HC Deb 10 July 1953 vol 517 cc1671-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. Thompson.]

3.52 p.m.

Mr. Norman Dodds (Dartford)

For most of the day we have had a very important debate on the Monopolies Commission. I want to raise a matter in which a handful of men have a veritable monopoly in another type of business. I refer to the ever increasing number of what are called mock auctions or, in the business itself, better known as "run outs." It is estimated that today there are 1,500 selling points throughout the country and it is estimated that this year they will take between £6 million and £8 million.

In recent months I have spent a good deal of time looking into this business, and I must say that a wonderful technique has been evolved. Certainly in this type of business they have become the masters of the art of deceit. I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that it is nothing less than a business of barefaced robbery. I must, I think, pay tribute to the "Sunday Chronicle" which for many weeks past has been exposing this racket and which I believe will continue to do so until something is done to clip the claws of these merchants whose activities are undoubtedly being expanded at a time when this country cannot afford to waste materials and labour.

Some may say that this business has been going on for many years, and that is quite correct; and if it were going along in the normal way, I should not be raising the matter in the House today. But the facts are that big plans have been made and put into operation to expand this type of business to a point that I believe it is a menace which must be faced. In recent weeks advertisements have been appearing in various magazines. I want to quote two of them. Two weeks ago in "The Stage" magazine appeared this advertisement: Auctioneering shops in leading seaside resorts require men of good appearance and initiative, who are able to speak well and possess a flair for salesmanship to draw an audience of people into a shop. Men with ability will be taught the business. Only people prepared to work hard need apply. High wages paid to the right men. There are also vacancies for girl cashiers. I applied for the job and it was only at the last hurdle, when some inquiries were made which I did not anticipate, that they found out that I was not the person I purported to be; and as a result, I did not get into the mysteries from that angle.

Mr. G. Lindgren (Wellingborough)

People of good appearance?

Mr. Dodds

The second advertisement appeared on 9th May in the issue of a theatrical magazine. It says: Required. Top men and floormen pitch getters. For good R.O. Lollies. Only experienced grafters need apply. The "top men" are the auctioneers. The "floormen pitch getters" are the men who start up the patter with the object of drawing the crowds in from the pavement. "R.O." stands for "run out." I mentioned them in the first moment or two of my speech. "Lollies" means money. So this means "good run out money." A "grafter" is known in the business as a plausible man. "Experienced grafters" were wanted. That is the type of advertisement appearing in many magazines.

At one time this type of business was conducted from stalls, but now it is done in some of the most important streets in the big cities. Goods used to be obtained through the normal trading channels, but that is not good enough for the big men in the business, so that there have been started up businesses devoted solely to producing and supplying these very shoddy goods for the mock auctions, and in several cases, I am sorry to say, well-established business houses are being persuaded to produce especially for the mock auctions special types of shoddy goods. I have the names of several firms, and I think I shall mention one of them that up to now is the worst of all. It happens that this firm is in Birmingham, a city noted for its craftsmanship and good quality wares. It is a disgrace to Birmingham and is a menace to the good name of British production.

There is one firm with two different names. The first is the Stafford Trading Company, and the other name is the Coleshill Metal Spinning Company of Coleshill Street, Birmingham. The managing director, Mr. Cornberg, is managing director of both. The secretary is the secretary of both. The particular feature about this firm is that they send out goods in cartons, and the prices on the cartons are six, seven and eight times the normal price. That is intended to deceive the public who see the cartons on show at the mock auctions.

I have here an example of the goods. It is a biscuit barrel. The price to the mock auction is 2s. 3d. The price on the label is 15s. 11d. The barrel is such that anyone who handles it for five minutes finds his hands beginning to turn black. It is a most amazing piece of material. It is felt that people with cuts and so on may take some form of infection.

Then, for instance, we have the "Nevvacold" tea set. The price on the label is five guineas but the price is 13s. 6d. I have a "Nevvacold" teapot here for anyone who would like to see it—39s. 11d. on the label and the price is really 7s. 6d. A cake tray that I also have here has 21s. on the label but the sale price is 2s. 6d., and a tea caddy is marked at 7s. 9d. while the real price is 1s. 6d.

