. That would be the direct effect, but there could be more general effects. For example, if a family entertainment centre owner needed to invest to refurbish the centre, he might find that his chances of getting a bank loan could be damaged by the threat posed by clause 58. And what about an owner seeking to sell his business? Could the price of that business be reduced by the threat of a clause 58 ban? The owners of both seaside amusement centres in my constituency are firmly of the view that the clause would have such an impact on their sector. If one adds to that the proposed reduction in stakes and prizes for category D machines in clause 226, the Bill has given my constituents great cause for concern.
Neither of my constituents is given to overstatement or melodrama. Both are knowledgeable businessmen with a wealth of experience in their field, and both are firmly of the view that clause 58 as it stands will be damaging to their industry. Ministers insist that they have no intention of using their reserve powers to ban children from using category D machines, and perhaps the impact of the reserve powers on the industry was not foreseen. However, the industry is very worried that just by taking those reserve powers the Bill will have a harmful effect on their sector. I hope that my right hon. Friend will recognise that Members on both sides of the House have expressed concern about this measure, and I urge him to listen to those concerns.
The House will be well aware that earlier we debated the issue of casinos, when many hon. Members expressed considerable concern that a Labour Government had sought to introduce an unlimited number of new untried super-casinos with up to 1,250 untried category A machines. Fortunately, as a result of pressure, the Government were prepared to change their mind on that issue. Many Members who were surprised by those proposals were puzzled that, at the same time, the Government were making huge attacks on traditional seaside resort entertainment facilities.
As Mr. Whittingdale pointed out, this issue is not the only problem. Those hon. Members who have not studied the deliberations of the Committee in great detail may be surprised to learn that the Bill still contains a proposal that the cuddly teddy bear that can be won from a grabber machine should have its possible value reduced from £8 to £5. That is from a Government who happily proposed to introduce 10,000 new category A machines with unlimited stakes and prizes. The Government's thinking on the matter is bizarre.
Several hon. Members have already made the point eloquently that the reserve power in clause 58 simply is not necessary. Other parts of the legislation give the Secretary of State the power to make changes in the light of advice from the new gambling commission. No doubt whoever is Secretary of State at the time will do that in regard to many different aspects of gambling, so why is it necessary to single out, in this bizarre way, that one aspect of the industry, especially as not a shred of evidence exists to show that it contributes to problem gambling?
Is not the simplest explanation that the proposal is part of the murky agreement between the Government and the large casino operators? If those casinos do not produce the revenue that the Treasury wants, the Government want to retain reserve powers to extinguish what remains of the competition.
If the right hon. Gentleman is right, he is failing to acknowledge that by leaving these measures in the Bill—this sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of such establishments—the chances of family entertainment centres making any money for regeneration in the future are very slim. It is worth reflecting that in a recent survey, 47 per cent. of families reported visiting such establishments at least once in the past 12 months. Some 90 per cent. of those who run such establishments believe that if the powers remain in the Bill, they are likely to affect their investment potential for the future. As other hon. Members have said, that is already beginning to have a huge impact.
If the Secretary of State were to invoke the powers, meaning that only over-18s could use category D machines, there is little chance that families would bother to visit places with such machines. As a result, such centres would no longer be viable and no investment would come in from them. There is no evidence to suggest that such reserve powers are necessary in addition to the existing powers that the Secretary of State will be given by the Bill. I hope that in the same way as the Government have been prepared to listen to the concerns expressed by many people about super-casinos, they will be prepared to consider the concerns expressed on this issue. Let us hope for another welcome U-turn.
It is obvious that many hon. Members are worried about the future of category D machines. One might ask why people in Chorley have an interest in the matter because it is not by the seaside, but my constituency contains Camelot, which is a theme park with category D machines. Another group that is concerned is travelling showmen—the funfairs. Travelling funfairs such as Greens and Silcock based in Chorley have category D machines, and many showmen go around the country with those machines. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that people who follow the great tradition of travelling around the country and those in seaside resorts do not have to worry about their future and livelihoods, because they are being put at stake?
We know about the proposal to reduce prize money, but there is a problem with that because there is no way of allowing it to increase with inflation over the next 15 to 20 years. A mechanism should be built into the Bill to allow category D machine prizes to increase over the long term. I hope that my right hon. Friend will think about what hon. Members have been talking about: the future viability of category D arcades, whether they are owned by travelling showmen or sited in seaside resorts and theme parks. Why does he want such special powers and does he really need them? Will he think long and hard about the travelling showmen, the seaside and theme parks?
I rise at this point to try to be helpful because I know that hon. Members wish to speak to other amendments.
Amendment No. 110 would remove the Secretary of State's power to restrict children's access to category D gaming machines. I want to clarify a few points on the Government's attitude to low-prize gaming machines, because the debate has reflected the fact that there has been much frenetic lobbying on the matter, which has resulted in misunderstandings.
Many people have said that the Government are unfairly singling out category D machines with the reserve power in clause 58, but that is simply not true. Under the Bill, as, indeed, under the present law, every type of gaming machine except category D machines has a statutory age requirement for play, which is 18 years. Category D gaming machines thus single themselves out as a matter of fact.
The Government's policy over all the years covering the gambling review, the White Paper and the draft Bill has been that children should continue to be allowed to play those machines. We have taken that view because the amounts of money involved are modest and there is not yet a substantial body of compelling evidence to make us think that children's access to category D machines is truly a problem. However, contrary to what one might have thought after hearing the debate, there is a body of opinion that disagrees with the Government. There are serious academics who doubt our conclusions. There is also a strong body of public opinion that children should not be allowed to play gaming machines at all. Indeed, by far the largest number of responses to the public consultation on the draft Bill were from people who did not want children to be allowed to play the machines at all. The Government needed to make a choice between the options, so we have chosen to continue with the status quo, with children being allowed to play the machines.
We believe that the amendment goes a little far. I have to ask Mr. Whittingdale whether he thinks it right for the Government to ignore those who hold strong views or offer different evidence. Is it not better to hold powers in reserve that will be subject to the approval of the House, using the affirmative procedure, so that we could act to protect children better? The Bill already provides for that, so it will give the Government and the gambling commission the powers needed to protect the public now and in years to come.
Does my right hon. Friend accept the problem of blight on the industry? Many small amusement arcade owners are worried about reinvesting in category D machines because they would become obsolete if children were prevented from using them.
I hope that what I will say will reassure my hon. Friend and other hon. Members. I am trying to balance the debate because alternative arguments have been advanced, which the Government have weighed up before reaching a view.
It has been alleged that the Government are plotting to take the industry by surprise and use the power suddenly to strip away the right of children to use the machines, but that is not the case. With respect, it is a fanciful idea. I remind the House that the Government, in response to the Budd report, reaffirmed the view that children should continue to play these machines, even though chapter 23 of Sir Alan Budd's report showed that he was highly sceptical about whether children should be allowed to continue playing. The Government made their position crystal clear in chapter 7 of the 2002 White Paper, and that position has not changed.
I said in Committee that uncertainty is one of the worst things for a business. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall try to clear up that uncertainty.
I am happy to give a pledge today, on behalf of the Government, that we will, of course, never use the power in clause 58 without a strong new body of evidence to support that. We would always consult both the gambling commission and representatives of the industry before coming to the House, as I said clearly in Committee.
We have listened carefully to the debate and strong representations on the matter that my hon. Friends have made over the past few weeks. I appreciate that there are strong views and many legitimate interests, especially among my hon. Friends who represent seaside constituencies. Although I cannot accept the amendment at this stage, I am happy to make a commitment that the Government will review carefully the need for the reserve powers included in clause 58, and that they will report their conclusions and any alternative proposals to the House of Lords if the Bill receives its Third Reading tonight. We need to consult several constituencies with legitimate views on the matter. The Government want to work with the British amusement industry to ensure that it remains an important part of our leisure and tourism industry—yes, the tourism industry, to respond to Mr. Moss—and that the leisure and tourism economy have a bright future.
