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Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): 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.

Mr. Whittingdale: 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 the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (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

The British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions, which represents amusements and other such attractions, says:

Geraldine Smith : 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.

Mr. Whittingdale: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for her remarks and I am delighted to learn that she supports our amendment. She is right: the clause is entirely crazy.

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
 
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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.

Mr. Hawkins : Does my hon. Friend recall that when he and I considered the Bill in Committee, the Minister himself said:

In the light of what my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) have said, what on earth is the reason for the Government's including this provision in the Bill?

Mr. Whittingdale: 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.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh) (Lab): I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (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


 
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7 pm

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.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): 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.

Dr. Strang: 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.

Mr. Moss : Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is slightly perverse that the Minister with responsibility for tourism should also be responsible for a Bill that would decimate whole swathes of the seaside resort industry?


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