§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.6 a.m.
§ Colonel Sir Tufton Beamish (Lewes)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I confess that I feel slightly like the Member of Parliament who is reputed to have fallen into a deep sleep after an all-night sitting and been dreaming that he was making a powerful speech in this Chamber, only to wake up and find to his horror that he actually was.
The problems raised by mock auctions have interested both Houses of Parliament off and on for a very long time. I think it will be clearly agreed today that this issue is a non-party one. Indeed, the Bill is supported by six of my hon. Friends and by five hon. Members opposite. The hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds), whom I am glad to see in his place, has been most persistent over the years in drawing attention to the undoubted malpracttices involved in mock auctions. He raised some of the problems involved in a series of Questions in 1953, and also in the same year on an Adjournment Motion.
The hon. Member's main contention was that some of the practices which distinguish mock auctions from genuine auctions, although, possibly, contrary to the existing criminal law, should be clearly made illegal. The Government did not accept that view at that time, 1060 any more than did a Select Committee in another place which, reporting on the effort of Lord Gorell in 1929, reported that it did not see any need for new legislation. The official view then and until recently was that the law was not in need of amendment.
About two years ago, Lord Denham made a careful study of the methods used in mock auctions. On the basis of his researches, which took him into interesting and unusual paths, and after taking counsel's opinion, he gave detailed consideration to three possible methods of dealing with the problem. The first possibility was by the licensing of auctioneers. It seemed then, and it seems to me now, that there are at least three objections to this suggestion. First, the licensing system—a system of licensing auctioneers—was abolished in 1948. In any event, there had been no qualification for a licence, which simply cost £10. Secondly, it would obviously be difficult to assess the necessary qualifications that an auctioneer must have. This would involve the setting up of new machinery. Thirdly, since mock auctions as such—I emphasise "as such"—are probably not illegal, there could be no grounds for refusing licences to mock auctioneers.
The second possibility considered was the registration of the premises in which auctions are permitted to be held. It is possible to enact that all premises used for auction sales must be registered by the local authority and to insist that the premises maintain certain standards. The Corporation of Brighton, which borders on my constituency, included such a Clause in a Private Bill introduced in 1956. Leeds and Blackpool followed suit with Clauses which I think were identical. This method is again subject to the fundamental criticism that mock auctions, as such, are not apparently illegal, or, at any rate, there is very grave doubt about it.
The main effect of these Bills has been to move the mock auctioneer to happier hunting grounds. Another effect has been that the three authorities concerned have used the powers taken in those Bills, which were not really intended for this purpose, to control the activities of genuine auctioneers. This process of local legislation could, theoretically, go on until the whole country was covered by Private Bills, although this would involve all the authorities concerned in 1061 considerable expense, and many of them could ill afford it. Again, this suggestion comes up against the fundamental snag that mock auctions, as such, are not apparently against the law. Furthermore, one successful appeal by a mock auctioneer against a refusal to register his premises would nullify the whole effect of such a Bill.
The third method considered was prohibiting in law certain of the practices or abuses which are customarily adopted in mock auctions which distinguish them from bona fide auctions. After a great deal of work and after taking the advice of many organisations which could be affected by legislation of this sort, Lord Denham decided that this was the only feasible course to follow and that it had much to recommend it. Thus he introduced a Bill in another place in the Session 1958–59, its straightforward object being to prohibit certain 'practices at sales purporting to be sales by auction. The Bill received its Second Reading on 12th March, 1959, and passed through the Committee stage on 12th May, during which it was substantially amended. It was reported on 2nd June and read the Third time on 4th June.
I then took over this Bill in this House, and, again, the Bill had all-party support, broadly the same as has the Bill which I am now moving. Unfortunately, however, because the Bill came here late, it was not possible to find time for it in private Members' time, and the Government, although sympathetic and friendly, did not feel able to give me exceptional facilities. It was clear then, however, that the Government had had second thoughts about the desirability of legislation, and that their opposition had changed at least to benevolent neutrality.
In the last Session, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Sir S. Storey), who is a supporter of my Bill today, drew a low place in the Ballot for Private Members' Bills and re-introduced an identical Bill. It had no chance of reaching its Committee stage unless it received its Second Reading "on the nod," but, because there were objections to the Bill, it was not able to make any progress. In fact, it was the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards)—I am glad to see him in his 1062 place, and he will not mind me saying this—who had these objections. I am glad that he will today get a full opportunity to make a rather longer speech than he was able to do on the occasions when he objected to the Bill in the last Session. I should like to assure him that I understand his point of view, which I believe to be based on his fears that the Bill will interfere with certain legitimate auctioneering practices, and I shall say something more about that in a moment.
In any case, I look forward to hearing his views at greater length, and I feel confident that any constructive suggestions which he and other hon. Members may make can be met during the Committee stage of the Bill. Further, in a House which is inevitably thin after an all-night sitting, nobody would wish to frustrate the widespread support for this Bill by using a Parliamentary device, however well recognised.
I have little hesitation in saying that every local authority throughout this country in whose area mock auctions have taken place or are likely to take place supports the objects of this Bill. They are also strongly supported by the Association of Municipal Corporations, the Association of Urban District Councils, the National Chamber of Trade, and the National Association of Goldsmiths, which is the organisation of retail jewellers, silversmiths and horologists—a horrible word. Expressing its disappointment that the Bill I introduced in 1959 did not become law, the Board of Management of the National Chamber of Trade said:We are determined that when the new Government is formed, one of their first jobs shall be to tackle this menace.showing how strongly it felt about this practice.
The Bill introduced by Lord Denham was also discussed by the Councils of the Chartered Auctioneers and Estate Agents' Institute and the Incorporated Society of Auctioneers, both of which bodies decided that they would not oppose the Bill. Consultations also took place with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. I am giving these details simply to inform the House of the widespread support which the objects of the Bill have.
1063 In its present form, I myself have no reason to believe that the Bill could have any possible adverse effect on recognised and reputable auctioneers' activities, with one possible minor exception. I have had a letter—and this is the possible exception—from the National Market Traders' Federation, writing from Sheffield, in which the Federation says that it is strongly opposed, and always has been so opposed, to mock auctioneers' practices, but fears that the Bill as drafted may interfere with legitimate sales usually known as "Dutch auctions", and conducted by people commonly known as "pitchers". The hon. Member for Stepney may share these anxieties, and they may be the main anxieties in his mind. I look forward to hearing him develop that point, but it is not the intention of the Bill to interfere with such auctions, and I personally doubt whether it has that effect. After studying the Bill with the utmost care, I doubt very much whether the Bill has this effect, but if criticism proves to be well-founded, I do not think there should be any difficulty in amending the Bill. I believe that the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford has been in touch with these organisations and will confirm that they have these anxieties.
The main intention of the Bill, therefore, is to close the existing gap in the law which has enabled mock auctioneers to operate for so long, but not to affect in any way bona fide auctions of any kind whatever. Since some hon. Members may not be entirely clear what constitutes a mock auction, I will give the House a brief description of one, based on my own observations. I have been to quite a number, both here and in America, but anyone who wishes to read a fuller, very accurate and carefully worded description may like to look at the OFFICIAL REPORT of the House of Lords for 12th May, 1959, columns 1122–1128.