I do, but I was referring to the strong representations that have been made by Labour Members with constituencies containing seaside resorts. I hear what my hon. Friend says and confirm that we will examine the situation not only in respect of seaside resorts, but of category D machines. Given my reassurances, I hope that the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford will withdraw the amendment so that we may report back to another place.
Although the Minister's words were helpful, he is somewhat friendless on the Government Benches because all three Labour Back Benchers who have spoken were critical of the reserve power. If I may add to the speeches and interventions that have been made, independent research by the Henley Centre concluded that up to a third of family entertainment centres throughout the country could well close as a result of the Bill, if it were not amended. I hope that the Government will decide, on reflection, to remove the clause in another place, and that hon. Members of all parties will send a firm signal to another place and the Government by voting for the amendment this evening.
It is not only clause 58 and the singling out of category D machines, which have been enjoyed by many children for generations, that could damage family entertainment centres, because a raft of measures in the Bill will affect those centres and members of the British Amusement Catering Trades Association and the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions, with which I have worked for many years.
One must consider the cumulative effect of everything that the Government have done. They have reneged on promises that arcades' existing entitlements would all be grandfathered under the Bill. We may come back to that matter later, but the Government's ridiculous guillotining and programming of the Bill may not enable us to debate that, so I mention it now.
Despite previous assurances that they would not, the Government have limited the ability of families to exchange two smaller prizes for one larger one—a long-standing practice in the business known as trading up. The Government set out their intention in the regulatory impact assessment to reduce, in the absence of any evidence to justify it, by 66 per cent. the level of stakes and by 40 per cent. the prize levels available on the lowest stake and prize category D machines, threatening the profitability and viability of many arcades The Government have also refused to implement the normal triennial increase in the levels of stakes and prizes as recommended by the Gaming Board to reflect increases in running costs over the period.
My hon. Friend is making a series of excellent points. Is he aware that, in seaside resorts such as Skegness in my constituency, the category D machines account for a substantial proportion of turnover and profit in many of the family entertainment centres? The Government seem to think that the machines are a tangential or marginal part of many of these businesses when they are critical to the future dynamism and success of tourist resorts such as Skegness.
I agree with my hon. Friend. As he knows, in my first five years in the House, I represented Blackpool, where exactly the same concerns exist. It is not surprising that Labour Back Benchers are responding to those concerns. As my hon. Friend Sir Teddy Taylor pointed out, it is simply not possible to run one of these small businesses—most are small family concerns—if they have such a threat hanging over them. Once again, it is a reflection of the fact that far too few Ministers in the Government have ever had a single day's experience of running a business. They do not understand the effect of what they have done.
It is exactly the same as the point that was made in the previous debate when we heard the revelation that £500 million was knocked off the stock market valuation of the British casino industry in the 24 hours following the Government's change of policy. It is another example of how they do not care about businesses, large or small, because they have no comprehension of the worries that people running businesses have.
We have seen a chink of light, no doubt influenced by the fact that the Government are aware that many of their Back Benchers are prepared to contemplate rebellion on this issue and that the only Labour Members to speak in this debate have spoken against the clause. The Government may decide in the end that they have this wrong. I certainly hope so. There is every reason to think that family entertainment centres—they are a crucial part of our tourism both inland, as Mr. Hoyle said, and at the seaside—desperately need the clause to be taken out. I hope that it will be in another place. The Government would be wise to do that.
I want to make three points. First, I represent Southend-on-Sea where we have a large amusement industry, which is rather different from the casino industry. I had the pleasure of speaking to two Americans who were making applications for one of the gigantic casinos and they seemed to know everything about everything. They belong to massive companies and, to my surprise, they told me that we would have to change the way in which regional casinos were being allocated, because of the decision to give Sheffield one. I pointed out how the organisation had not even been established and how the factors in the Bill had to be taken into account, but they seemed to know everything about everything. I genuinely say to the Minister that if Sheffield, which is the most outrageous place even to be considered for a casino, gets one, my faith in democracy will be undermined. If it does not get one, my faith in the American gambling industry will be undermined.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have to set up a small committee to look at the location of the 24 casinos. Will he put his name forward to be a member of that Committee?