When the secretary was approached about what looks to be a form of deception he said, "We are using up old labels we had printed some time ago. It seems a pity to waste them, and, besides, the mock auction men like the labels. They are making all the profit, and we get a fair price." That is testimony from a man who knows the business, a man who went into the business to provide the materials for these mock auctions.

From the Whitechapel Road tremendous quantities are going out of what is called the "Majestic Pen Set." Inside the cover is the price, 42s., and it says, "For the connoisseur of penmanship." In the right hand corner there is a crown. The auctioneer points to the crown and says, "What is good enough for Her Majesty is good enough for you." They use every trick that is possible. I know, having seen from the inside of the business, that the price from Whitechapel Road to the mock auctions is 3s. per pen set. The price marked inside is 42s. They do not hope to get that, but they certainly expect to get from 12s. to 15s. per set.

It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed. "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. Thompson.]

Mr. Dodds

I can well understand those people who do not know the technique employed saying, "If the public are going to be taken in with that, they must pay for their experience." They may also say that if there are so many fools about, the Government cannot protect people who are determined to be foolish. But it has been remarkable in my researches to discover the number of notable and undoubtedly intelligent people who, when they have been on a seaside holiday, have idly wandered into one of these dens and who now confess that they were induced to buy probably a "gold hunter watch" or something of the sort.

It is not only the ordinary folks who are caught. Some of the most intelligent people have drifted in and have been caught up in the web. For those who feel that they can be proof against it, it is not necessary to go more than once or twice to the same shop. It is essential to go several times to understand the set-up and the clever way in which people are brought in. The more decent the person who goes in, the more easy it is to get hold of that person and to extract money. In some cases it is done by a form of intimidation.

To those who say that the Government should not take a hand in this, I make two answers. First, many of the laws in operation today are designed to prevent "sharks" from taking advantage of the public: and this is another direction in which the Government should look. Second, one of the great dangers of all this is the way in which overseas visitors are being fleeced on their visit to Britain. Most people think of this thing as being carried on at the seaside resorts—there is no doubt that from now on and for several weeks there will be some rich harvests at the seaside resorts; but it is here, in London, that the visitors are principally being taken in.

What is a disgrace is that two of the worst dens are in the world-famous Oxford Street. In recent weeks and months I have spent many hours in Oxford Street, and what I have seen has been a revelation. But it is not only in Oxford Street. There is a lot of trouble in Petticoat Lane. In fact, the mock auction boys have muscled in to such an extent on the bomb damaged ground that there is a danger that Petticoat Lane may lose its good name by the boys coming in now with the "runouts" to make quick profits and then get out. The street traders of that locality have recently sent a petition to the Stepney Borough Council and to the London County Council, and I do not think it will be long before they ask for a deputation to be received at the Home Office.

The technique of the sales is remarkable. Most of the advertisements outside say that bankrupt or liquidation stocks are to be sold and that there are sensational bargains. The patter of the floor-getters—the pitch-getters—is remarkable, but the art of deceit is obvious. They promise that there are several dozens of various articles which will be sold at the sale—dusters at 1d., folding scissors at 2d., ordinary scissors at 6d., nylon stockings at 6d. per pair, cigarette holders at 1s., alarm clocks at 2s and so on.

It is rather peculiar to No. 155, Oxford Street that I have seen the same pair of binoculars put up as being for sale during the whole seven weeks I have been there. I can recognise them by the scratch on the sides and the scratches on the leather case from which they are taken out. Another prominent feature is the promise that there will be sold a combined cigarette case and lighter, from which the elastic band is missing. It has been missing all the weeks I have been going there, and there is a dent on one side of it. It is easily seen by and known to a person who visits those premises regularly. The information is that it will be sold at 1s. 6d. and that for 2s. 6d. one can get a new elastic band to keep the cigarettes in so that there one will have a valuable cigarette case.

With the exception of one or two items these goods do not get to the public. Some members of the public get an odd one, but if I had time I could explain how the system of stooges works and how they pick up these goods and bring back any which are worth keeping.