Very few hon. Members will know what I mean—I think the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford will—when I say that—…the Top Man operates his joint by nailing the steamers among the plunder-snatchers in the pitch got by his frontsmen, running out the flash gear or hinton lots as N.S. lots, to ricks and gees or to hinton, and gazoonaphing the sarkers with swag and plunder, while the raving Noahs are silenced 1064 with bung-ons and the bogies are smitzed to hinten to noise the edge.I doubt if even you, Mr. Speaker, fully understand what I have just read, but the translation of this jargon, which is really quite a new language to many of us—somebody ought to produce a dictionary of it—runs like this: the mock auctioneer operates his stall by ensuring the attendance until the end of the sale of those who are "mugs" rather than those who are just out for free gifts among the crowd collected by his men, pretending to sell as bait to his victims genuine goods, which in fact are never sold, to accomplices among the crowd or to nonexistent bids at the back and tricking those of the mugs who have enough money to buy his cheap trash while any member of the crowd who tries to warn the rest is kept quiet by being given a present, and dissatisfied customers from previous sales who have returned to complain are taken behind the rostrum to avoid trouble.
That is a long sentence and almost as difficult to understand as the previous one, I think.
I should like to give the House an account of a typical mock auction sale. When the law is being amended in a quite important respect, although a minor one like this, it is very important indeed that it should be very clearly understood what exactly we are trying to legislate for and stop. I would ask the House to be kind enough to bear with me, because it will take me two or three minutes to read this account of a typical mock auction sale, but I do feel that my Second Reading speech would be incomplete if I did not get clearly on the record just what happens. I hope the House will forgive me if I read this. It has been written for me by Lord Denham, who has specialised so much in the study of this business, and in order that I may get it absolutely accurate.
A mock auction usually takes place in shop premises at the rear of which there is a high counter which is used as the auctioneer's rostrum. Behind that again is a curtained-off partition. I would observe that the facts which I am giving can naturally vary in detail all over the country, but broadly speaking this is a typical auction I am describing.
The sale can be divided into five parts. The first is collecting an audience. A 1065 man stands at the door of the shop behind a table on which are displayed, perhaps, the following items, several cigarette lighters, several alarm clocks, two table lighters, two leather cases containing shaving kits, two electric razors, a second-hand camera, perhaps a second-hand pair of binoculars, and a pair of chromium plated candlesticks. The man bangs on the table with a hammer and as people stop to watch—the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford will correct me if I am wrong, because he knows more about these things than I do—he explains to them that the articles on the table are examples of the sort of thing that later on will be sold inside the shop. He also points to each item in turn and says how much it will be sold for. The cigarette lighters and alarm clocks will go, he says, for a shilling each, the table lighters and the shaving sets for half a crown, the electric razors for "ten bob", the candlesticks for, say, 2s. As a crowd collects he moves the table further and further back into the shop, and when enough people have gathered, the articles on the table are put on the counter, the table is folded up and put away, and the auctioneer takes over from behind the counter. The audience has been collected.
The second stage is known as "nailing" The auctioneer first points to the articles on the counter and repeats the price at which each is to be sold. Then he produces several cheap articles such as plastic sponges, toothbrushes, pencils, which he sells to the crowd for a few pennies, or even gives away free. Next he produces a sealed package. He says that he will not say what is in it but asks the crowd if any of them are sport enough to make a bid for it without knowing the contents. He promises that the man who gets it will not be disappointed. He puts it up for auction and knocks it down when the bidding has reached 10s. The money is collected from the successful bidder but the package is not handed over.
The auctioneer then puts 11 more similar packages on the counter and asks who else will be sport enough to buy one for 10s. This time he adds that only those who buy a sealed package will be allowed to take part in the rest of the sale. Eleven more people offer to buy a package, and the money is collected from each of them, but the pack- 1066 ages are still kept on the counter and are left there till the end of the sale. Their owners are given a plastic token to show that they are eligible to take part in the rest of the sale.
The object of these sealed packages is twofold. It sorts out the mugs from the rest of the crowd. Anyone who buys a sealed package for 10s. is stupid enough for anything. Since both the money and the packages are retained by the auctioneer it ensures that they stay in the shop till the end of the sale. Hence these packages are called "nailer's." The mugs are nailed to the sale.
The next stage is the "hinten lots" The auctioneer now turns again to the articles which were displayed on the table by the door and which are now on the counter. He picks up a cigarette lighter and asks who will give him 1s. for it. Naturally, all the mugs are eager to do so. The auctioneer says that to be fair he will put it up for auction. He knocks it down for 19s., and tells his assistant to go and collect the money from the successful bidder. While the assistant is doing this the auctioneer gives away more pencils, sponges, and so on, so that the audience do not notice to whom the assistant goes to collect the money. In fact, the cigarette lighter was knocked down to a non-existent bid at the back of the shop.
The assistant walks round the back of the crowd and, while their attention is diverted, produces the money from his own pocket and hands it to the auctioneer. The auctioneer then says, as though to the bidder, "You have paid 19s. for this lighter, but I am not going to charge you 19s., 10s., or even 5s. "Turning to his assistant he tells him to take the lighter to the back premises, wrap it up, and give it to the buyer together with all but 1s. of the money, that is, the amount he had previously said the lighter would be sold for. The assistant takes the lighter and the money behind the scenes, and, since there was in fact no buyer, leaves them there. In this way the auctioneer pretends to sell all the articles on the counter, articles known as the hinten lots, interspersing each with some cheap articles which are genuinely sold. In fact, of the articles displayed at the door of the shop at the beginning of the sale only the candle-sticks which are practically worthless anyway, are in fact sold. The audience 1067 see the cheap articles being handed to customers and assume that the others are, too. The lots which are knocked down to non-existent bids at the back of the shop are known as "hinten lots."
The mugs have now seen all these articles, as they think, being sold by auction, knocked down at a fairly high price, but being charged for only at a fraction of the amount bid. They think that, whatever they bid, they will be asked to pay only a fraction of that amount. They are therefore eager to bid and ready for the auctioneer to take their money off them.
The fourth stage is the main part of the sale. The auctioneer now says that he is coming to his final lot. He puts four new articles which have not been seen before up on the counter. They are perhaps a set of cutlery in a smart case, a lady's dressing-table set, a pair of canvas bags, a wrist watch, and each of these articles looks expensive but is in fact very cheaply made and virtually worthless. "Now," he says, "I am only going to let one of these articles go. This is by way of an advertisement for the sale." The highest bidder is to have the choice of which article he has for his money, and the rest of the articles are to go back into stock. He puts the lot up for auction and the bidding is eager. The hammer goes down at £5—this time to a genuine bid. He then asks the successful bidder for his fiver, and when he has got it asks him to choose which of the four articles he will take. The man makes his choice and the auctioneer turns again to the back of the crowd and pretends to hear a remark from the back of the audience to the effect that the successful bidder is a friend or accomplice of his, the auctioneer's, and that this particular part of the sale was rigged. He repeats what he has pretended to hear to the audience and he denies it strongly. Furthermore, he announces his intention of disproving the allegation—"If it costs every lot I have got in the shop" he says. He asks his assistants how many more of each of the four articles displayed they have, and it appears that there are three or four more of each of the articles.
