HC Deb 24 January 1964 vol 687 cc1532-42

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath)

Now the Minister of Transport will realise why I came in and did him the courtesy of listening to his speech. He must be the first Minister to object to a Member coming in to listen to him. Nevertheless, I wish him a pleasant week-end and safety on the road.

The subject of this debate on the Adjournment is the pernicious practice of the use of the telephone by salesmen, advertisers and others to sell goods. I am not referring in any way to the normal use of the telephone for business purposes, which is legitimately done by hundreds of business houses. No one wants to stop them, although there is some evidence that business houses themselves are beginning to complain about this practice and I have had some correspondence from them on the subject.

I first raised this subject following a personal experience. I was having lunch one Sunday when the telephone rang. I was not in a particularly good frame of mind when I found that there was a lady calling to tell me that I had bought a razor some months earlier and to ask whether I was satisfied with it. I said that it was an inconvenient time to discuss the merits of a razor which I had bought six months earlier and for which I had filled in a guarantee form in case it went wrong. She said that the telephone call was a bit of market research to inquire whether I was happy with the razor, or whether I would buy an even better one. I said that it was the wrong time to ring me up on a Sunday and I left her in no doubt about my feelings at being disturbed.

I put down a Question on the Order Paper on this subject and as a result received a great deal of correspondence. A lady in Birmingham wrote to tell me that she was pestered by someone representing the Encyclopaedia Britannica who wished to speak to her husband. They would not take "No" for an answer and as, unfortunately, her husband had died a few months before she was very distressed about this and, in fact, had a nervous breakdown. I have had details of a second case. Again, the person who rang up wished to speak personally to the husband, notwithstanding the fact that in this case, too, he had died. This practice of ringing people up is on the increase.

I understand from some allegations I have received, although I have not been able to verify them, that, as one of my correspondents says, Post Office officials have admitted that they know of 53 organisations in the Birmingham area who at present use the telephone for this purpose. I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General whether the Post Office has any record of the extent of this practice and of how quickly it is growing.

The people who are objecting to it are not of the type who normally write to Members of Parliament. They are not only ordinary householders, but also professional men. A solicitor in Solihull wrote that he had recently been approached by a representative of a life assurance company. He said that these people were among the worst offenders in connection with the practices of which I complain. He adds that the representative was told several months ago that I was not interested in his policies…'' but he added that he was approached on the telephone on 14th, 15th, 19th and 26th November and that he expected further calls. I have no doubt that he is having them.

Then there is a firm of insurance brokers which complained of a company called Omarite ringing up and asking the firm to use their carbon paper in its office. The firm has sent me copies of the correspondence. The firm said that it was prepared to have a piece of the carbon paper as a sample. It then received a letter saying that 500 sheets were coming. On 8th January, the director wrote to the carbon firm saying in effect, "You could not have understood what was said. My secretary said that we were prepared to look at a sample. Now you say that you are sending 500 sheets. Please do not send 500 sheets." Notwithstanding that communication, the 500 sheets arrived, and on 16th January the director wrote and complained very properly about it and said that he was writing to me as I was raising the whole question.

Then there is the case of a doctor in Solihull—they seem very active in Solihull—who says: I was telephoned a few nights ago by a man calling himself Pickering and by implication offering me a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica free in exchange for the use of my name. It is intolerable for a professional man, a doctor, to be put into this position, and to be asked that his name should be used in this connection seems to me to be a liberty.

Then I have a letter from the Worcestershire Constabulary telling of a gentleman who complained bitterly about people ringing him up, and saying that it had a bad effect on him. The person ringing him up would not take no for an answer. The constabulary said that they were sorry, but that it was not a police matter although his privacy had been invaded, but that as I was interested in the matter it was suggested that he should get in touch with me.

One could do on giving instances of this sort of thing. There was the case of a senior member of the engineering staff of the City of Birmingham who wants to be anonymous. He says that the people ringing him up obviously found out who he was and what position he holds. They wanted to use his name when ringing up other people and say, "This gentleman has recommended that we get in touch with you." So one could go on.