To give an example of the deceit which is practised in Oxford Street there is a shop in which there is a certificate, to which the auctioneer points. It says: Registration of Business Names Act. 1916. The auctioneer explains that they are not like other auctioneers—there is the certificate which shows what a grand lot of people they are. He goes on to say that one of the troubles about the high cost of living today is the Purchase Tax which people must pay, but by that certificate, because they are Government auctioneers, they do not have to pay Purchase Tax and, as a result, they can sell more cheaply to the public.

But what is the truth? That is a certificate given by the Board of Trade. It is necessary by law, where people trade under a name other than their own, to have such a certificate to put up in their shop. The idea of the certificate is that a person going into a business where the name is not revealed can go to Somerset House, pay Is. and get to know the names and addresses of the directors. That is an example of the tricks played on the public. They make use of a certificate like this and say that they are Government auctioneers. There are hundreds of marvellous tricks employed. Whether one goes north, south, east or west, it is amazing to find that the pattern and patter is almost the same. Many people drift into these places while on holiday and suffer this experience. I have known of many cases in which the holiday has been upset for the people who have gone into these shops.

A second man comes up when a crowd has been collected. The auctioneer gives away one or two odd items to stooges and others, and this goes on until he gets about 20 people to pay half a crown, 5s. or 10s. on a whole pile of similar articles. The money is collected, taken to the rostrum and the articles and the money are retained by the auctioneer for as long as an hour. This ensures that the people remain and he works on them. Those are the people he works on with the object of squeezing £4, £5, £7 and more out of them. It is generally the more decent people who get caught and people come from Rochdale and towns in the Midlands to Oxford Street when they are on holiday, only to find that they are completely fleeced.

One of the most serious sides to the matter is that, in Oxford Street in particular, a number of overseas visitors are induced to buy these shoddy goods. Quite frequently the auctioneer will declare that travellers' cheques will be accepted, and I have been there when there have been as many as six nationalities who have paid £2, £3, £4 or £5 for articles. I have a knife which is marked as being of Sheffield steel. What appears to be lovely steel is found to be just like the silver paper around the box, yet it is "guaranteed" as the finest Sheffield steel. A number of other articles are guaranteed as of finest workmanship, and overseas visitors buy these shoddy goods. That can only reflect on the good name of the people of this country.

I ask that there be an interest taken in this matter because very big developments are taking place. Some corporations or councils attempt to deal with this menace. Recently the Brighton Corporation decided that none of their property could be hired by these mock auctioneers. But that does not stop them from occupying other places in the town. Recently, at Cleveleys, near Blackpool, a mock auction on wheels, a mobile mock auction, has appeared, and I am informed that there are plans in hand for more.

The Cleveleys Council have endeavoured to find out what they can do. Street traders have been told that local councils have no power to deal with this problem. I do not know whether that is the case, but we need more official announcements to let people know if local councils have the power to deal with it. In many districts there are doubts whether licences and permits are given out fairly. I will say no more than that.

The Vice-Chairman of the Cleveleys Urban District Council made a statement which seems to sum up what people feel. He said: The answer to this problem of the mock auctioneer does not fall within the jurisdiction of the local authorities, because at the moment we have no power to stop them: He went on to say, The only way to stamp out effectively this public nuisance is by new legislation. I bring that forward——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member cannot introduce new legislation as a topic on an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Dodds

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. I wanted to be fair to the gentleman making the statement and I thought you might waive that restriction on this occasion. But I appreciate that you have to do your job and I will not repeat it again—having got it out once. All I ask is that a thorough inquiry be made by the Home Secretary into this type of business with a view to protecting the public and traders against this dishonest form of trading.

4.14 p.m.

Dr. Harriett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I wish to ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether I may refer to the Merchandise Marks Bill, at present passing through this House?

Mr. Speaker

I am afraid not.

Dr. Stross

If I may not refer to that, may I say that I deplore the fact that the President of the Board of Trade, who was in the Chamber until four o'clock. did not remain for this debate? In previous debates it was pointed out that since 1887 the Board of Trade has not used available powers to prosecute people who cheat and who, under the Merchandise Marks legislation since then have been accused and are guilty of false or misleading practices.