He demands that these be up on the counter, and offers to let everyone who has bought a sealed package have one 1068 of the articles at the same price as the first was knocked down for—£5—and he promises to treat each of them as he was going to treat the first. His assistants try to dissuade him from this reckless generosity, but he is adamant. If each of the mugs hands up £5 he can have his choice of cutlery, dressing table-set, watch or canvas bag. Most of them take advantage of this offer and their money is collected.
"Now," he says to them, "you have all bid £5 for a lot; were all your bids genuine ones?" They all say "Yes", and he adds, "Then, if you walk out of the shop with nothing but the article you have chosen for your £5 you will be perfectly satisfied?" In spite of the way this last question is worded, they still think that they are going to get most of their money refunded, and they say "Yes" again.
The auctioneer says that he promised to treat them well and that he will do so. He produces a cardboard imitation of a leatherette case in which are a pen, a pencil and a ballpoint pen. This, he says, is not for sale but it is given away to each of the people who paid £5, in addition to the articles they have chosen. They do not get any of their money back. He finally produces a bottle of scent in a cardboard box. This, he explains, is the content of each of the sealed packages. The scent, the pen and pencil set and the article chosen are put into a carrier bag and handed to each of the mugs and the sale is over. For £5 they have each got a bagful of worthless goods.
The essential difference between the mock auction swindle and the simple selling of shoddy goods at high prices is that the purchaser in a mock auction is tricked into parting with more money that he realises he is spending. So ends the swindle, only to be repeated as soon as enough new mugs have been nailed to the pitch.
The Bill has four Clauses, and I am very glad to say that it now has the Government's full support. I should like to take the opportunity of thanking my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Department, and his Department for the help that I have been given and any future help that will be forthcoming. I should also like to say how much I 1069 appreciate the fact that, belonging as my right hon. Friend does to a Ministry with an enormous amount of legislation on its hand, much of which is very good—[Laughter.] I have no wish to be controversial, and perhaps I should not have said that, and having an important engagement early this afternoon, I much appreciate the fact that my right hon. Friend is able to be here to give us the benefit of his advice. I hope that it will not be necessary for us to keep him too long.
As is usual, perhaps I ought to give the House a quick account of what the four Clauses aim to do. Clause 1 (1) makes it an offence to permit or conduct or assist in the conducting of a mock auction. Subsection (2) sets out the penalties, and subsection (3) defines a mock auction by describing clearly the three practices which distinguish the mock auction from the genuine auction. Clause 1 (3, a) is the selling of an article at a price lower than the amount of the highest bid and includes the case where the amount of the bid is paid and part of it subsequently returned or credited. This is the procedure used in disposing of the "hinton" lots.
Subsection (3, b) is the confining of the final stage of the auction to persons who have been "nailed". Subsection (3, c) is the giving away of articles—the "plunder"—or the offering of articles as gifts, which is the practice used to attract a crowd and then to hold their attention during the course of the auction. Subsection (4) ensures that where the practice described in paragraph (a) occurs at a genuine auction for one or other of the justifiable reasons specified in the subsection, it does not convert the auction into a mock auction.
Clause 2 deals with offences by bodies corporate and follows the common form for this type of provision. Clause 3 (1) definessale of goods by way of competitive biddingand subsection (2) defineslots to which this Act appliesand "prescribed articles". Subsection (3) defines the word "stated" as it is used in subsection (4) and in Clause 1 (3, a) and (3, b). They deal with cases where non-existent bids are stated to have been made by imaginary persons and 1070 articles stated to have been sold are not in fact sold to anyone. Subsection (5) brings in things done in connection with a sale by competitive bidding whether done before or after the sale. Subsection (6) is designated to make sure that the creation of special offences in the Bill relating to mock auctions does not remove any other civil or criminal remedies in connection with them.
Clause 4 gives the short title of the Bill and subsection (3) of that Clause has been included because the subject of the Bill is one on which the Northern Ireland Parliament has power to legislate and has, in fact, done so by the Auctions (Local Control) Act (Northern Ireland), 1957.
The Bill, as I said earlier sets out to stop up the existing gap in the law by making illegal certain special features of mock auctions which amount singly or together to calculated fraud. The Bill takes care not to go beyond this, and it is rightly not attempting, as some have suggested it should, to stop the auctioneering of rubbish for the highest prices that genuine auctioneers can obtain, for the answer to that is custodeat emptor— "Let the buyer beware".
§ Sir T. Beamish
I am sorry. I am afraid my Latin is very bad. The racket of mock auctions is at least 100 years old, and may be 200 years old as far as I can find out. Until four very recent cases there have been only three prosecutions during the last 100 years—in 1869, in 1900 and in 1928. It therefore became clear over the years that mock auctions as such were probably not illegal. To prove conspiracy with attempt to defraud—and two of the cases I have mentioned involved such a charge—was just too difficult to be worth trying, not least because it was nearly always impossible to get people who had been defrauded to advertise their own gullibility by giving evidence.
Mock auctions have regularly taken place in at least 26 municipal boroughs, eight urban district areas, in Oxford Street and on a large scale in Petticoat Lane, where two shops and as many as 16 of the stalls have been used for these purposes. There were two successful prosecutions in Bournemouth in 1960. 1071 In one of them five men were fined a total of £1,050 for conspiring to defraud by means of a mock auction.
One newspaper commented: "the evidence at the lower court was that the public were unmercifully fleeced; it was said that the auctioneer's employees ran up the bidding, that the articles members of the public were given—already wrapped—were not the ones they had successfully bid for, and that in at least one case a bidder did not get his purchase at all. The whole operation was designed to get the highest possible price for the goods by almost any means, and to get gullible customers to hand over money that they would not have parted with in their right senses.In the other case, four men were found guilty of conspiracy to default people at mock auctions and they were fined a total of £1,000. Last year there was also a successful prosecution in Morecambe where the men concerned were charged with conspiring together to cheat and defraud persons attending purported auction sales.
The Commissioner described their activities asdishonest, as bad and heartless as the picking of pockets … conspiracy which lived by cheating ordinary hard-working people out of their savings and hard-earned money.Mock auctions, he said,are one of the most unhealthy growths that have ever come about in this country.I think that that is a very fair description. One man received a jail sentence of six months and two others were fined £150 or six months and £100 or three months. Two months later there was a second case in Morecambe where the prosecution was successful.
In my opinion, these four cases, the only successful prosecutions for more than thirty years, are the very rare exceptions that prove the rule that the law is unclear and unsatisfactory. There is no doubt whatever in my mind that the law is badly in need of amendment and that mock auctions amount to coldly calculated confidence tricks. With the law in its present state of uncertainty, the police are put in an impossible position. Frequently they must stand by and watch while people are openly cheated, unable to take action. The effect on foreigners visiting this country—this hospitable country, where we pride ourselves on our honesty—needs no describing. Such people may be severely 1072 shocked to find that the law of the land permits them to be brazenly swindled, and it is cold comfort for them if they have to blame themselves for having been "mugs". No doubt they attend a so-called auction expecting something for nothing and they come away wiser and sadder, having had nothing for something. I submit that there is an urgent need for amendment and clarification of the law, and I feel that this Bill, therefore, deserves the support of the whole House.