The Minister is aware that I am always interested in taking a look at anything.
I want to make two further brief points. The people who run amusement arcades are nice family people and have massive numbers of visitors at weekends. Southend is not a tourist resort, but people go there for a day out and families go there and enjoy themselves immensely. The Minister's proposal will affect machines such as the cranes that grab toys, the coin-pusher games involving 10p and 2p coins and redemption machines that issue tickets as prizes. I do not think that there is any way at all that the Minister can say that there is evidence that such machines cause damage. We should encourage families to go together in visits to the seaside.
Finally, I hope that if the Minister is thinking of going ahead with the proposal, he will wonder how on earth he will apply it. Regulations are very difficult for businesses to operate, particularly since we joined the European Economic Community, and I hope that he will bear in mind how he would operate the scheme. Is a father allowed to play a machine with his son standing beside him or is the father not allowed to do that? Must there be a separate place in amusement arcades for such machines? I hope that the Minister will realise that the proposal is a mistake, but I greatly appreciate the kind response that he has given.
Our machines cannot be converted, and I hope that the Minister will bear in mind the massive costs the industry is facing because of the EU. If the euro is introduced, it will impose massive costs on the industry.
I hope that the Minister can make it clear that his intention is to remove the powers of the clause when the Bill goes to the House of Lords. If he said that, we would all be grateful and say that he had done a good job. If that is not done and we lose the opportunity, we will have no further chance. Once the Bill leaves the House of Commons, we will not have another chance to look at it unless there is an astonishing amendment in the House of Lords.
In view of the fact that the Minister has said that he is prepared to reconsider the issue, if he is willing to visit Southend-on-Sea to visit our arcades, he would be very welcome and I would give him a splendid lunch on the seafront. It takes only an hour to get to Southend and an hour to get back, so I hope that he will come there and realise that the clause was a great error.
I would like to press the Minister. I represent the seaside town of Felixstowe, which is a place for day trips and weekend, weekly and fortnightly stays. Indeed, I am told that it is safer to rely on having two full days of sun in Felixstowe in the first two weeks of September than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. I am proud to represent it, not least because Charlie Manning and his friends produce some of the best seaside entertainments available. Not only are they family entertainments, they are run by families.
I am not always flabbergasted by the Government, but I find it difficult to understand why they have introduced the clause. One usually understands the nefarious reasons why they have decided to do something that is manifestly unpopular and extremely unproductive. Why they have done it on this occasion defies all reason. That is why I became even more worried when the Minister did not actually say that he would introduce an amendment to delete the clause in the House of Lords. I would be very unhappy to go without voting on this amendment unless we had an absolute undertaking that the clause will be removed. It is not good enough for the Minister to cite a series of mythical people who are opposed to cranes that catch woolly animals.
Before the right hon. Gentleman describes the cranes, will he tell me whether he has consulted other constituents, such as the faith groups, that he also represents? I do not know whether he has spoken to the Methodist Church or to the Salvation Army in his constituency. Discussions are going on between BACTA and the faith groups about the effect of gambling on young people. I have known the right hon. Gentleman for some time, and I do not think that he would dismiss organisations such as the faith groups. They have a point of view and that must be factored into the decisions that the Government take.
As the proud relation of a sister-in-law who is a Methodist minister, I would find it difficult not to consult the Methodist Church in my constituency. I merely say to the right hon. Gentleman that, although I am a Catholic and therefore take a rather different view of these matters from Methodists, I have taken other views into account. I would be sad if our whole public life were organised in such a way that it was not possible to say a very simple thing: for many years the majority of people in this country have managed to grow up in peace and tranquillity while using penny-in-the-slot machines or their modern equivalent.