The word "misleading" will come into vogue more than in the past. I hope that opportunity will be found to put an end to this type of nefarious practice. Surely a case has been made out that this kind of thing is grossly misleading to the public. The difficulty will be if the Board of Trade say that anyone can prosecute. They have hardly ever prosecuted anyone since 1887 until today, and if they continue not to do so we shall still be in this sort of difficulty.

I know that this type of practice is very old. I was interested to hear about the mobile mock auction. As a child of eight I remember being taken on a holiday to Blackpool and, although it was not a mobile mock auction, what happened there was that the auctioneers would open at one stall and when they had satisfied themselves that they could get no more from the people they closed down. Half an hour later they opened again. That was almost mobile. I remember seeing rock being sold in an unusual way. A 3d. piece was offered for 6d. and people were told to trust the auctioneer, and if they did, they got the money and the piece of rock. This practice took place for pieces of rock at 2d., 4d. and 6d. until, ultimately, people were asked to pay 1s. for a 6d. piece of rock and if one paid 1s. for a 6d. piece one lost the 1s. although one got the 6d. piece of rock.

I was horror-stricken because I did not take my chance. I ruminated about my lost opportunities and before the night was over I had run home and secured a large Gladstone bag which I filled with rock and I still had my 6d. left, for I knew when to stop. Today, the situation is different. Today, they give one nothing, except a wrong deal. They trick innocent people on holiday who have a little extra money. I hope that we shall hear from the Under-Secretary what he proposes to do to assist the country in this matter.

4.17 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

I want to impress upon the Under-Secretary the magnitude of the evil which has been brought to his notice today. It is true that in shops of the character referred to, in Oxford Street and elsewhere, the turnover each week is in the neighbourhood of £1,000. The very slick customer who conducts the auction is worth his weight in gold to the persons who supply the rubbish which is sold. He can earn anything up to £50 a week with the aid of three or four "stooges" planted in the audience who can earn up to £10 a week.

When the background of this business is realised, I think it will be appreciated that thousands of pounds a week are being filched from the public by means of this trick. It is a trick which can easily deceive. It is based upon all kinds of cunning psychological processes. I wish that the Under-Secretary would have a look at some of the operators himself. He would then realise what a menace they are. I hope he will say something which will encourage legitimate traders to carry on their trade and not have custom diverted into the hands of these unscrupulous sharks.

4.18 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) on his researches in this matter. Such information as I have does not altogether conflict with what he has told the House. Although the expression "mock auction' is not a term of art it is applied to a number of rather disreputable proceedings.

The hon. Gentleman gave some figures. He said that there were 1,500 selling points and that the turnover was between £6 million and £8 million this year. I have no knowledge of those figures. I do not know where they came from.

Mr. Dodds

Inside the business.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I should be glad if I could have the source of the information supplied to me. These mock auctions are not general; they take place in London and in certain seaside resorts. I have no knowledge that they are increasing to any very substantial extent, though I am willing to agree that there is a risk of that and that, at least, the risk should be watched. A number of people who attend these mock auctions go there innocently and in good faith and they lose their money, but a very large number of those who go, go to see the fun. They go in the same spirit as many people go to a political meeting, rather because they enjoy having their hopes raised, than from any firm belief in the benefits to be derived.

The special features of these auctions are three-fold. First of all, there is the distribution of what is technically known as "plunder," that is to say, certain goods are given away; or if they are not given away at all events there is a considerable refund of the money paid for them, or sales are made below cost. Secondly, there are what are technically known as "riggers," who mix with the crowd and whose duty it is to keep the bidding going and see that the prices are as high as possible. The latest police reports I have show that "riggers" are not very noticeable among the crowds.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Because it is their job.

Mr. Dodds

If one goes every week one finds the same people there.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

Then, thirdly, there is the offer of goods in boxes where the kind and quality of the goods is not readily discernible by those who purchase.

The existing law contains very substantial powers indeed to deal with abuses of this kind. It is true that the law does not forbid gifts being made to purchasers, nor a return of money to them. If it did so the Co-operative societies would cease to exist. It could not go to that length, and I do not think anyone suggests that it should.