§ 11.40 a.m.
§ Mr. Norman Dodds (Erith and Crayford)
I wish to congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) and compliment him on having taken over this Bill, and for the way in which he has acquired a very good knowledge of the more intricate parts of one of the biggest and cleverest swindles that has ever been devised. I wish also to pay tribute to the persistence and skill of Lord Denham who, in another place, delivered one of the most amusing and persuasive speeches I have ever heard in either House.
I only wish that hon. Members could have heard him when he spoke in one of the Committee Rooms. He appeared dressed as if he had been to Ascot with his bag of "swag" and presented to us the shoddy goods—the almost unbelievably shoddy goods—which he had acquired—goods which one would never find in any other place than at a mock auction because they are specially made for mock auctions. No other trader, including street traders, would have anything to do with goods of this kind in their dealings with the public, and I think that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is right when he says that there must be an undertaking given that the provisions of this Bill, if it is given a Second Reading, will not hinder the activities of market and street traders who do a good job of work and give a fair deal when operating the technique of a dutch auction.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman said that mock auctions are a hundred or probably two hundred years old, and that is true, but the technique has altered very considerably in the last few years. As a youth I got a great deal of entertainment from watching men in the Newcastle market place selling shop-soiled articles by this form of auction. 1073 But now the articles sold are not even shop-soiled. They are goods specially made for mock auctions, and however little one may pay for them, they are of no value whatever. Some of the goods are sold with so-called guarantees. Carving knives are "guaranteed" as coming from Sheffield and being of the best British workmanship. The "guarantees" are probably bought for 7s. 6d. a thousand and are not worth the paper on which they are printed.
One of the most unsavoury aspects of the whole business, particularly as it is carried on in London, is the high percentage of overseas visitors who are taken in. At auctions conducted in the Edgware Road and in Oxford Street I have seen audiences 50 per cent. of which were people from the Commonwealth and other overseas countries. Some of them accepted these guarantees and took them home, together with shoddy articles they had acquired. This must damage the prestige of British trade abroad, and I hope that this Bill will assist in preventing that from happening.
I have always differed from the Home Office and the Commissioner of Police because I believe that under the existing law it would be possible for such people to be dealt with. But there is a wealth of evidence to indicate that there are weaknesses in the law and it is obvious that the Home Office desires to see some of those weaknesses remedied.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman mentioned that there was possibly some differences in the techniques which are adopted. I have visited scores of mock auctions all over the country, and I can say that there is no difference whatever in the technique. It is a matter of great concern to me that in Morecambe in Lancaster and in Bournemouth these auctioneers can be fined heavily, but when the same technique is operated in London the fine is different.
I was first attracted to this business when my attention was drawn to an advertisement in the theatrical publication called the Stage. The advertisement invited people who were out of work and had a knowledge of the stage to become "top men" or auctioneers in this business. They were told that there was a school to which they could go to be trained in the technique of mock 1074 auctions. This has developed into a big business, so much so that the country has been "carved up" and a limited number of people run these mock auctions. It really is a big business now and much different from the time when a man operated his own stall in the local market place. In Birmingham recently there were firms who made nothing else but goods for mock auctions. They were well-known firms, and because of the business they were doing they were prepared to debase some of their normal goods to sell for mock auctions.
It may be that some hon. Members with no experience of a mock auction may ask, "How can Parliament legislate to safeguard people who are determined to give away their money?" It is not as simple as that. One man came and told me of the experience of his father who was the editor of a well-known financial journal. He was on holiday, and because of our climate and the need very often to find some entertainment indoors out of the rain, this man, an intelligent gentleman, visited a mock auction. Ultimately, he put down some money for a gold watch, and the persuasion of the seller was such that this gentleman really believed that he was trying for a gold watch. If a man who writes for a well-known financial journal can be taken in by these peaple—I must say they are some of the cleverest people with their tongues that anyone could ever meet—it is not surprising that other and more gullible people may be taken in.
Some people attend mock auctions with no intention of buying but just to enjoy the "patter". They feel that they can afford a few shillings for what is called a "nailer" because they have derived more entertainment from the "patter" at the mock auction than perhaps they might have found at the local theatre. These "nailers" can be as low as 2s. 6d. Many people—I have done so myself—will pay 5s. because they think that the auctioneer has worked for the money and they wish to know what goes on. If one has not put one's hand in one's pocket at these auctions it can become particularly uncomfortable, and one usually gives something to the "top man" if one wishes to remain to enjoy the rest of the proceedings. Anyone who fails to part with some money soon finds himself the target of a very sharp tongue. People 1075 are influenced when they see what appear to be very good articles almost given away.
The auctioneers tell the public that it is their way of advertising their goods. Instead of paying for expensive advertisements in the newspapers this is the way they do their advertising. They impress people who tell their friends, and they in turn, they hope, will go back to buy. That is absolute nonsense because the top men are on commission. They have to make money and cannot give any away.
This is a blatant business, and, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman said, it is done largely on the system of the hinten lots. "Hinten" is a German word, although some say that it is a Jewish word. It means behind. The technique is that the lots which influence the public are never sold to the public at all. They are lots which always go behind ready for the next sale. They are knocked down to someone supposedly for very little money and then the floorman says, "I will take them and hand them to the bidder." But the top man always says, "No, let us do better than that. Let us have them wrapped up." So the goods are taken behind to be wrapped up and do not appear again until the next sale.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman referred to a second-hand camera and to a second-hand pair of field glasses. They are always the property of the top man, his private property. The reason why they are second-hand is probably that he uses them at the races when not at mock auctions. Anyone who attends such sales regularly will have seen all the scratches and the dents in these articles. They are good articles, but they have been used.
I remember seeing in a mock auction room in Oxford Street a beautiful silver cigarette case complete with lighter. It was in the sale week after week and was sold to someone at each sale. The top man would say, "You will see that the only thing wrong with it is that the elastic band is missing" Since an elastic band can be bought for something like 2s. 6d., I am sure that the article is something that most people would like to have. Unfortunately for the top man, there was a small dent in the top righthand corner 1076 of the case, and therefore when I attended the sale week after week I could see that the same article was always offered to the public.
There is always a trayful of goods which are purported to be sold very quickly to people at the back but which are never sold at all. That has a great effect on people and influences them to bid quickly in the future. I remember in Petticoat Lane having a first-hand experience of what happens. At the back of the premises which were being used for the mock auction there was a tarpaulin to hide what went on behind. There was a small hole in that tarpaulin and I spent some time looking through it. I saw these lots being brought back waiting for the next sale.
As I have told the House, people are invited to go to school to learn the technique. It is the same technique all over the country, although the words used may be different. People are invited to become auctioneers. I made application myself to become an auctioneer. I gave a different name and address. No doubt I should have been allowed to go to the school but for the fact that a check-up was made at the address which I had given and when it was found that I did not live there nothing further happened.