The Lapan and District Residents' Association, which is an organisation in a very middle-class area of Birmingham, has written to me saying At a recent Annual General Meeting of the Association, attended by about 50 people, nearly all of whom had been approached by the Encyclopaedia Britannica salesmen, it was unanimously decided to oppose this type of advertising because of the nuisance. My Association would like to support your move whereby the use of the telephone directory is abused by salesmen. I will, if I may, take the case of the Encyclopaedia Britannica because it is indicative of the general matter about which I am complaining. As I have said, the complaint does not stop there. Apart from life insurance, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and dancing schools, I have heard of many other instances in recent weeks. I asked the Postmaster-General to look in to the matter, and I must say that I got a dusty and unsatisfactory reply to my question. The purport of the Postmaster-General's reply was that it was his job and responsibility to encourage the use of the telephone and that he certainly does not want to oppose the use of telephone calls made for the purpose of selling. He said that if there were offensive cases he would look into them, but that, generally speaking, he did not want to deal with the matter.

One is bound to ask one or two questions about this. When a subscriber hires a telephone from the Post Office, does he, in fact, lose all claims to privacy in his household? That is what the Postmaster-General's attitude adds up to. Once a person has his name and address in the telephone directory he can be rung up at any hour on a number of occasions, whether it be convenient or inconvenient to him, and salesmen can indulge in these calls for indiscriminate selling without any hindrance as far as the telephone subscriber is concerned.

If the Government holds this point of view, and particularly the Postmaster-General, abuses will follow, and certainly that will be resented by a great many people. In my submission, people who hire telephones are entitled to privacy in their home and to have that privacy respected even in relation to telephone calls. Canvassers may knock on doors, and, as we understand is to happen to an even greater extent, put floods of literature through the letter boxes. Such things as that may be dealt with at the time. One thing which would prevent door-to-door canvassing from becoming entirely out of hand is the cost element. But if this American practice grows of ringing up people indiscriminately, it will soon be regarded as an abuse by the whole nation.

It is possible to have telephone advertising only provided that it is kept within bounds; if only, say, 53 companies do it. But if the number is increased to 1,053, or even 10,053, and if this practice is encouraged by the Postmaster-General, as it would appear is his intention from the nature of the reply he gave to me; if people are to be inundated with telephone calls, even the Postmaster-General and this Government will have to do something, because people will revolt. We are entitled to an answer from the Ministry on the extremely important point about what sort of privacy a person may expect after hiring a telephone.

The Postmaster-General may be right to try to extend the use of the telephone for legitimate purposes and in order to acquire more income. But in the answer he gave to me he indicated no sign of realising that he has another duty, which is to protect the privacy of telephone subscribers. Telephones are installed, not for the convenience of the Postmaster-General, and certainly not for the convenience of advertisers, but for the personal convenience of subscribers, who are entitled to have their convenience respected.

It is easy to tell people that they can replace the telephone and terminate a conversation or that they can be rude to these people who ring up. No doubt I can adopt that attitude, and no doubt most hon. Members would be capable of looking after themselves, as would a great many people outside this House. But we must face the fact that normally the man-in-the-street is not inclined to be rude and there is no reason why he should be put in the position where his only defence is to be rude. But that is the position into which the Postmaster-General would put people. A great many people, particularly ladies, do not wish to be rude to callers on the telephone, and the whole thing becomes disagreeable. They listen courteously until the end of the conversation, which is what the advertiser relies on. The normal courtesy of British people enables an advertiser who adopts this method to take up more time than he would be permitted if he made any other kind of approach. The Postmaster-General should think more about that side of the matter.

Telephone directories are being used for this purpose as well as other public functions, such as electoral rolls. But, from whatever source the advertiser secures information about addresses and telephone numbers, he must eventually use the telephone in order to contact people. I should like the Postmaster-General to consider whether he thinks it right that a telephone directory, which is issued for the convenience of the general public and of subscribers, should be abused in this way. If he does, he should realise that if this practice grows, the only defence open to people will be to remove their names and numbers from the directory and become ex-directory subscribers. This would cause a great deal of inconvenience in respect of legitimate inquiries which people may wish to make by telephone.

