Some of you, I suspect – or those, at any rate, old enough to hazily remember pounds, shillings and pence – will have a childhood memory of penny arcades.
For the most part a seaside phenomenon, these were places where you would find fruit machines, huge glass cases containing cranes that you could manoeuvre to retrieve exotic prizes, and what looked like upright bagatelle boards that required you to catapult ball bearings round a stainless steel track into little cups. For millions of people, young and old, they were a holiday staple: an entertaining and harmless way of separating a boy from his pocket money in single penny instalments.
Once in a blue moon you might be lucky enough to see a chap (invariably with hands darkened and worn from handling greasy metal all day, and clutching a rag, spanner and a pair of pliers) repairing a machine that had malfunctioned. You watched in awe as the front of the machine was lifted clear and the machine’s innards stood exposed: a mechanism made up of more springs, wheels, levers, and gears than you could possibly imagine gathered together in one oily space. The engineering of them, combined with the highly-polished and ornately designed facades made them collectors’ items even before they were out of service. As a child of the sixties and early seventies (hard to believe, I know), my own experience of these things was very much of the fin de siècle variety but, as the MP for a seaside town, I’m all too aware of their place in popular heritage.
But fast forward thirty or forty years and the penny arcades have gone the same way as . . err . . the penny. And what we have in their place are rather more sophisticated creatures. The cogs and pulleys have been replaced by circuit boards and micro chips. The spinning drums with computer graphics. You’ll find them on the high street, and as an integral part of every bingo hall and casino. They’re big business, in fact. There are around a quarter of a million gaming machines in operation in the country and the arcades and bingo halls together employ some 37,000 people. And these days, oddly enough, you generally need more than one (old) penny to play.
‘And there’s the rub’ as Hamlet would have said, as he took his handful of coins away from the shark-eyed operator in the change booth. Because this is an important industry, but it’s also one that needs to be carefully regulated because gambling – for a tiny minority – can be a rather darker business than that experienced by the schoolboy on the pier I started this little piece off with. So when the industry comes to us and asks for permission to change the rules, by allowing the stakes permitted on some machines to be raised and the incidence of such machines to be increased, we have to look at the request with a more than usually gimlet eye.
And that’s why I’m publishing a public consultation suggesting that we relax controls a little, but on the strict understanding that high stake machines will most emphatically not be accessible to our schoolboy with his pocket money. I think this is a good and sensible proposal, and it’s one that we have talked through in great detail with stakeholders in the business. For my part, I think that what we are proposing is sensible and will help this part of the tourist economy get through a difficult time, but I also think we need to get cracking bringing it about. I very much hope that you will have a look at what we’re proposing and let us know what YOU think.
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