The technique is extremely clever. It plays on human weakness. It frightens the meek and mild members of the public. The auctioneer says to them, "Trust me. You will never regret it. This could be one of the greatest days in your life." People part with money because, prior to doing so, they see other bidders being given their money back together with the articles which have supposedly been sold to them. It is the technique of the hinten lot. Without the hinten lot the business could not go on.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman spoke about the wrapping up of the articles. That is an important part of the technique. Often the goods are shown around to the people, but they acre not the same goods which are eventually sold. The people running the mock auction are very careful to see that the goods are wrapped up. In many cases they are not only wrapped but are put into a carrier bag. If the person who has bought the goods attempts to open the bag in the sale room to see what he has got someone soon makes it obvious 1077 to him that he must not look at them there, giving the excuse, "Do not let the nosey-parkers who have not bid see what you have got."
This is a technique which often bamboozles people. Of course, there are some people who will not put up with being swindled. Having seen what they have been sold they go back and demand the return of their money. An important part of the mock auctioneer's technique is to avoid trouble with the police. A person who demands his money back in a determined way is likely to get it. But what usually happens is that the auctioneer says to that person, "If you come to our next sale we will see that you get a bargain."
If one goes to a mock auction to look for the obvious confederates—one can always tell them—one may see a country farmer or farm labourer who has obviously got nothing to do with it. He gets the bargain. Why? Because he objected to being twisted at the previous sale. Instead of giving him back his money they give him some of the bargains at the next sale. This often bamboozles the police who know that these people are not confederates. I have spoken to these people and asked them what happened and they have told me why it was done.
I have here a letter from a man who has a good knowledge (A the game. As a result, I am taking up the case with the Police Commissioner for the City of London. This man has been a mock auctioneer for many years. He now suffers from nerve trouble, largely due to the way that the Press, the B.B.C. and television have been making people aware of what really goes on at mock auctions. He has given up the work. He says that it is too nerve-racking.
Some of us might say that as the business of mock auctions is not so active at the present time we should not bother about it. But it is obvious that this business goes in cycles. After a spell of publicity, many of these operators low for a while. That is why it is necessary to have a law to curb their activities. This is his statemeint:I am pleased to note that you understand that there is no need for bogus associates and that the swindle is conducted by the hinten lots.I have for some years been writing both to the Home Office and to Colonel Young, 1078 the Commissioner of Police, because it is the Metropolitan Police and the City Police that deal with mock auctions in Petticoat Lane. This is the reply that I received from Colonel Young:The use of associations as bogus customers is not practised, nor have there been any complaints to the police regarding either operator.That is the excuse for not doing anything. It amazes me that the Commissioner of Police should be so far behind the times that he should ever refer to associates. There is no need to have associates on the floor. They would have to be paid. So they have their "associates" in the audience. The way in which they get away with it is by purporting to have sold some lot for £5, £6 or £7. The floorman stands in front of the auctioneer on the floor. The sale is always at the back of the crowd. In the meantime, as the floorman is slowly making his way through the crowd, the auctioneer sells a pencil, a knife or a comb, for a penny or sixpence, and it is the penny or sixpence that the man collects, and the £ notes he produces himself to hand up to the auctioneer. It is one of the cleverest things done.
I feel that there is something wrong somewhere and that there needs to be a stricter law.
There was the case which the hon. and gallant Member mentioned in connection with the Morecambe mock auctioneer. The Commissioner said that mock auctions were heartless and cruel ways of parting quite simple people from their holiday savings. One should know the miseries and uphappiness caused to holiday-makers by this process, and I am sure that the House will be very anxious to tidy up any weakness in the law.
Finally, I should like to mention the other case, which was at Bournemouth at the beginning of August last year, when, as the hon. and gallant Member said, fines amounting to £1,000 were imposed. It was said that sham bids and pretended sales were among the devices mentioned. That is the point that I make, that at every sale there are sham bids.
As I said earlier, there are a few people who use these areas to hold mock auctions and other people who, of course, become the auctioneers. The man who did this—he is mentioned in the 1079 newspapers—is Allan Gershon, 52, shop-keeper, of Wellington Road, London, and this same man operates in Petticoat Lane. It is a matter of some bewilderment to me to know how, using the same technique, he can be fined so heavily in Bournemouth and yet get away with it in Petticoat Lane. I have written to the Home Secretary who says that it is because of the difficulty in persuading complainants to come forward. I agree with the hon. and gallant Member that there are very few who are ready to admit how foolish they have been. The mock auctioneers know this and play upon it, so much so that if a person objects to having been twisted he can sometimes get his money back. But he is possibly only one out of 50 who is prepared to do that, and there are therefore some wonderful pickings to be obtained even if mock auctioneers have to give some money back.
I do not know much about complainants, but I believe that there have been some in Petticoat Lane. There was one case in which an auctioneer hit with an auctioneer's hammer one of the men who were protesting in the crowd. He was taken to hospital by two city policemen, and in hospital the complainant, I believe with a little pressure, was persuaded not to make any complaint, and for not doing so he was paid £50. It is true that there are many good reasons why people will not come forward, even if the law also requires to be altered. As the Home Secretary writes:Because of this difficulty there may well be a case for strengthening the law.It is in that spirit that I support the Bill, with an undertaking that if there is any likelihood of the Bill, as drafted, in any way harming the genuine Dutch auction, I shall be a party to trying to alter it before the Committee stage.
§ 12.6 p.m.
§ Mr. Walter Edwards (Stepney)
As was mentioned by the hon. and gallant Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish), I played some part in connection with a similar Bill in the last Session. I think that I should let the House know the reasons why I did so. In order to do that I must elaborate a little on what the hon. and gallant Member said about what has taken place since that Bill was introduced in another place.
1080 It was introduced by Lord Denham in February, 1959. Lord Denham's original Bill dealt only with premises. It obtained a Second Reading upon that basis. In their speeches, both the hon. and gallant Member for Lewes and my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) dealt mainly with premises, and I assure the House that in this respect the Bill has my full support. I remember entering some premises in Aldgate, 45 years ago, and I came out of them without much money. It is true that I had not much money in those days, but I had even less after I had been into the premises.
In Committee, Lord Denham had to introduce all sorts of Amendments which were demanded by the Home Office, in the same way as the Minister of Transport demands Amendments when considering Private Members' Bills concerning transport which have obtained Second Readings. On return from Committee, Lord Denham's Bill was completely different from the one which had received a Second Reading.
§ Sir T. Beamish
I am sure the hon. Member agrees that the only major change in the Bill as originally introduced by Lord Denham was the deletion of Clause 1 (1, b). The reason that that subsection was deleted, as was explained in Committee, was that it appeared to catch the Dutch auctioneer and to make his practice illegal. It was to meet that anxiety, which I mentioned in my speech, that that Amendment was made. That was the main Amendment. The other Amendments were minor.
§ Mr. Edwards
I have read the Report of the Committee stage in the House of Lords OFFICIAL REPORT and have a different impression from that given by the hon. Member.