There are statutes which deal expressly with some of the abuses concerned, and there are also a number of crimes under the general law. The Sale of Goods Act. 1893, it is true, does not deal with the matter by creating offences, but it makes it unlawful for the seller of goods which are being auctioned to bid or employ any person to bid on his behalf, or for an auctioneer to take such a bid unless it is expressly reserved and notified in the conditions of sale. Then I think it is plain that if a number of boxes were sold and the suggestion were made that some of the boxes contained valuable goods and others contained goods of no value, then those who bid for such boxes might be committing an offence under the Betting and Lotteries Act, 1934.

Of course, there are much more directly applicable offences, such as obtaining money by false pretences, conspiracy to defraud, larceny by intimidation and larceny by means of a trick. Those who take part in these mock auctions in the sort of way that the hon. Member has described could, I think, invariably be brought up under one of these headings. It is not a fact that law is deficient. There is ample power to prevent these abuses and punish them where they occur. The difficulty is to prove the facts on which to base a prosecution.

As I have said, those who go to see the fun do not regard this as a matter on which to found any complaint. They do not go to the police, and they do not wish to see a prosecution. But those who are taken in and who lose their money are also, as a rule, very unwilling to make a complaint and to give evidence. I cannot put the matter better than it was put by the late Lord Hailsham, in another place. He said: The gentleman who goes to Blackpool and who has unwittingly become a 'sarker' and has been 'gazoomphed' is not anxious to advertise his own gullibility and to give evidence in a court of law, or even to make a complaint to the police. That is really the difficulty that we are up against, that although it may well be that offences take place, they cannot be substantiated in a court of law.

Mr. Percy Daines (East Ham, North)

Surely, if the police were really determined about it and put their people in when the auction sales were going on, they could make the bids in order to get the evidence.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

It is by no means easy to do that.

Mr. Dodds

But we know.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

If the hon. Member knows, then there is nothing to prevent him coming forward and giving evidence, and the fact that he is raising the matter here is some support of the truth of what I say, that here there is real difficulty. Several attempts have been made in the past to introduce Private Members' Bills to enforce the law in this connection. But it is not really that the law is defective. The real difficulty is to get a conviction, and it is astonishing that in 1928 when, as a result of a successful prosecution four people were sent to prison for conspiring to obtain money by false pretences in carrying out auctions of the kind described by the hon. Member, these auctions almost completely dried up in London for a considerable time.

Mr. Dodds

That is what is needed today. They will soon run when there are one or two prosecutions.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I can assure the House that the police are very alive to the dangers which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, and that they are keeping a close watch on these auctions. Although, of course, the responsibility for enforcing the law is a matter for chief officers of police and not directly that of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I am informed that chief officers will not hesitate to take proceedings when satisfactory evidence is forthcoming.

This is not entirely a criminal matter. It has, of course, a commercial aspect, that is to say, people are drawn away to spend money at these auctions which they would otherwise spend in the shops. That is a matter which is giving concern to the National Chamber of Trade, who are sending representatives to the Home Office to discuss these auctions in the near future. I can assure the House that my right hon. and learned Friend will give close attention to what is said by the National Chamber of Trade and to what has been said in the course of this debate, and that, as far as possible, these abuses shall not be allowed to spread.

4.29 p.m.

Mr. A. G. Bottomley (Rochester and Chatham)

Though the Joint Under-Secretary is speaking as a very responsible Minister for a great Department of State, I must say that the lighthearted way in which he has dealt with this matter this afternoon is one of the reasons why my hon. Friend does not feel that every endeavour is being made to stop these mock auctions. The hon. Gentleman speaks for his own side of the House when he says that they might be likened to political meetings. If he says that Conservative Party meetings and mock auctions are similar things, then, of course, I am bound to accept it from him, but I resent the suggestion that these mock auctions are similar to Co-operative societies, which are publicly owned and which distribute a share of their profits to those who buy from them. The hon. Gentleman should go back and tell his Department that if they were to give this matter the same serious attention which my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) has given to it, we might get something done.

The Question having been proposed at Four o'Clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Four o'Clock.