I hope that as I have ventilated this matter the Assistant Postmaster-General will tell us that the Post Office has had second thoughts, that it recognises the public is. entitled to privacy and that if a person has a telephone he does not thereby automatically give licence to every advertiser to pester him at times which may be convenient or inconvenient. I hope that the Postmaster-General will investigate the growing practice and will give information about the number of business houses at present using these methods. I hope he will look into the matter and say what is the optimum number he is prepared to allow and that he will not allow the practice to continue until we are flooded by such calls.

4.16 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Ray Mawby)

I have listened with interest to the points raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Denis Howell). Some of them have been raised in connection with Questions which he and other hon. Members have asked in the House. There has also been Press publicity on this matter, particularly in the Birmingham area.

I fully appreciate that some people regard telephone calls made for the purpose of advertising or selling goods as unwelcome and an intrusion into the privacy of the home. The telephone is a compulsive instrument; when the bell rings people feel that they must answer. They are then brought into direct contact with a salesman or advertiser. It may be argued that telephone calls of this kind are less intrusive than door-to-door selling. It may be said that other forms of advertising are less intrusive and there is greater freedom to ignore them.

The hon. Member spoke from personal experience of telephone salesmanship during his Sunday lunchtime. I have had personal experience of salesmanship at the door of my house. Probably in my part of the world they have not got so far as salesmanship by telephone. I believe there is very little difference between the two methods. The caller at my house used slick salesmanship methods. He said he wanted to give me special terms and wanted to use my name, in a similar way to that in the telephone incident described by the hon. Member. When calling from door-to-door the salesman does not need to get a licence and it is doubtful whether the activities of people calling from door-to-door could be prevented unless they were causing grave offence by so doing.

It is important to realise that salesmen have this right, which they exercise, of going from door to door. Obviously, they have linked this up with the idea of calling people on the telephone. I understand that some make a call on the telephone in order to arrange an appointment to visit the subscriber so that they can have an interview rather than making appointments by going from door to door. This shows that there is a link between these different forms of selling.

The hon. Member made the point that sales by telephone are a more intrusive method than sales by the door-to-door method. Nevertheless, it is important to realise that both forms of selling take place. It is too easy to exaggerate the annoyance and inconvenience which may arise from sales conducted by telephone calls. It is necessary for us to try to keep the whole subject in perspective. It has been suggested in supplementary questions that these calls are a serious hardship to people receiving them.

But this is rather a misuse of the word hardship, and I think that one could not go much further in the average case which the hon. Member mentioned than to say that sometimes these calls cause annoyance. I assume that large numbers of them have been made, but as far as I am aware there has never been any suggestion that there has been any offensiveness or impropriety. It is obvious that any failings of this kind would attract adverse publicity and react most unfavourably on the interests of the organisation using this advertising technique. After all, if one creates an annoyance with one telephone subscriber, one assumes that that would build up a sales resistance not only in that person but in the friends and relatives with whom he is in contact regularly. It would therefore not be in the interests of the organisation to create this impression, and all my information is to the effect that no objection can be taken to the calls on the grounds that I have mentioned. I have no doubt that the organisations responsible take every care to make them so.

That being the case, these calls are not an offence under the present law. I must stress this point. As the hon. Member doubtless knows, for a telephone call to constitute an offence, it must contravene the Post Office Act, 1953. For convenience, I will read the relevant section, which is Section 66, and which states: If any person—