A fundamental change made in Committee concerned the question of competitive bidding. The Bill which was given a Second Reading dealt with premises and did not contain the Clause on competitive bidding. The introduction of that Clause took the Bill outside premises and into the street markets all over the country. For the first time the Bill affected street traders in the markets.
I have an interest in the Bill. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Erith 1081 and Crayford and the hon and gallant Member for Lewes mentioned Petticoat Lane, which is in my constituency. Petticoat Lane provides a great attraction on Sunday mornings not only to visitors from abroad but also to people from all over London and also many people from all over the country who visit London at the week-end, for example, to watch football matches. It is a very popular place. Competitive bidding has been going or in Petticoat Lane ever since I was a child. In my view—and I hope that I am wrong—the Bill will stop all competitive bidding and in my opinion that would take away the value of Petticoat Lane as a street trading market.
I know nothing about the cases to which my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford referred, but if he says that they happened, then I do not dispute his word. Nevertheless, by and large Petticoat Lane is a very popular place—just as popular in London on a Sunday morning as the Tower of London and other places which people visit while in London.
§ Mr. Dodds
I appreciate the point which my hon. Friend is making. I have a letter from the chairman of the street traders, who are anxious that this Bill should be passed, because it is the mock auctioneers who are giving Petticoat Lane a bad name. The traders add that before the Bill is passed they would like to discuss the question of competitive bidding in view of the undertaking given.
§ Mr. Edwards
I am anxous only about competitive bidding. The Bill has my fullest support in dealing with mock auctions in shops, and I shall not ask for that to be amended, but I am naturally interested in that part of my constituency which plays such a rôle in attracting visitors to London.
What worried me, after the Bill had been given Third Reading in the House of Lords, was that it appeared to come to this House as a cut-and-dried affair. Some Bills we pass on the nod. We have a chance of trying to improve others in Committee and to make amendments to meet our points of view. This Bill is different from any other Private Member's Bill which has been introduced in the last two Sessions, because it has already had a Committee stage in 1082 another place and the Government have inserted into it those Amendments which they wanted to insert. This makes it quite different from other Private Members' Bills.
I do not know whether the Government will say, in Committee in this House, that they can do nothing more to the Bill. If they are prepared to accept any representations which my hon. Friend and the hon. and gallant Member for Lewes desire to meet, I shall not longer be worried about the Bill being sent to Committee. Nevertheless, I ask hon. Members to recognise that the Bill is slightly different from the usual Private Member's Bill.
I am glad that we have had this debate. I am sure that it has cleared the air. If anything shocking is going on, whether it be by mock auctions or in any other way, it is the duty of the House to try to eradicate such diseases. We certainly ought to deal with the shop mock auctions. Provided that the hon. Member for Lewes and my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford can keep to the assurance which they have given to the House that the provisions on competitive bidding will enable markets to function in a similar manner to that in the past—I do not say that fraud should be allowed—and that competitive bidding, which creates interest, will continue, I shall be perfectly happy with the assurance that these matters will receive consideration in Committee. I hope that the House is satisfied that I have not been doing other than air a point of view and help the House to get the value and benefit of a Second Reading discussion.
§ 12.17 p.m.
§ Mr. Hugh Rees (Swansea, West)
I want to intervene very briefly and first to announce an interest, in that I am a Fellow of the Chartered Auctioneers' and Estate Agents' Institute. I have com-ducted auction sales in the normal course of business.
There is no doubt that the mock auction brings into disrepute the method of sale by auction, which is a most valuable method of sale and is beneficial to the public interest and in every other way. The Bill is valuable if it will eliminate the cause of disrepute in that respect.
1083 May I take up the point made by the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards) about competitive bidding? The fundamental difference between an auction and a mock auction is that in an auction or a Dutch auction one is making competitive bids against the market and against one's fellow bidders, whereas in a mock auction one is making a competitive bid against one's anxieties—for one is anxious to get something for nothing—and not bidding against the market. I think that the hon. Member need have no fears about the Bill. As I read it, it clearly avoids any infringement of the competitive bid. The hon. Member may rest assured that if a slight change of wording is necessary, it can easily be made in Committee.
The Bill will get rid of this very unsatisfactory procedure, I might almost say scourge, in the country, which is increasing in number. When I was articled immediately after the war there were no mock auctioneers in Cardiff, but they are in Cardiff now. It is important that the Bill should be brought into law before there is a considerable spread of the malpractice.
One point which has not been made, which is important and which may be overlooked, is that an auctioneer is not only the agent for the vendor. When he has dropped the hammer, the contract is settled at that point, and if the purchaser disappears through the door of the auction rooms, the auctioneer can bind the purchaser in law. It is therefore important that we should ensure that the auction is conducted with the utmost intergrity and in such a manner that everyone sees what is happening, and knows what he is buying and that there is no intention that he should be misled.
I have been to this type of auction to see what goes on. The slick talk is remarkable. I was interested in the description of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish). I am sure that his description interested many of my colleagues. He has done a great service to the community by bringing the Bill before the House, and I support it wholeheartedly.
§ 12.20 p.m.
§ Dr. Alan Glyn (Clapham)
I am sure that all hon. Members who are Londoners 1084 have witnessed mock auctions. In 1946 I was a victim of one of the practices the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) described. I parted with £2 10s. and received a large variety of shoddy goods. Unfortunately, I was not as persistent as the person of whom the hon. Member spoke, because he managed to get his money back.
Mock auctions are an extremely bad advertisement far the main streets of London—such as Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. They are an extremely bad example to foreigners and tourists who come to this country genuinely believing that we have the finest legal system in the world only to discover that they are gypped literally the first day they go out in London. I know that the techniques differ considerably. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes said, in general, they all amount to nothing more nor less than swindles. No doubt there are cases when if a persistent client asks for his money back he gets it. However, the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford made a most important point. The average person who has been swindled feels a complete mug. He does not like to go back and risk giving evidence in a prosecution or an action, because his next-door neighbour will be able to pull his leg for a number of years over the folly he committed.
The object of the Bill is very clear. It is to abolish a very unfortunate practice, which not only obtains in London but has spread to the provinces. Mention has been made of the excellent description which Lord Denham made in the House when he brought articles here and displayed them. I was entranced by the very wonderful description my hon. and gallant Friend gave of the way in which these auctions are conducted. As he said, there is a grave doubt about the legality of mock auctions.
The private legislation applying to premises which my hon. and gallant Friend said two corporations had introduced could well be invalidated by successful prosecution. For that reason alone, the Bill deserves much consideration. Another point my hon. and gallant Friend made was that it would be an extremely expensive thing if every corporation had to introduce a Private Bill to cover these practices.
1085 I am concerned about what the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards) said. I do not think that we wish to interfere with any of the reputable functions of markets. What goes on in most of London's markets—whether it be Petticoat Lane, New Caledonian Market or any other market in London—is marché ouvert, where goods are sold at lower prices. With respect to the hon. Member for Stepney, I do not consider that the Dutch auction, which he said has been a practice in this country for hundreds of years, is part of the business of marché ouvert.
One thing about mock auctions is that the old maxim of caveat emptor does not apply, because when one gets into the atmosphere of mock auctions one feels, as the hon. Member for Erith and Cray-ford so accurately described, that one has had such a very good run for one's money that one would be a cad not to subscribe to it.
I should like one assurance from my right hon. Friend, namely, that the Bill will in no way touch the procedure which is adopted in the marché ouvert, not only in London but throughout the country. As the hon. Member for Stepney said, it is almost one of our institutions and one which attracts a large number of tourists, who regard Petticoat Lane and various other markets as national tourist attractions. I hope that my right hon. Friend will give us an assurance that the Bill will in no way in future affect the legitimate practice carried out in the marchés ouvert throughout the country.
I have no hesitation in giving full support to the Bill, which removes an anomaly, an iniquity and an unfortunate practice, which is widespread throughout the country.
§ 12.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Dudley Williams (Exeter)
First, I want to tender my apologies to the House for arriving a little late today. Unfortunately, for some reason or other I overslept. I will calm the fears of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling). In case he has any doubts about my attitude to the Bill, I will tell him straight away that I support it. That is not an attitude which I normally adopt towards either Private Bills or Private Members' Bills, but on this occasion I think that the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds), who is behind the Bill, has done a very good 1086 job of work during the gestation period, and I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) on taking advantage of the hon. Gentleman's early work to produce the Bill.
My fear is that the Bill does not go far enough. I entirely agree with it in principle, but my concern is that it will not be very easy to secure convictions under it. It may be necessary for some alterations to be made to it in Committee in order to facilitate its full operation, which I am sure is the wish of every Member of the House.
This will entail a Committee stage. As you may be aware, Mr. Speaker, we are having some difficulties upstairs in Standing Committee C in getting some of the Private Members' Bills through. I hope that it will be represented to my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary that, if there is any more careful consideration of some of the Measures confronting that important Committee, one of the Government Committees, when they have disposed of the Government business, which is also receiving exhaustive examination, could be used to get the Bill on the Statute Book.
The only point I wish to make about the Bill is on Clause 1 (3, a). I am a little worried about this and I hope that my right hon. Friend will comment on it. I find it difficult to see how anyone will be caught out under that provision. How are we to find out whether the money paid for some of the junk which is unloaded on to the unsuspecting public has ever been repaid to the man who is the phoney purchaser? It will be very difficult to prove. We may want to tighten up the Clause in Committee.
It should be tightly drawn, because some of these gentlemen are very smooth operators. I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn), was once caught, but fortunately the man who tried to extract my money was considerably smaller than myself and I was able to resist the entreaties he made for me to hand over the doubloon. These men are very smooth operators. I believe that there have been prosecutions for this sort of activity in the past, but it has been very difficult to get convictions. There have been very few convictions because, in the main, the case rests on charge of conspiracy which, 1087 as every hon. Member probably knows, is a very difficult charge to substantiate. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister of State can enlighten the House on the one point about which I am nervous.
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
I would assure the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams) that I had no doubt at all about his attitude to this Bill, and that for a reason he has not given but which I am sure is very legitimate and earns his support. On occasions when we have been together in Committee he has expressed himself as being on the side of the village shopkeeper and wanting to look after his interests.
As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, some of these mock auctioneers go round the villages. They take a village hall, or something of that kind, and conduct mock auctions there which not only rook the local people but have a bad effect on the village shopkeeper. As I knew we were in perfect agreement on that, I was confident that the hon. Gentleman was attending this morning to support the Bill—
§ Mr. Darling
I am sure that that is the kind of thing that happens.
I, too, want to congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) on bringing in this very desirable Bill, and also on the very clear and, I thought, vividly interesting account of what went on at mock auctions. He did not have a very large audience this morning, but the record will be there, and anybody who wishes to refer to mock auctions in the future has, as it were, got a bible already written and can always refer to it.
I was glad to hear him say that the Bill, in its present form at least, has the backing of the Government. Whether or not we shall have to adopt the methods suggested by the hon. Member for Exeter to get the Bill through, I am 1088 sure that all of us will do everything possible to speed its passage to the Statute Book—
§ Mr. Williams
Would the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) assist in the passage of this Bill to the Statute Book by staying away from next Wednesday morning's meeting of Standing Committee C, when we may be able to get on with the next Bill.
§ Mr. Darling
The Consumer Protection Bill, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, is as important as this one, but that is something that we can discuss at a later stage—
§ Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)
I have only just come into the Chamber and, therefore, do not know what has gone on, but I may say that I am astonished to hear that the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams) came here—on a Friday—to support a Bill. Do I understand that he is actually supporting a Bill on a Friday?
§ Mr. Darling
On this occasion I am defending the hon. Member for Exeter from any criticism whatsoever that may be levelled against him.
I want to make one serious comment on the Bill. I had intended to make it in any case, but it also arose from a remark made by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds). He said that some of the shoddy goods sold at these mock auctions included cutlery marked "Made in Sheffield" As is probably known, "Sheffield made" is an honourable and reputable mark, and the Sheffield Cutlery Manufacturers' Association—and I can say this because the subject has been discussed in public, and I know the manufacturers' views—has found it utterly impossible to trace the firms making this sort of stuff
Whether it is made in Sheffield, we do not know, but there certainly are un-scrupulous firms that put this mark on the "phoney" stuff, and they cannot be traced. If this Bill drives out of existence the selling of this shoddy stuff bearing the Sheffield mark, I am confident that the reputable cutlery manufacturers of Sheffield will be very glad, indeed.
I agree with the hon. Member for Exeter that as we go on we may find that this Measure has to be more tightly 1089 drawn. He made a very good point when he referred to the difficulties of finding out whether money has been returned to the man who is part of the concern. If the Bill has to be amended to meet the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards) and other points, I think that we will find that its operation will not only deal with the mock auctioneer and put him out of business but will also have its effect on those who falsely describe shoddy cutlery by adding the Sheffield mark, and we will all be glad to see that. I am very glad that this Measure has now been reintroduced in another form, and that the Government are supporting it.
§ 12.35 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Dennis Vosper)
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) was kind enough to thank me for coining to the House this morning, but I am glad to be here, because I came on many Fridays last Session when my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Sir S. Storey) sought a Second Reading for a similar Measure which then met with unexpected opposition. I am glad that we have had an explanation of that this morning. I should like to join in the congratulations extended to my hon. and gallant Friend, and to the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds), who has persevered in this matter for so many years. I congratulate them both, too, on getting the support—a very unusual event on a Friday—of my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams).
Whilst I am engaged on this vote of thanks, I should like to be associated with all that has been said about Lord Denham, who not only made a very entertaining and factual speech in another place but has undertaken much research during two or three years to bring this matter to fruition.
The hon. Member for Erith and Cray-ford was very kind; he did not say what he possibly felt several years ago—that the Home Office was rather lukewarm about this proposal, and I think that I should explain to the House why—as is, I hope, apparent—the Home Office attitude has changed.
The Department I represent receives an enormous number of requests for legislation which, in one way or another, 1090 would curtail the liberties of the subject. As we are, at the same time, concerned to defend those liberties, every such request must be carefully examined against the test of whether it is really necessary or is only a happy convenience.
The House is clearly agreed that mock auctions are most objectionable and should not continue. At the same time—and I am not advocating this view—one must have regard to the view that if adults enter into the risk of being fleeced it is not self-evident that it is in all circumstances the job of the State to protect them from the consequences of their own folly.
Furthermore, and this point has already been made in the debate, there has been some doubt as to the prevalence of mock auctions. According to my information, they have been limited to certain centres, and from time to time—and the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford made this point—they have decreased in number as publicity exposing their methods has increased. Also, there was a period of years when it seemed as if they might disappear of their own accord without the need of further action.
It was for those reasons that until two or three years ago the Government adopted a cautious attitude towards proposals for legislation, but more recently they have accepted the plea that the law should be strengthened, and have, indeed, been associated with the improvement in another place of the Bill originally introduced there by Lord Denham. I should make it clear that the Amendments proposed to that Bill were proposed, not at the demand of the Home Office but in an effort to improve the Bill, and as far as possible to meet any apprehensions on the part of the legitimate trade.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes has most lucidly described the procedure adopted at these auctions; he has described the state of the existing law, and has outlined the way in which the Bill proposes to deal with the problem. I do not seek to add anything at all to his words in that respect. He referred, however, as did the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford, to the recent successful prosecutions at Bournemouth and Morecambe, and the House should know whether, in the light of those prosecutions, this Bill is really necessary.
1091 My own view is that the successful prosecutions tend to support the view that I know has always been held by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford, that mock auctions are, in general, illegal, and can be dealt with under the existing law. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes was a little less certain about the illegality of mock auctions under the existing law. But the purpose of the Bill is to put the matter beyond all doubt.
Anyone who has studied in detail those three prosecutions—two at Bournemouth and one at Morecambe—will appreciate the immense deployment of police manpower that was entailed and the great difficulty in obtaining witnesses, who quite understandably are not anxious to come into court and admit that they had been fooled. The witnesses in the Morecambe prosecution were particularly reluctant in that respect.
The Bill strengthens the law in two important respects. For the first time it makes certain practices illegal, and these were explained by my hon. and gallant Friend. This is done in Clause 1 (3). The second point is that although witnesses will, no doubt, be obtained from time to time, it will be possible for a prosecution to be launched on the basis of what the police saw as the result of a small number of visits to a mock auction. I do not believe that this will give the police any greater power than they have in the prosecution of other offences, and it is very much our concern in these days that the police should not be required to spend an undue amount of time on matters of this sort when they should be engaged in the prevention of crime.
My hon. and gallant Friend also referred to the possibility of prosecution under private Bills, but I accept the argument that that is an expensive business and would take a great deal of time to cover the whole of the country in this respect.
I submit that this Measure removes any uncertainty, strengthens the existing law, and obviates the need for private legislation. For that reason the Government have been associated with the preparation of this Bill and its predecessors, although I want to make it clear 1092 that the initiative and credit should go to the hon. Members whose names I have mentioned. The Government will continue to be associated with the Bill if the House gives it a Second Reading, and we will certainly consider my hon. and gallant Friend's suggestions for improvement which may be raised at this or any subsequent stage.
I think it is possible—no hon. Member has referred to this—that in view of the recent prosecutions, the penalties proposed in the Bill may not be really adequate, but I should point out that these could only be increased if the offence were made an indictable one. However, this is something which could possibly be considered in Committee.
My hon. and gallant Friend, as I understand it, and the hon. Member for Stepney were both concerned lest legitimate Dutch auctions might be caught by this Bill. That is certainly not the intention, and my advice is that the wording of the Bill is such that it will not catch the legitimate Dutch auction. It will only do so if a Dutch auction is associated with some of the illegal practices mentioned in Clause 1 (3). I will certainly co-operate with my hon. and gallant Friend to make certain that that point is all right, and of course if the hon. Member for Stepney cares to elaborate any of the fears that he expressed I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend will seek Home Office advice to ensure that legitimate practices are excluded from the provisions of the Bill.
I was glad to hear the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Rees). He speaks with some knowledge of this business, and he felt that the legitimate profession would be safeguarded. As I understand it, the auctioneers' associations are now in full support of this Measure.
The Bill, I admit, is fairly complicated, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter said, it may not be easy to enforce, but there is no doubt that it will make the law much easier to enforce than the existing law. He was probably under a misapprehension when he expressed the view that subsection (3) of Clause 1 was weak. Possibly he had not directed sufficient attention to the all-important word "stated" in paragraph (a), in line 1093 20. I agree that this is a Committee point and we must make certain in Committee that if there is any weakness in that provision it should be tightened up if possible.
The mere passage of legislation making these practices illegal will make it clear to those who might be tempted to engage in this trade that it is something of which this House and the country disapproves, and will make it clear also that these practices are illegal. I think people will be less tempted to contravene a law which they think can be successfully invoked.
I should make it clear and issue the warning that, following the words of the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford, it may well be that the promoters of these practices are clever people and may be able to devise practices which evade the prohibitions in this Bill. Therefore, whilst the Measure will be of assistance to the authorities in preventing these practices, it still remains the duty of the general public to be constantly on their guard against the devices of those who attempt to deprive them of their hard-won earnings. I certainly give the assurance asked for that the Government will continue to watch the Bill and make sure that the legitimate practices to which my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn) referred are in no way endangered.
With those reservations, I say again that the Government will assist the Bill in its progress through the House. My hon. and gallant Friend referred to the Government's attitude as being one of benevolent neutrality. I hope that my words today show that we have gone a stage further and will assist in the progress of this Bill through Parliament.
§ 12.46 p.m.
Major W. Hicks Beach (Cheltenham)
I apologise for not having been here during the early part of the debate on this Bill. I had another engagement.
I am happy to tell the House that this is a thoroughly good Bill, so far as I can see. The only thing that worries 1094 me is that I do not think it goes far enough.
I should like to tell the House some of the difficulties the Committee will face, and in this connection I should like to refer to Halsbury's Laws of England and to what is said there on the subject of fictitious bids. It is worthy of notice by the promoters of the Bill before it goes into Committee. Incidentally, I must apologise for the state of my voice[...] the reason being that I have been heavily engaged in Standing Committee C.
This passage on fictitious bids is extremely difficult to understand. I am quoting from paragraph 159, page 79:Fictitious bids made by a third person without the privity of the vendor or the auctioneer do not invalidate the sale, nor do they affect the vendor's right to specific performance.If that statement in Halsbury is correct, I am not sure whether the promoters of the Bill may not find themselves in some difficulty.
The remainder of the paragraph runs as follows:If two or more persons take part in a mock auction, by means of sham bidders and bidding, to induce persons to buy at excessive prices, they are guilty of a criminal conspiracy.There would appear to be some contradiction.
As a practising lawyer, I suggest that Government Departments are not always right, and this matter should be studied very carefully because, in my judgment, subsection (3) of the Bill is much too loosely worded and does not go far enough.
I am delighted that all the auctioneers' associations are pleased with the Bill. The whole of the legal profession is delighted with the Bill. I give it a bunny welcome, but I also give the Home Office a very strong warning.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Commitee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).