I am not sure that I would put the cranes that catch woolly animals high up on the list of all the things that have done me harm in life. Indeed, a number of things that have done me harm are not banned. The Minister is not taking reserve powers to protect me and my children against a whole range of other things, which he could do were he concerned about the matter. He should consider that, in a society in which he seeks to extend choice and allow people to do what they want to do—in some areas rather dangerously, in my view—it seems very odd that he should stop children playing these machines. Worse still, he is not actually going to stop them. He will have a reserve power to do so, thereby blighting the industry without having the courage of his convictions.
I simply say to the Minister that, if he agrees with the small number of people who think that the machines should be banned, he should come out and tell us. If he does not agree, he should say, "Right, the machines will go on." I will tell him what I will do: if it emerges, amazingly, that the possession of a woolly bear taken from one of these machines by crane damages the psyche of individuals, I will ask my hon. Friend Mr. Whittingdale to agree to rush emergency legislation through the Commons to ensure that, forthwith, woolly bears may not be put in such machines. If the Minister agrees now to withdraw the measures in the upper House, we will agree to facilitate emergency legislation should some miraculous new information be brought forward by Methodists, the Salvation Army, Jehovah's Witnesses or any group he likes. In the meantime, can we please have our cranes?
I was not going to enter into that, but it is hard to find someone clutching such a bear, because the bears seem to remain, week after week, inside the machines. All I know is that, for a very small amount of money, the machines give a great deal of pleasure to people hoping for a teddy bear. Why does the Minister want to take away from small children the chance to hope? Is he not the kind of nanny who would be had up under today's laws for cruelty to children?
My right hon. Friend talks about whether new evidence will emerge in a blinding light and persuade him to change his mind. A number of organisations told the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee that such machines were damaging to children, but in my judgment and that of the Committee, that was pure assertion. There was not a shred of evidence that it was true. If it were true, we would have more problem gamblers than other countries, which we do not.
My hon. Friend is perfectly right. I say to the Minister that I have seen no evidence—I have seen opinion, but no evidence—that these machines do any harm. All our experience, of our own childhood and that of our children, and, in my case, that of my constituents' children, is that they do no harm at all. I know of no body of academic research to the contrary that stands up.
The right hon. Gentleman is in danger of being laughed out of court on this proposal. If the blight cast over businesses by the proposals were not so serious for my constituents, those of my hon. Friend Sir Teddy Taylor and others, we would laugh, rightly, at a Government who hold reserve powers to protect children from the dangers of machines that have been part of their inheritance for this and most of the last century. What is the House of Commons doing debating woolly bears in crane machines on the front in Felixstowe? Surely we have many more important things to discuss, and the Minister should say now that he will withdraw the proposal.
Many of the points have already been made, but I must say a few words, as I represent the seaside resort of Morecambe. Many of my constituents who own amusement arcades have lobbied me about the issue. The possible blight on their business is of great concern to them and they are worried about investing in new category D machines. I can assure the Minister that those do absolutely no harm to children. I have played on them many times, and I have to declare an interest and say that I have won, so it is possible to win on such a machine. The House may be interested to hear that I won a cuddly bulldog with a Union Jack, which I passed on to Mr. Rosindell as a Christmas present.
The machines provide a great deal of fun for children. They make a rainy day in Morecambe. [Interruption.] Of course, it rarely rains in Morecambe, but when it does people can escape into the amusement arcades and have some harmless fun. I hope that common sense will prevail.
I will be happy to give Members lessons if they see me afterwards.
We have had a laugh and a joke, but this is a serious issue for seaside arcade owners and the people who work for them. I am glad that the Minister appears to have taken the concerns on board. I hope that we can make progress and that clause 58 can be deleted from the Bill.
I declare an interest in that two towns in my constituency, Hunstanton and Heacham, have a large number of amusement arcades, which are, in the main, family owned. Many have been in those families for generations, and they employ, directly and indirectly, up to 250 people, which in small seaside towns is a significant number.
I have been lobbied by a number of arcade owners. I had the opportunity of going around an arcade only recently, as a guest of Mr. Michael Thomas and Michelle, his daughter. I, too, have a confession to make: I won a cuddly bear—but I was given an unlimited number of goes on the crane. Had I been a young child, persevering so long would probably have cost me four years' pocket money.