  1. (a) sends any message by telephone which is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character;
  2. (b) sends any message by telephone, or any telegram, which he knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, in convenience or needless anxiety to any other person; or
  3. (c) persistently makes telephone calls without reasonable cause and for any such purpose as aforesaid…".
It is obvious that under the last paragraph there may have been cases which have not yet come to our notice, and I shall be interested to receive details of cases in which it is apparent that the calls are caught under this paragraph—that is, someone persistently making telephone calls without reasonable cause and for any such purpose as aforesaid In that case he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding ten pounds, or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month, or to both". This is the kind of provision which must guide us, although there are powers under the Telephone Regulations of 1961 which go even so far as to enable the Postmaster-General to refuse to connect a call or even in the extreme to disconnect the offender's telephone. This is a power of interruption and disconnection which appears in the Telephone Regulations of 1961, and, as my right hon. Friend has said before, we should not hesitate to use these powers in extreme cases where it was obvious that these people were contravening the law as it stands.

But to constitute an offence it must be grossly offensive, menacing or malicious. Calls made for the purpose of advertising or seeking an appointment to sell goods certainly cannot be classified under these headings. They are bona fide calls made for a perfectly legitimate object and the Postmaster-General has no powers to restrict them.

On general grounds it would be wrong to seek to restrict, regulate or discourage the free flow of communications which do not offend against accepted standards of decency and propriety. It would be wrong for the Post Office to try to influence or control the nature and types of telephone conversations which can be made. Any attempt to do so would mean starting out on a very slippery slope indeed. Where would the process end? The analogy may not be well chosen but, if I may use it, this is a case where any cure could well prove to be worse than the disease. I hope that on reflection the hon. Gentleman will reach the same conclusion.

One point which the House may like to consider is—how could we stop the sort of telephone advertising of which the hon. Gentleman complains without stopping the small grocer, and so on, from canvassing for orders? The hon. Gentleman said—I think that the House generally would agree—that the normal day-to-day activities are quite in order. One would have to take steps which would leave those normal activities completely free. I feel sure that many hon. Members would be against restricting the independent tradesman in this way, but it is an implication that would certainly have to be considered.

Further, how is it suggested that we should stop these calls? Should the Post Office listen in to all business telephone calls, or to a sample of them? It just shows that any restriction of this sort on the use of the telephone might well be impracticable. This is a terribly important point. We have always accepted—indeed, we make it clear to all the servants of the Post Office, who accept this—that telephone calls are confidential. Listening in is a practice which is frowned upon and is not resorted to. If we had to instruct our people to listen in to certain calls, except as regards those where the police or we are satisfied that there seems to be a suggestion that they are breaking the law, we would be going down the slippery slope.

During the course of his remarks the hon. Gentleman made some criticism of the methods of salesmanship adopted when use of the telephone had been successful in securing appointments with householders. However, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that this is not in any way a matter within the province of the Postmaster-General.

There were several other points which the hon. Gentleman raised which were quite interesting. He asked, naturally, whether when one hires a telephone one gives up one's right to privacy. As I pointed out earlier, we all say that the Englishman's home is his castle, but he is open to the normal caller, whether he has a telephone or not, who arrives at the door and tries to sell him things. Installing the telephone does not take away his privacy. Indeed, it widens his whole life because not only can he phone other people and be brought closer to relatives, friends and colleagues in his profession or trade, but he also, because his name and number appear in a directory can be contacted by them.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that some people might be pushed to the point where they would decide to go ex-directory. We find that part of the value of selling a telephone is that the name and number are in a telephone book which one's friends, colleagues and business associates can find. This is one of the things which the normal person who goes ex-directory misses, because a good deal of procedure has to be followed by someone if he wants to get into contact with a friend whose name is not in the book. Whilst it is obviously a right which must remain in the hands of any subscriber to decide whether or not he wants his name and number in the book, I believe that the average subscriber on balance feels that it is to his advantage that his name and number should appear in a book which people can refer to when they want.

To sum up, therefore, I can only repeat that I appreciate the arguments which have been advanced by the hon. Gentleman and the viewpoint held by certain of his constituents regarding these telephone calls;. But it is not a matter in which the Post Office can or should intervene. The Post Office should not be placed in a position where it could be called upon to interfere with the free flow of communications between responsible individuals. We must really rely on the good sense of people receiving these calls to deal with them as they think best.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock