§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.5 a.m.
§ Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Door-to-door selling has long been an established practice. The travelling salesmen for centuries have provided a service which has been desired and gratefully acknowledged by many sections of the population whose shopping time is limited by working hours, by distance from shop or town, by ill-health or old age, or by the demands of other responsibilities. In recent years, the growth of this service has been phenomenal and home sales can now be counted in many hundreds of millions of pounds. From these figures it can be concluded that by far the largest proportion of home or doorstep sales must be straightforward and honest transactions.
The majority of salesmen are decent men who are anxious to provide good service and, at the same time, to build up a growing trade based on mutual trust and good faith. But, as in most other walks of life, there is the rogue who is prepared to mislead and to prey on the unwary, to abuse for a quick return the trust that has been placed in him. The customer suffers. But it is not only the customer who suffers as a result of the activities of the rogue salesman. Often the more disgraceful examples of home sales trickery are reported in the Press, or on television, and this leads householders to suspect everyone who calls on them, including the perfectly honest trader.
The activities of the dishonest salesman constitute no new problem. For several hundred years Acts of Parliament have sought to protect people from travelling rogue salesmen who exploit their advantages over the lonely housewife, the gullible and the handicapped. The Pedlars Act, 1871, and the Hawkers Act, 1888, governed, to some extent, the activities of those who travel from house to house selling merchandise. But the scope and purpose of these and other Measures are limited.
767 The objective of the control which they initiated was the maintenance of a check upon those whose method of trading so often provided opportunity for thieving or intimidation. They did not control, nor were they concerned with, selling techniques. In more recent times, a new selling philosophy has been imported into this country and applied to doorstep selling. Many of the more objectionable methods originated in America, although in that country they have long since been proscribed. Yet they still operate with impunity in Britain.
As long ago as 1939 the Home Office was engaged in examining the adequacy of existing legislation. But steps to strengthen the machinery of police control over doorstep selling and to remedy the law in this matter were cut short by the outbreak of war, and the problem has lain fallow ever since. In the words of the Molony Committee,It can hardly be doubted that reform is now overdue.The Molony Committee on Consumer Protection made a reappraisal of this problem one of the main points of its work and its findings showed that the need for control was pressing. No one can doubt this when one hears stories of some of the methods used to trick the uncautious or unsuspecting consumer into an unwanted purchase.
There are the educational book salesmen who pretend that they are conducting an advertising survey. They manage by various means to obtain a signature to a hire-purchase sale agreement, but they give only a standard receipt without disclosing the supplier's address. Thus, the customer is unable to make use of the revocation period under existing law even if he knows of it.
Then there were the bowler-hatted gang of smartly dressed gentlemen who went from house to house representing themselves as officers of the local council, or, on one occasion, as coming from the gas board and engaging in various frauds. So wide was the scope of their activities that the Fraud Squad took notice and eventually managed to track them down, although there was the greatest difficulty in identifying them. Many less well organised frauds of this sort go undetected because there is no way of identifying the malefactor.
768 Then there are the salesmen who play on the sympathy of the public by saying that the sale of their goods would help, for instance, the blind. Recently, in my own home county, Wiltshire, there has been evidence of this ruse. The Wiltshire county welfare department had even been told of a blind man who had been visited by door-to-door salesmen who indicated that the goods for sale were being sold to help the blind, but when the man who was visited stated that he was blind himself, the door-to-door salesman disappeared. I believe that the Royal National Institute for the Blind and the regional associations for the blind have at various times made representations in an effort to tighten up the law regarding door-to-door salesmen.
These are only a few typical examples which led the Molony Committee, at paragraph 802 of its Report, to say:The activities of door-to-door salesmen and canvassers were forcefully represented as giving rise to a social problem justifying the creation of a licensing system which would eliminate the more undesirable and subject the rest to a degree of continuous supervision.In an earlier paragraph— paragraph 528— the Committee considered that there existedan overriding need to protect the consumer against reprehensible pressures exercised in his own home, however the salesman gains a footing there.There is no need to stress this point, because there is now a consensus of opinion, which is shared by reputable sections of the trade, that control of those businesses which set out to cheat people in their own homes is long overdue. It is generally agreed that the outlawing of such behaviour is a protection which is needed as much by the trade as by the customers. Differences of approach to the problem arise only when methods of control are considered.
The Molony Committee reluctantly had to accept its own conclusion that licensing was impractical. When, however, the Consumer Council was established as a result of the Molony Committee's first conclusion on major organisational reform, it was given as one of its main functions the task of suggesting new law for consumer protection. In the case of doorstep selling, Governments have made it clear that they have passed this baby to the doorstep of the Consumer Council and awaited its recommendations.
769 The Council now has a unique knowledge of the malpractices which are used and the complaints which have arisen as a result. It has investigated businesses involved, it has seen the documents provided to brief salesmen and it has documented this evil on a national scale. It has had exhaustive discussion with the trades involved and many have contributed towards arriving at a solution. Opinions may have differed on the means to be used, but there is general agreement on the end result that is desired.
The Consumer Council in due course reached the same conclusion as the Molony Committee that licensing was impractical. The Doorstep Selling Bill— and here I should like to acknowledge the great assistance and support of the Consumer Council in its preparation— proposes a method of control which, I believe, avoids the pitfalls of licensing but which will yet achieve an effective curb on unfair selling methods.
The Bill has two main provisions. First, it imposes on itinerant salesmen a duty to identify their purpose as salesmen on arrival at a house and before offering goods for sale. Secondly, it provides that any transaction within certain financial limits other than those already covered by the Hire Purchase Act should be subject to a written agreement and a four-day cooling-off period. This second feature both provides a disincentive to the salesman against the use of unfair selling methods or pressures and provides the purchaser or hirer time for second thoughts.
Clause 1 of the Bill relates to the first main purpose and applieswhere goods… are offered for sale or on hire at a place other than appropriate trade premises"."Goods" in this sense refers either to an offer of goods alone or an offer of goods coupled with services. The definition of "appropriate trade premises" is based on the definition of the same expression in the Hire Purchase Act, 1965. As was apparently realised when drafting the Bill which eventually became the 1965 Act, there is great difficulty in defining the home. Therefore, the definition which is used has been adopted so as to leave no obvious loopholes for the fraudulent salesman.
In Clause 1 of the Bill, subsection (1) requires the itinerant salesman at the 770 earliest opportunity to hand a statutory notice to the intended purchaser or hirer. It is important to note that the Bill uses the expression "hand" rather than "deliver", since delivery could be made through the letter box and not necessarily in person.
Subsection (2) specifies that the notice is to be handed either to the intended customer or to a person acting on his behalf. The statement is to be in the prescribed form. "Prescribed" is a word which is used elsewhere and is defined in Clause 8(1) as meaning prescribed by regulations made by the Board of Trade. In any event, it will have to state the name and address of the salesman and of his employer and the nature of his business.
Perhaps it would be convenient to note at this stage that in Clause 7(2) the Board of Trade is required to consult persons and organisations who are interested before making any such regulations, so that the trade will have an opportunity to comment upon them.
To return to Clause 1, subsection (4) contains certain exemptions. It might be argued that subsection (4,b) could give rise to unnecessary disputes as to evidence and could result in litigation, but it is considered that this exemption is not unreasonable. It will be for the salesman to decide whether he should seek to rely upon it. He can protect himself by handing over a copy of the notice and in appropriate circumstances he can make use of the defence afforded by a notice signed by the customer in accordance with subsection (6,c) if he thinks fit.
Clause 1(4,c) provides for the exclusion of mail order agents from the provisions of the Bill. It was not intended to include them within the Bill's scope, nor was it the desire of the sponsors to do so. Consultations have taken place with the mail order houses, and, subject to any further consideration on their part, this provision meets their case. Subsection (6,a) sets forth the consequences of non-compliance with subsection (1) and is given strength over and above the provisions of the Hire Purchase Act by making salesmen liable to criminal proceedings should they not comply with it.
Clause 2 refers to the second main proposal of the Bill. Its scope is controlled in that it only applies when offer is made in the circumstances described in the 771 opening words of Clause 1, and its scope is further reduced by the exclusion of agreements falling within the scope of subsection (4). Subsection (2) and subsection (3) are based upon the equivalent provisions of the Hire Purchase Act except that the proviso to subsection (3) puts a responsibility for the expense of removal on the hirer or buyer.
Clause 3 is analogous to Section 3 of the Hire Purchase Act except that the limits referred to may be raised by an Order made by the Board of Trade rather than by Order in Council. Clause 4 applies to agreements to which Clause 2 applies the provisions of the Hire Purchase Act, 1965.
Clause 5 empowers local authorities to bring proceedings. This Clause should afford support to the efforts of the police in dealing with the fraudulent salesman, particularly as this is often found to be a local problem and prosecutions are often likely to be in respect of a series of cases which conform to a system. It is a permissive power for the local authorities but may be of assistance to certain authorities which run their own consumer protection bureaux, as, I believe, Sheffield does, or authorities who hear of abuses, as, for instance, the one I have already referred to concerning blind people or goods purporting to be sold for blind people.
In Clause 6, it will be noted, no maximum fine is specified. This will allow the court the discretion necessary to fit the penalty to the circumstances of each particular case. Reference has already been made to Clause 7. Clause 8 refers to interpretation and Clause 9 to commencement.
I believe that the powers incorporated in the Bill will be both workable and effective. There are precedents for the application of the powers, and I should like to deal briefly with some of them. It may be asked why criminal sanctions are necessary. Although there is a high incidence of individual offences the extent of the damage in each particular case is usually of a modest order. Frankly, it is not much good telling a man who has been cheated to the extent of £10 or even £20 that he has a remedy in the civil courts.
The costs of going to court would, in this type of case, make such a course 772 quite unrealistic. The objective, therefore, is not so much to give the customer a remedy as to deter the seller from engaging in unfair methods. It is noteworthy, too, that the Molony Committee, in paragraph 527, recommended a criminal penalty. The fact that under the Hire Purchase Act there is no such offence has enabled some companies either to evade or contravene the law and damage customers; even so, civil actions are virtually unknown.
Furthermore, there are precedents in that other legislation affecting doorstep or street trading involves criminal penalties, for instance, the House to House Collections Act, 1938, and the Hawkers and Pedlars Acts. These argue that civil remedies are not appropriate in the circumstances surrounding doorstep selling where the intention has been to make the exploitation of the isolated householder less tempting to the individual salesman.
Turning to enforcement, it may be said that proof of the failure to present the identification chit on the doorstep will be difficult since it would be a matter of one man's word against that of another, but if the trader feels he needs the protection of proof he is free to use any methods to achieve this, such as the use of numbered counterfoils or the obtaining of the customer's signature. I believe that the identification chit will play the foremost part in controlling the worst abuses.
Time and again stories of deception by salesmen reach us, and I have already referred to some of them. Evidence shows that salesmen who employ such ruses are usually those employed by companies who cause the bulk of complaints and whose subsequent agreements made with customers are fraudulent; thus, there is a link between false identity and fraudulent agreement. For this reason, the view that a civil remedy is enough— that is to say, the agreement becoming unenforceable— cannot be upheld.
So often people faced with someone who is apparently a bona fide student or local authority official, offer their hospitality, and then, when they discover their mistake and realise they have a salesman in the house, find it difficult to switch their attitude from one of hospitality to one of caution and even hostility. The use of these methods should 773 not be underestimated, but they must be controlled.
I believe that many hon. Members will have had confirmed from their own experience the need for action to deal with this pressing problem. It is more than clear from information in the Consumer Council's possession that the Hire Purchase Act has by no means closed the door to abuses by some doorstep salesmen. There are some cases which it is not intended to regulate. Goods sold for cash or on credit sale for £ 30 or less are not covered.
Yet—and this is only one example—a national breakdown of the total doorstep sales of 23 electrical product fields carried out for the Consumer Council by a research organisation between September and December, 1964, revealed that 52 per cent. were for cash. So-called cash sales can involve large sums of money—for example, when an installation like a central heating system is purchased by a customer who is afforded a personal loan through the services of the salesman whose firm also acts as agent for the finance company which makes this arrangement. This is a growing evasion, but although the Consumer Council has taken the matter up with the Board of Trade I understand that the Board of Trade does not intend to extend the Hire Purchase Act to cover this case.
Neither existing law nor proposed Government legislation touch many types of sale abuses, and as there is, too, always the possibility of new rackets it is essential that a solution is sought which hits at the root of the problem.
So, finally, Mr. Speaker, I would merely reiterate that before other projected legislation can be really effective you must first be able to nail your man. People who have had no experience of the type of salesmanship against which the Bill attempts to legislate must not underestimate how sadly effective deliberate disguise of identity and purpose can be when employed by unscrupulous salesmen on the housing estates, in the streets and in the villages of the country. For this reason, I believe that the Bill will have a wide measure of support.
§ 11.30 a.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
May I, first, congratulate the hon. Member for 774 Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison) on the excellent way in which he has presented his case. Everyone in the House will agree that the object of his Bill, the protection of the consumer, is a praiseworthy one, and all hon. Members will agree that every step should be taken to achieve that purpose.
I have two minor objections which I would like to state at the outset. First of all, I do not like the title "Doorstep Selling Bill". It is not only inelegant; it is inaccurate. If one turns to Clause 1(1), one finds that it refers to transactions carried outat a place other than appropriate trade premises".A considerable number of premises other than the doorstep of private premises are therefore included.
Secondly, I do not like the expression "itinerant salesman". It reminds me of something on television: "Perry Mason in the Case of the Itinerant Salesman". I took the trouble to look up the definition of "itinerant", and I find that it meansTravelling from place to place; preaching in a circuit",and there is even one definition,of or pertaining to the regular Wesleyan ministry.I am sure that the promoter of the Bill did not intend that sort of thing. I do not know why he does not use the expression "person", or simply "salesman", instead of "itinerant salesman".
I turn now to consider what the Bill does. As I understand it, it seeks to make important additions to cases covered already by the Hire Purchase Act, 1965. That Act deals with cases of sale and cases of hire purchase. It has to be remembered that the Bill also deals with transactions of this kind. Sale agreements are covered in the 1965 Act where the purchase price is payable by five or more instalments, as also are sales where the purchase price or part of it is payable by instalments and the property does not pass except on fulfilment of some condition. So that the Bill is limited merely to transactions not covered by the 1965 Act, transactions of sale of that kind and, of course, transactions of hiring.
I agree that in regard to such transactions, the evil that the hon. Member 775 mentioned is a real one. There are millions of such transactions that take place in the country, and there are many cases where the persistent salesman induces the gullible housewife to purchase goods which, upon reflection, she does not want or need or that she decides in her judgment that she ought not to take.
The provisions requiring salesmen to disclose their names and addresses and the names and addresses of their employers as required in the Bill is a good one. It is some guard, but note it is not a guard against the confidential trickster who might give a false name. One cannot guard against that by requiring proof of identity in that way.
I like the condition about the period of reflection of four days. It was called the "pay pause" or "cooling-off period" when we had our discussion on the Hire Purchase Bill, which later became the Hire Purchase Act. I said in the course of that debate that I thought that it was an extremely good requirement, and the only regret that I had was that it was not extended to other cases. It is important in most transactions that take place in those circumstances, where a party may be induced to make a purchase, that that person should have time for reflection, time to consult her husband, time to consider the transaction in detail and decide whether to go on with it.
I said then and I say now that the Hire Purchase Act is extremely limited in its application to this principle to the cases there, and it is right that the hon. Member should seek to extend it as he does in his Bill. I also agree that his Clause about representations and warranties, which is copied from the Hire Purchase Act, 1965, is a necessary one to apply.
Having said that and appreciating that, if passed, the Bill would do a certain amount of good, I wonder if the hon. Member might not think on reflection that this really is not the right way to go about it.
I turn, for example, to Clause 1(4,b) and (c) as an illustration of the sort of difficulty into which we might get. Clause 1(4) sets out three cases of exemption where a salesman would not be required 776 to comply with the conditions set out in Clause 1(1), (2) and (3). In (4,b)…the offer to sell or let on hire is in response to an invitation (whether orally or in writing) to the itinerant salesman from the intended customer or from some other person whom the itinerant salesman had reasonable cause to believe was acting as an agent for or otherwise on behalf of the intended customer.I have read the whole of the words because I do not want to miss out anything that it seeks to do. I gather that it is intended to deal with the mail order business. But, as the words stand, supposing a woman sees a travelling salesman call on someone next door and she asks him to come and see her, or she sends her boy out to get the salesman to come to see her. That will come within the Clause and be an exemption, but why should it be?
It is not merely a Committee point, and I want to illustrate the difficulties that might arise in the Bill by another point that I wish to make. In cases under (4,b), for example, the salesman is not required to give his name and address. How does one ensure the return of the goods? In their way, they are small points, but they illustrate the danger of attempting to legislate by a Private Member's Bill.
I understand that legislation has already been initiated in another place for consumer protection. I agree entirely that the objects which the hon. Member has set out in splendid fashion in his Bill ought to be put into force in the form of a Statute. But there is a real danger that, if the hon. Member attempts to do it by a Private Member's Bill, he may create even more difficulties in the legal field. Lawyers have a tendency to bring up points in cases that occur, arguing against certain things and putting forward certain defences, and there is always the danger that we may ourselves create legal difficulties by passing a Bill of this kind.
This is a non-controversial subject. It is something that we all want to achieve. It will not be a subject-matter for opposition in the Division Lobbies, except perhaps about some point of detail. Surely the proper thing is for the Government to initiate legislation and to take steps—and I understand they are already engaged upon it—to see that these objects are achieved in a Government Bill.
777 I say that as forcefully as I can, because I understand that there are a number of associations covering the salesmen referred to in the Bill. In my constituency there is the East London Retail Credit Association. There is the London Credit Trade Association, and there is also a national body, the Retail Credit Federation. I have made some inquiries, and some of the bodies—and there may be others—complain that they have not been consulted. When there are associations of that kind it is very important for them to be told of the proposals being put forward. They should be asked for their views on them, and consulted about what should be done.
I say that particularly in view of a letter which I received only this morning—and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has received a copy of it—from the Retail Credit Federation. It says that it has 2,500 member firms employing 150,000 salesmen-collectors, and for a long time has been carrying on the business of selling a large range of useful household goods, clothing and equipment on reasonable credit terms. The federation is concerned about this problem, and it is anxious that something should be done, but it goes on to say that it regards the Bill submitted now asquite unacceptable. In its opinion, it may well prove an advantage rather than a deterrent to the real 'doorstep shark', and it may do serious harm to the invaluable services performed by legitimate and long-established retail credit traders …. Furthermore, many of its provisions are likely to prove unworkable and unenforceable.
§ Mr. Ian Gilmour (Norfolk, Central)
Can the hon. and learned Gentleman say whether the federation gave any reasons for saying that the Bill would be likely to do more harm than good?
§ Mr. Weitzman
I wanted merely to illustrate the legal difficulties which might arise from the provisions of the Bill. It is not my duty to put forward details of how it will be unworkable. All I am saying is that here is a federation comprised of persons who are the subject-matter of the Bill, and, having looked at the Bill, it says that many of its provisions are likely to prove unworkable and unenforceable. The hon. Gentleman's interruption is valuable in that it shows that these people ought to have been consulted and asked why they say that the pro- 778 visions will be unworkable and unenforceable.
§ Mr. Charles Morrison
The Retail Credit Federation has been consulted. It agrees with some of the proposals in the Bill, but not all of them.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I was going on to say that the Federation takes the view that there should be much more research and preparatory drafting work, and it adds:In particular, the Federation regrets that the publication of the Bill only a few days before the Second Reading debate has made it quite impossible for its members to submit their considered views about it to their Members of Parliament before the said debate.With respect to the hon. Member for Devizes, that contradicts what he said in his intervention. The federation may have been consulted, but the letter to which I have just referred is dated 23rd February, only two days ago. In addition, a number of my constituents who are members of the East London Retail Credit Association have been in touch with me and told me that as far as they know no communication of any kind has been made to that association. They did not know what the proposals were, and in those circumstances they were unable to consider them, or to make any suggestions.
§ The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. George Darling)
I wonder, so that we may get this point clear, whether I would be in order in asking the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison) whether the federation was consulted on the terms of the Bill, or whether the consultations took place during the negotiations for the preparation of the Bill? If the negotiations went on after the Bill was published, they could hardly be called consultations about the terms of the Bill.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I do not like interventions on interventions, but I will allow it in this case.
§ Mr. Charles Morrison
The federation was consulted before the Bill was published. I should have made that clear. The Consumer Council appreciated that the federation did not agree with all the proposals in the Bill, although it applauded the idea of having greater control of doorstep sales.
§ Mr. Weitzman
That is my real objection. When it is proposed to put fordard a Bill of this kind, surely the right thing to do is to put its provisions before the federation and ask for its detailed views. There may be objections to different parts of the Bill, and the difference between a Bill of this kind, put forward in the form of a Private Member's Bill, and a Bill put forward by the Government, through the Board of Trade, is that the Board of Trade always takes the greatest care to obtain representations from every interested party which might be affected, and, in our discussions on the Bill, whether on Second Reading or in Committee, we can then put forward views sent to us by these bodies and discuss them in detail. Here, on a Friday morning, we have a Second Reading of a Bill which has been introduced in excellent fashion, and with splendid objectives, but the hon. Gentleman has not had real consultations with the bodies concerned.
§ Mr. Peter Emery (Reading)
A particular point is being made about consultation. Would not the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) agree that over the last few years the build-up towards the drafting of the Bill has been carried out by a special committee of the Consumer Council on which the Retail Credit Federation played a considerable part? That is the information which I have, and I believe it to be correct.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but that is all the more reason why this should be a Government Bill. The hon. Gentleman has put the case better than I can. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams) put forward a Bill which was not accepted by the Government which the hon. Gentleman supported on the ground that it was far better that the Government should do it. We then had a Bill put forward by the former Government, based on the Molony Committee Report. In that case there was the build-up to which I have referred. It is the duty of the Government, having all the material before them, to put forward provisions of this kind for consumer protection. But I stress that this must be done by the Government. I appreciate the objects of the Bill, but I still think that it would be better if this kind of Bill were intro- 780 duced by the Government, and I hope that they will pursue this matter to ensure that they introduce some of the excellent provisions of this Bill.
One suggestion made to me by one of my constituents is worthy of consideration. I do not know whether it will work, but he says that each of the bodies to which I have referred has a code of conduct, and that part of the code of conduct is that if a legitimate complaint with regard to goods is made by a purchaser, there is an obligation on the part of the member of that federation or body to take back the goods. His suggestion is that it would be an excellent idea if all salesmen were members of some body, and had to subscribe to a code of conduct. If it were considered, in the same way as it is by certain professional bodies that if they did not do so it would constitute disgraceful conduct on their part, they would be dismissed from membership. That might be an excellent sanction. I appreciate that it may be unworkable in some ways and might lead to criticism, but it is worth considering.
The objects of the Bill are very worthy, but in my opinion they can be achieved only by a Government Bill. With respect to the hon. Member, I suggest that this is not the way in which the matter should be dealt with.
§ 11.50 a.m.
§ Mr. Humphrey Atkins (Merton and Morden)
The hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) began by welcoming the Bill and what it was trying to do, but towards the end of his speech he veered away from this position and ended by saying that he could not support it because it was not a Government Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison), whom I also want to congratulate upon introducing the Bill, and upon the manner in which he did so, is supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am one of those Members, but I do not think that any of us would grumble if the Government were to say, "We will take this out of your hands and introduce a Bill directly to do what you are trying to do." Although I cannot speak for my hon. Friend, if the Government are going to say that, I do not believe that he would object, or that the rest of the House would object.
781 The truth is that the Government have not taken any initiative in this matter. They have not introduced a Bill on this subject. They have taken initiatives in other ways. A Measure concerning the protection of consumers is now going through another place, but it does not cover this point, and from what my hon. Friend has said it seems to me that there is a need for legislation to regulate the conduct of itinerant salesman, even if the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North does not like the word "itinerant".
Anyone who promotes a Bill has to do two things. First, he has to show that there is a need and, secondly, that his Bill is the right vehicle for dealing with the problem. My hon. Friend showed beyond doubt that there is a need. The Molony Committee said that there is a definite need to deal with the problem. The Consumer Council has a large register of complaints about the actions of itinerant salesmen, about which nothing can be done under existing legislation. I am sure that many hon. Members have had the same experience that I have had—of being caught by one or more of these people.
I have been caught twice—in both cases by the appearance on my front doorstep of Commonwealth students who represented that they were trying to work their way through college, or earn a scholarship to some institution, by carrying out what they described as a series of calls on people to discover their views on current matters. They asked if they could come in and talk to me about this. When they got inside we discussed my views on current matters for a few moments, but it soon became obvious that their only object in getting me to talk about current affairs was to discover in what subjects I was interested and, therefore, which of a series of magazines which they then produced, I was most likely to buy.
I frankly admit that on both occasions I was caught, for the reason that once the students had got inside and had become guests in my house it became very difficult for me immediately to alter my attitude and throw them out. I give them credit; they did their job very well. But it is wrong that people should be able to gain admittance to other people's houses on what amounts to false pretences. In both the cases to 782 which I have referred there is no question but that the sole exercise was to sell me something. And yet on both occasions, until the salesman got inside he pretended that he was there for something else. This seems to be an experience common to many hon. Members, and it is repeated in respect of people outside the House on far too many occasions.
Is this Bill the proper means of dealing with the matter? There are many alternatives to the ones proposed in it, but there are objections to all of them. I feel that we should always be careful before introducing legislation which creates other crimes—and that is what the Bill proposes. We should exercise the utmost care before adding to the list of offences known to the law. But this cannot be done effectively in any other way than that proposed in the Bill. After considerable inquiry the Molony Committee discarded a system of licensing, declaring that this would not meet the problem.
It may be argued that we ought to rely upon a civil remedy—that is to say, rely solely upon the fact that a contract obtained by this dubious means is unenforceable in law. I suggest that this is not enough. A rogue salesman, knowing that his contract may be unenforceable, would still have an incentive to try to get it, because many people would not know it was unenforceable and he would have nothing to lose.
He could get into a house by means which we all deplore and obtain his contract, knowing that although in a number of cases he might not be able to enforce that contract there would be other cases—and I suggest that there would be many of them—when the buyer would not know that he had this remedy, in which case the contract would go through even though the buyer did not want it to.
§ Mr. W. T. Williams (Warrington)
Does not the hon. Member agree that a much simpler way to deal with the problem than these heavy penal provisions would be to provide that the statutory document should have printed on it in big letters, "This contract is not enforceable unless its terms are kept"? In those circumstances there could be no doubt that in 99.9 per cent. of all cases the purchasers would know what the situation was.
§ Mr. Atkins
I think that the hon. and learned Member has got it wrong, because the penalty arises only if the salesman does not show the statutory card displaying his name and address. Is he suggesting that that card should display those words?
§ Mr. Williams
I will not prolong the debate by dealing with that point now. I shall seek to catch Mr. Speaker's eye.
§ Mr. Atkins
I am sure that the hon. and learned Member will be able to make his point clearly if he catches Mr. Speaker's eye. If we are going to rely solely on the fact that contracts obtained in this way will be unenforceable there will not be a deterrent to these salesmen, because they will continue to try to obtain them, whereas if we make it an offence for them to use these methods to try to obtain a contract it will be a much more severe deterrent and will achieve the object that we are all seeking to achieve, namely, to stop rogue salesmen gaining access to people's houses and obtaining contracts in the manner that I have described.
§ Mr. Darling
One point about all the speeches made up to now has confused me. The matter ought to be cleared up. First, who will issue the statutory notice? Secondly, how will its issue prevent anybody getting into a house in a pestiferous way?
§ Mr. Darling indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Atkins
Perhaps this point can be cleared up later by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes. They will prescribe a form of the statutory notice. The hon. Gentleman's second point, about this not stopping people getting into the house in a pestiferous way—
§ Mr. Atkins
In this way, I suggest. When the occupier of the house is confronted by this figure on the doorstep, he will not admit this person without knowing that the man is a salesman who will try to sell him something. He may behave unpleasantly inside—the Bill does not try to stop that. What it tries to do is stop people getting into houses on the 784 pretence of conducting a market survey or something of that kind when they have come to sell goods.
This is the object of the exercise. If before the salesman enters the house he has declared himself to be a salesman, this is achieved. If the occupier likes to let him in after that, he is at liberty to do so.
The Bill has been criticised by the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North for not being perfect, and I do not suggest that it is. I suggest, however, that it is an honest attempt to rid the country of what is fast becoming an evil, that its principle will be acceptable to the whole House and that its detail can safely be left to Committee. I hope, therefore, that the House will give it a Second Reading.
§ 12.1 p.m.
§ Mr. W. T. Williams (Warrington)
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison), who has introduced the Bill with such charm and persuasiveness. It will appear from the Title to the Bill that I am one of its sponsors, but I am not without criticism of the Bill. It may appear, before I sit down, that it was a little surprising that I should have sponsored it in the first place. However, I am sure that the hon. Member for Devizes, at least, will aquit me of stabbing him in the back on this because the matters which I will now seek to introduce to the House are matters which I have canvassed with him very fully so he knows their subject matter.
That is not to say that, because I criticise the Bill, I think the idea behind it is not a good one. When I was initially asked to sponsor a Bill of this kind, I was happy to do so, because it represents an interest of mine which I have pursued loyally if not efficiently during all the years I have been in the House. It was in 1950, shortly after my election to the House, that I was fortunate enough to win the Ballot—the only time I ever won such a Ballot—and then introduced a discussion on the Lloyd Jacob Report on Consumer Protection.
It was many years later that I sought to introduce a Hire Purchase Bill, which met an untimely fate, but this was redeemed, I think, by the fact that every 785 single Clause in the Bill which I then introduced—although speaker after speaker from the then Government side of the House said that they were impracticable—was adopted and introduced in a Bill presented by that Government. The hon. Member's Bill may, of course, share the same fate, but I give him fair warning that he will not get commission as a Parliamentary agent for helping the Government in the drafting of their Bills.
The gravamen of my criticisms of the Bill falls under three headings. In the first place, the Bill tries to do too much and will achieve too little. Secondly, the Bill has fallen into the trap into which far too many of the legislative attempts of recent years fall—namely, it attempts to put additional penal Clauses on to the Statute Book. After a professional life spent at least partly in the criminal law, my view very strongly is that this is a tendency which should be resisted. Thirdly, the Bill's sanctions are too difficult to implement.
I will deal, first, with the difficulties which arise because of the complications of the Bill. I wanted to support a Bill—I thought when I agreed to do so that this was what I was doing—which was simple and which intended to do two things. The first was to protect the innocent or gullible householder from being gulled, being talked into doing something which on reflection he or she would not have done—not necessarily dishonestly, but merely by good sales talk. Secondly, I hoped that it would put the doorstep salesman on the same footing as a salesman in a shop, no better and no worse.
What has happened in the Bill is a good deal more than that, because it tries to create a foolproof system of consumer protection on the doorstep or in other places than an appropriate trade premises. This is just not possible in a Bill of this kind. In the first place, the difficulty which arises immediately is that, without the enormous research available to a Government Department, for a private Member—even though supported by an organisation like the Consumer Council—to try to do this enormous job creates as many difficulties as it seeks to solve.
I will give one illustration of the difficulty. If one says to the honest but too voluble, persuasive, or eloquent 786 salesman, "When you go to a house, the first thing you must do is present a document which, even after you have left, and your eloquence has faded, he can look at and read and come to conclusions about in the quiet of his own home. If, on reflection, he decides that he has been talked into purchasing something which he does not really want, power is then given to that householder, with your name and address and the terms of the agreement made between you, on certain conditions, to return the goods. Honour will then be satisfied on both sides."
Well and good, but if, in addition, we try to create legal conditions which will prevent roguery, all we will do is invite further roguery. For this reason: let us assume that the man is not just over-persuasive, but is dishonest. He goes to a house and presents what appears to be—or, in fact, is—a statutory form, but on which every single item is false—all the written matter, the name and address of the tradesman, the place to which the goods can be returned, all the matters which are of importance and which have to be filled in by the tradesman.
Therefore, far from being protected, the unfortunate householder thinks that this is perfectly all right: the statutory form has been given, so it must be all right. The unscrupulous salesman collects his 10 per cent. deposit, or, perhaps, the whole amount, disappears in the distance, and is never seen or heard of again. Therefore, instead of doing good, all that has been done is harm.
On the other hand, if we restrict this and leave aside the penal Clauses, but, instead, provide that the householder shall have no other right than the same right as would apply in a shop of having the matter explained, making a purchase in proper form, possibly to avoid unnecessary expenditure, not being required in the case of sums of over £2 to have a waiting period of three days before the remainder is paid, but of being able to return the goods and no other sanction arising, the salesman in question is in no different position from the salesman in the shop and the householder is under no other compulsion than the compulsion to part with a relatively small sum which, if honestly parted with, can be recovered, 787 and, if parted with to a dishonest salesman, can be pursued under the existing law of fraud.
In these circumstances, it would seem to me that the existing law provides for the dishonest salesman who is guilty of fraud, but does not lay on the prosecuting authorities, the authorities having power of punishment, still further burdens which should not be imposed on them.
Another similar difficulty to which the Minister of State has referred is that the Bill shows some signs of lacuna of a kind which, if the Bill is to be applied, must be dealt with. A statutory notice is required under Clause 1. Nowhere in the Bill, either in the form of a Schedule or in any other way, is there provision to make any statutory body, any Government organ, responsible for the statutory order.
§ Mr. Atkins
I think that there is, because Clause 1(3,d) provides that the statutory notice shallcontain such other particulars as may be prescribed".In the definition Clause,'prescribed' means prescribed by the Board of Trade by regulations.
§ Mr. Williams
The regulations first have to be prescribed by the Board of Trade. The Board of Trade has permissive power to make such regulations. It may decline to use the power. If, therefore, one wants to impose powers of introducing statutory orders the power of producing the statutory notice should be included in the Bill in the form of a schedule and attributed to an organ of Government. This is one of the difficulties of this sort of Bill. I do not want to labour the point any more than that.
A matter which is as important is this. The Bill, once more, runs in the true fashion of modern legislation in wanting to put on the Statute Book more penal provisions. This is undesirable in itself. Our prisons are already full, and real criminals are becoming increasingly recidivist because proper attention is not paid to them in prison. The Bill seeks to provide for conviction on indictment imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months. This is in itself an undesirable provision, but in this case it is 788 even more undesirable because the civil remedy for innocent misrepresentation or misrepresentation of a kind which does not justify criminal proceedings is either already available, or is being made available by legislation passing through one or other of the Houses of Parliament.
The salesman is required at the beginning of a transaction to give a notice setting out the matters dealt with in the Bill—his name and address, the terms and conditions of the agreement, the subject matter of the goods to be sold and similar things—would it not be more sensible to put on the front of the notice, in large letters a statement to the purchaser that the only conditions on which the terms of the agreement are enforceable are that all those terms are observed and the attention of the householder is drawn to them. Once that is done, the sale of, say, an encyclopaedia for £160, which is a conmon example, is unforceable unless the seller can prove that notice had been given by having the signature of the householder, or something to show that a receipt had been obtained. If the householder refutes that, there is no need for the householder to go to court. The duty laid on the seller will be the duty to enforce the contract.
As things stand, even under the Bill, assuming that an enforcing authority can be found, which I doubt, the unfortunate man or woman who is swindled by a dishonest salesman, or is talked into doing something by a verbose, honest salesman, will have to go to court and give evidence of the representations and will have laid on the complainant the onus to establish the proof of the complaint. If a civil remedy is pursued, on the other hand, and sufficient publicity is given to it so that it becomes part of the pattern of common life, the duty would be for the seller to enforce the contract.
All that the purchaser need do is to say, "Take your goods back. I do not want them." There is no power in the salesman thereafter to enforce the purchase price. In a sophisticated society such as ours, although there are fringe people who do not understand, after 16 years of holding a constituency clinic, I think it unlikely that shortly after a Bill of this kind had become law, with consequent publicity being given to it, a large 789 number of people would be unaware of their rights and would not go to their citizens' advice bureau or Member of Parliament to complain that they had been treated harshly.
There remains this other matter which, in my judgment, is offensive and which the Bill does not sufficiently take into account. Clause 5 provides, irrespective of the rights of "any other person"—I presume that that means that if the individual affected is sufficiently interested he will make it his business to prosecute-thatthe following bodies shall have power to institute proceedings for an offence under this Act…There are a number of statutory authorities laid down, county councils, borough councils, non-county borough councils, urban district councils and the rural district councils. The hon. Gentleman knows, as does everyone who takes a close interest in this subject, that almost every one of these authorities has said that it would resist an attempt to make it a prosecuting authority. Everyone knows that the police take the same view. If the powers are made they will have to accept them, but they do not want them, and, so far as lies in their power, have already declared that they will resist an attempt to put upon them the duty of prosecution.
This leads me to something I said earlier. I said that if the doorstep salesman is guilty of an offence there is adequate provision under present law, should he defraud or cheat.
§ Mr. Atkins
If the hon. and learned Gentleman looks at Clause 5 again he will see that it is not the duty of the local authorities to prosecute. All that is proposed is that they should have the power.
§ Mr. Williams
I was about to say that under present law, or by legislation at present passing through Parliament, there will be the power to deal with acts of dishonesty and fraud. I had the feeling that one of the resistances put up against this point was that prosecutions were not taking place. This is because the pressures and burdens laid upon authorities, including the police, is already too heavy, and the Bill would put further pressure upon them.
790 It is true that local authorities will have the power under the Bill but it is not mandatory. If, when the Bill becomes an Act, these authorities have the right to decide whether or not to prosecute, having already said that they have not got the officers to make inquiries and pursue prosecutions, it would seem that the law would be brought into contempt, because they would not prosecute. In those circumstances, fraudulent salesmen would realise that prosecutions were not being taken and the statutory protection provided would be less, not greater.
Having begun by saying that I was a signatory of the Bill I am sorry that I have done nothing but criticise and oppose it. I do so in the belief that it is important that some protection should be given against unscrupulous salesmen, but that the Bill goes too far and places the shopkeeper in an infinitely superior position. It does nothing to protect the honest salesman, and this should have been part of the Bill. In my judgment, because of this it increase difficulties which might be faced in trying to deal with what is admittedly a public scandal. Because the Bill is too difficult, and the need could have been met by a much less punitive measure I regret that I am unable to support it as it now stands.
So far as anything I said may have influence on the hon. Gentleman, I would suggest to him that, having ventilated the matter and shown the need for legislation within the hearing of my hon. Friend—who, I hope, will remain in this or a higher capacity on the Bench for a long time—he should leave it to the Government in the hope that the Bill will be sponsored by them, as was my Hire Purchase Bill.
§ 12.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)
Some years ago I supported the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams) in his Hire Purchase Bill. A few weeks later the hon. and learned Gentleman was kind enough to support me on a consumer protection Bill which I introduced. At that time his support was rather more forthcoming than it has been for the Bill which nominally anyhow he has helped to sponsor. To strike a party political note, it is not at all surprising or unusual to find hon. Members opposite supporting Bills in theory but, in practice, criticising 791 them on the Floor of the House, and, doing this on even more important legislation than we have before us now.
I was somewhat surprised to hear the criticism from hon. Members who have spoken from the benches opposite, on the lines that this subject can only be tackled by a Government Bill, sponsored by the Board of Trade. It is no secret that the hon. Gentleman for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison), who moved this Bill, has been helped by the Consumer Council. I thought that when the Consumer Council was set up hon. Members opposite hoped it would help to make legislative suggestions and support the preparation of such Bills. It is entirely proper for the Council to give the sort of support that it has done and it is entirely in line with what hon. Gentlemen opposite have been asking for in the past. There is some force in the arguments of the hon. and learned Gentleman about the penal sections of this Bill. When we come to Committee stage, we should look at this carefully on the lines he has suggested.