The Minister has given us an assurance that he will review the powers, but I do not feel that that is enough. He said that he would revisit the matter, but why can he not say that he will withdraw the clause? He has no friends whatever in this place, and the explanation that he gave was pretty unconvincing to me. Is it not ironic that the Government are giving substantial extra gambling opportunities in the small number of mega-casinos and in the machines that will offer unlimited prizes, yet doing significant harm to small family-owned arcades?
A constituent told me the other day:
"My 9 year old daughter will win a smaller teddy bear than she can at present, which will apparently stop her becoming a gambling addict. It's ludicrous."
As Michelle Thomas said, "Costs are going up at a time when seaside economies are struggling. Why give them a kick for no reason? We feel very strongly indeed that this is wrong."
The Minister is friendless. Some powerful arguments have been advanced—I refer to the remarks of my hon. Friend Mr. Hawkins about the other clauses that affect family-owned amusement arcades. I hope that the Minister will listen to what has been said and have the good sense to withdraw the clause or accept the amendment.
I represent a constituency that has probably the longest continuous fair in Europe. It goes back 800 years. Clearly, when it started grab machines were not part of the entertainments. However, for as long as I have known it, they have been. One of my earliest memories is of walking through the amusement arcade in Dundee, which was in the basement of the town chamber—an odd place for it to be. The machines always fascinated me. Unlike other Members, I have not won anything on them. However, I have tried them for years. My misspent youth was completely unrewarded, and my misspent middle age likewise.
Rather than to descend into burlesque, I shall make some brief points. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to think carefully about the implications of the clause, and related clauses, for small businesses. I know owners in my constituency. The fair comes once a year, in April, and it always rains. The wind cuts through us like a knife. I can tell the House that when the wind does that in Kirkcaldy, we really feel it. Despite the fact that we are on the east of the country, it rains much more in Kirkcaldy than it does in Morecambe—or at least, it seems to. That being so, amusement arcades serve a useful function. In the small town of Burntisland in my constituency, and at other places along the coast, the machines provide a worthwhile service for families, given the state of the weather in Scotland. Roll on global warming. Many of us say that there is no sign of it where we come from.
It has been asserted that the machines are harmful. I entirely agree with Mr. Greenway, who spoke about pre-legislative scrutiny. It is easy for those with strong views to make assertions about the effects of this and that, and how terrible they are. When we seek to examine objective evidence, we find that none is forthcoming.
The machines provide relatively simple amusement. As I, as a psychiatrist, would know, they provide nothing of the reinforcement so essential to problem gambling—quite the reverse. Two Members have claimed that they have won something from the machines but I have met far more people who have not. If we are to rely on anecdotal evidence and opinion, the fact that so few people seem to win, and thus receive the reinforcement that they would need to continue playing, would seem to suggest that the machines perform a public service at remarkably little cost.
To reduce the price of playing the machines is a serious issue. To reduce the price of such an entertainment from 30p to 10p is ludicrous. I know many of the proprietors, and they do not strike me as numbering among what I would charitably describe as the filthy rich. They run family businesses. They usually live in the towns where they run their businesses and they have a responsible attitude to the gambling that takes place in their establishments. To reduce their charges to those that prevailed 20 years ago would be unfair, especially in comparison with the rides at the fair that I mentioned. The whole point of the Links market in Kirkcaldy is that every new ride for the fairs in Europe comes up to the mile-and-a-half-long display. It now costs £2 to go on one of those things.
Having too great a concern for my own well-being, I am unlikely ever to be persuaded to take a ride. Given the speed at which they fly and the number of dimensions in which they seem to operate, it is probably worth while to take that approach, especially for someone of my size. When we are reflecting on the price of the entertainment provided by the machines, we should compare it with the price of the other entertainments available, and get a sense of proportion.
What are reserve powers for? They have to be provided. They are not just a cover-your-arse method—if that is parliamentary language; if it is not, I will withdraw it. Somebody in the Department has put in the provision because they think that it might be a good idea for the future. There must be reasonable grounds for supposing that reserve powers might be needed at some time. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister has said that he wishes to be reasonable and to think again, and we are grateful for that. We certainly should think again. In the absence of anything other than prejudice and anecdotal opinion, let us leave these harmless pleasures alone and continue to gratify the tens of thousands of people who use the machines every year.
When the Minister made his short statement earlier, I hoped that he would say unequivocally that he would withdraw the clause. I understand, however, that that is not what he actually said. He said that he would review the position and consult further, which will not put at rest the minds of the family amusement centre owners in Skegness or any other successful UK seaside resort.
It is not only those who own the family amusement centres who are concerned. Their concern is shared by many of the people who work in the amusement centres, and by those who visit successful seaside resorts such as Skegness. They are deeply concerned that their exciting and vibrant holidays may be destroyed by the sword of Damocles—to quote my hon. Friend Mr. Whittingdale—hanging over many successful businesses and successful seaside resorts. I hope that when the Minister replies he will go even further than he did earlier by stating clearly that when the Bill goes to the other place the clause will be removed in totality.
Category D machines are the fundamental lifeblood of tourist resorts such as Skegness. Members of all political parties are in their places tonight because they are concerned on behalf of their constituents that the clause could have a devastating impact on the tourist industry. Generations of families have enjoyed the facilities that we are discussing, which are at the centre of successful family resorts. Families return year after year to Skegness, not only to play on the same machines, but to use the new machines that have been put in place to create entertainment and vibrancy for the UK tourist. That activity could be decimated by the clause.
The clause is already stopping investment. I held a meeting in my constituency with between 25 and 40 amusement arcade owners. They told me that they had already stopped orders for new machines while the clause remains in the Bill, so this is not something that will have an impact only in the future. It is already starting to have a serious negative impact on resorts such as Skegness.
Despite the Minister's assurances about a review and deeper and wider consultation, I do not understand why the clause is in the Bill. If the evidence does not exist, and almost every body that has considered the issue has come to the same conclusion, why should we have the clause? The Budd report, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the excellent Joint Committee on the Draft Gambling Bill, chaired by my hon. Friend Mr. Greenway, BACTA and the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions have all concluded that there is an absence of evidence to show that playing category D machines under the age of 18 has any knock-on impact on future gambling problems. Indeed, I would argue that the evidence is to the contrary. Category D machines allow families to participate together in harmless fun and enjoyable entertainment.
Why does my hon. Friend think that the Minister was entirely willing to listen to those who wanted him to hit at category D machines, but until the furore, was entirely unwilling to listen to those same people when they told him, with much greater evidence and much firmer statements, about casinos?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point, as there is a contradiction in the Bill. The Minister or a future Secretary of State can invoke clause 58 to ensure that children are not allowed to play on category D machines, but no such clause exists for category A machines, which may create far more serious gambling problems for the adult population.
If the Minister or his successor invokes the clause, what is a family supposed to do on a day out in Skegness? It rarely rains in Skegness, but when it does, are mother and father supposed to go into the family amusement centre and leave the children outside, because they are not allowed to play on category D machines? In fact, families will no longer come to UK tourist resorts such as Skegness. With the clause hanging over amusement centre owners, there will be a spiral of decline. There will be a lack of investment, and tourists will go elsewhere—probably abroad, where they can take advantage of such facilities. I very much hope that the Minister will reconsider his position and remove the clause from the Bill.
The Government do not pretend that there are any arguments or evidence to support the inclusion of the clause in the Bill. In correspondence on this issue, the Minister for Media and Heritage said:
"Currently, there is no clear evidence that low stake and prize machines played by children lead to problem gambling."
If that is the Government's view, what on earth is the clause doing in the Bill? It should not be there at all but, as it is, it should be deleted.
In conclusion, family amusement centre owners in Skegness, as elsewhere, are extremely concerned about the future of their businesses. They will not commit to investing money in those businesses until they are sure that the clause has been deleted. Like many other Members, I would like the UK tourist industry to maintain its vibrant family atmosphere, and in particular, I would like Skegness to retain its vitality as a successful family resort. Clause 58 will do nothing but harm to its reputation, so I hope that the Minister will agree to delete it.
I would like to add my concerns to those expressed by other hon. Members. I speak as someone who represents three seaside towns on the south-west coast of Scotland, and who hopes to represent even more seaside towns there in future. If the Minister has not visited Ayrshire, I can certainly recommend it to him. It certainly does not rain there has much as it does in Kirkcaldy. When it does rain, however, family amusement centres are an important mechanism for supporting tourism and small businesses in those towns.
I recently visited Girvan, which is currently part of the constituency of my right hon. Friend Mr. Foulkes, to remind myself of what family amusement centres are like. It is some years since I frequented them, but in common with other hon. Members, I enjoyed the experience and it did not do me any lasting damage. As other hon. Members have said, the fact that there is not any evidence that category D machines are harmful is significant. When I went to Girvan I could not think of a logical reason for the Government's proposal to ban children from traditional games such as "grab a toy", penny falls, ticket redemption games and Derby races, all of which seemed to be quite harmless.
However, I draw Members' attention to the briefing from the Methodist Church, in which it draws a distinction between different category D games:
"Category D machines, which can be played by children, include the harmless teddy-bear grabber machines and "penny falls", but also include certain fruit-machines."
That sheds light on the reasons for the Government's proposals. We have all had a great laugh this evening about "grab a teddy", but that does not necessarily reflect the views of the Government or the Churches. We all accept that some games are harmless, but the Churches are concerned about children playing fruit machines, and we should not ignore or discount those concerns. We all want to do everything that we can to protect children.
The hon. Lady is making an important point, and has drawn our attention to the distinction made by the Churches. However, does she not accept that any changes in the categorisation of category D machines could be covered by changes made by the Secretary of State on advice from the gambling commission, which is already covered by other parts of the legislation? The sword of Damocles approach goes much too far.
I agree, and I hope that the Government will take that into account when the Bill goes to the Lords. I hope that the Minister will give us such an assurance tonight. I am merely trying to shed light on people's concerns, and on why the Government have introduced the measure.
Finally, I think that I am right in saying that everyone who has spoken on the amendment tonight is concerned about clause 58. I do not think that anyone was in favour of it. I am reassured by what the Minister has said, and I wait to see what happens when the Bill goes to the Lords.
With the leave of the House, I will say a few words of, I hope, reassurance.
I have said that the Government will review carefully the need for reserve powers, including clause 58. The length of the consultation was conditional on that review, and we will report our conclusion and any alternative proposals in the House of Lords, if the Bill completes Third Reading this evening. I went on to say that the Government wanted to work with the British amusement industry to make sure that this important part of the leisure and tourism economy has a bright future. My hon. Friend Sandra Osborne has lobbied very hard indeed, and as I said earlier, we have taken on board the comments that she and other hon. Members have made. They would like the Government to consult people who have concerns and to give them reassurance about clause 58. We will review the reserve powers in clause 58 very carefully indeed. When we have completed our consultation, we will report to the House of Lords, so there is a time limit on our review. I hope that I have been as helpful as possible. The last thing that the Government want to do is harm that part of the tourism and leisure sector. I have gone as far as possible in my reassurances, and have taken into account the fact that other people need to be consulted. However, we will report forthwith in another place.
I welcome the Minister's remarks, as far as they went. However, we have been expressing these concerns since the Bill was published. There has been ample opportunity to review the position. The Minister and the Secretary of State have consistently argued that the reserve power is necessary, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Even tonight, when the Minister sought to make a statement, he prefaced it by explaining why the Government had included a reserve power in the Bill. In his intervention, he again defended the inclusion of that power. If he wishes to accept that it is not necessary, he should do so tonight. While I welcome the fact that he has agreed to review the power and consult on it, the Opposition do not believe that a further review is necessary. The evidence all points one way: there is no need for the clause whatever, and its retention will do serious damage to seaside resorts throughout the country. I welcome the Minister's comments, as far as he was prepared to go, but they are not sufficient, and we will press the amendment to a vote.