Like my hon. Friend who has supported this Bill, I too have had some confrontation with doorstep salesmen. I know that there is no depth to which some of the more unscrupulous men will not sink. Not so very long ago a gentleman engaged me in conversation and said that he wished to seek my advice as a recognised national leader on the subject of education. Naturally this was irresistible, and so the conversation opened. Within 60 seconds I discovered that he wished to sell me an encyclopaedia. Within another 60 seconds the conversation closed.
I speak with some feeling on this matter, as my wife is an almost compulsive buyer of encyclopaedias from doorstep salesmen. We have a number of godchildren, and when the encyclopaedia salesman arrives she buys sets of encyclopaedias and sends them to the godchildren. I am happy to say that the quota of godchildren is now entirely filled. I must also say that the godchildren have been far too polite ever to complain about the products they have received.
But if my own family's contacts with doorstep salesmen sometimes border on the ludicrous, the researchers of the Consumer Council and of the Consumer 792 Association have no doubt that very large numbers of people feel bruised and aggrieved by some of their contacts with doorstep salesmen. For example, the Consumer Association yesterday received a letter from a member who was sold a vacuum cleaner by a doorstep salesman. She was told that this was a new model of vacuum cleaner that had not yet got into the shops, and she bought it. Next day she discovered that the model had been on sale for more than two years and was being sold in her local shop for £8 less than she had parted with to the salesman.
At the moment, that person has no redress, but Clause 2 provides a four-day cooling-off period during which a housewife can make comparisons of price and quality. It is Clause 2 that the Consumer Association particularly supports, believing most strongly that the ability to make comparisons of price and quality is of the essence of consumer protection.
I am somewhat perplexed by the glancing reference to services in the rubric:Requirements as to certain agreements for goods or services.There is no further mention of services in that Clause, yet we ought to pay considerable attention to them, and they should be a matter for some debate in Committee—because, despite the strictures from hon. Members opposite, I hope that this Bill, which has been so ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, will have a Second Reading, and go to a Standing Committee.
§ 12.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison) on the manner of his advocacy in opening this debate, on the work he has put into the Bill and, of course, on his good fortune in the Ballot. As he knows, I was myself taking steps to introduce a Measure on this subject when his good fortune made my efforts abortive. Nevertheless, I have tried to be of some assistance to him and will try to help further in the course of my speech. I very much hope that the purpose of his Bill will have a good reception on both sides of the House.
I should like to pay tribute also to the Consumer Council, which has given notable service in this field, and I know 793 that the hon. Member feels considerable indebtedness to it for the help it has afforded him. Tribute is also due to the British co-operative movement, which is itself a nationwide movement for the protection of consumers. For me, one of the outstanding features of the present Parliament has been the unremitting efforts of hon. Members associated with the co-operative movement in probing the activities of the less scrupulous doorstep traders. It is sad that during this debate we shall not have a contribution from that great champion of consumer protection, the late Norman Dodds, who was until recently the Labour and Co-operative Member for Erith and Crayford. He was a dour fighter for consumer protection and against unscrupulous doorstep salesmen. I am sure the whole House will agree with that. Consumers everywhere lost a very good friend with his untimely death.
Now, for my part, I do not suggest that all doorstep salesmen are undesirable and unscrupulous. We have already heard today of the large number of highly reputable doorstep traders, and I would emphasise that those who are unscrupulous are the minority. I pay tribute to the very many itinerant traders whose conduct and record alike are wholly unexceptionable. But it should be recognised that to strengthen consumer protection is also to help the fair trader, whether he is in fixed premises or is one of the very decent and trustworthy doorstep traders. In relation to doorstep frauds, I should like to give two examples to which I think consumers should pay particular attention.
First, it can now be shown that many companies instruct their representatives to conceal their purpose in calling at houses so that they may obtain the confidence of prospective victims by pretending to be something other than doorstep salesmen. The tout comes in a variety of guises. He may masquerade as a B.B.C. audience researcher, an emissary of the vicar, a representative of a local education authority, an officer of a local or county council, or even as an orphan who wants to pay his way through college. The Consumer Council, in its magazine Focus, states:The reason for this deceit is that it is a well-proven aid to sales. People are almost unbelievably vulnerable when they have invited a caller to enter their homes. It seems that very few quickly readjust their attitude from 794 hospitality to hostility, and when the visitor offers his wares they are likely to succumb.I have taken a special interest in this matter and have tabled Parliamentary Questions as well as making representations about the methods of doorstep magazine salesmen to the Board of Trade. They are usually young salesmen who often spuriously claim that they are overseas students, usually Canadian. They ask for subscriptions to North American magazines, copies of which are not shown. They gain sympathy, often from old people, by claiming that what they earn from sales will help them to win a prize or scholarship to a university. They also represent themselves as students working their way through college and claim that their sales ability is part of a character assessment—"rather like the Duke of Edinburgh's scheme"—and that they are seeking points to make a sufficient total for them to win a prize.
Copies of the magazines they sell may take up to three months, or even longer, to arrive. When they arrive they may not be the ones which have been ordered, and the price printed on them is usually much less than the subscription which has been asked for by the salesman. Some of these magazines can be obtained through ordinary newsagents for roughly two-thirds of the amount asked for by the salesmen.
Another matter in which I have been particularly interested is doorstep selling of heating systems. We should emphasise to consumers that they should be very careful in dealings with itinerant salesmen of heating systems. Householders should ask a salesman for the name and address of the firm he represents, its telephone number and registered office. They should then compare the systems proposed by the salesman with those which can be obtained through electricity board service centres. They should also check that the installation will be done by a nationally listed contractor. I spent some years in the electricity supply industry and I think the activities of doorstep salesmen of heating systems is worthy of the closest possible attention by this House. The usual installations sold by unscrupulous high-pressure salesmen are portable electric radiators which can be switched on and off in the usual way. But householders find that they cannot use 795 the cheaper rate of electricity supplied through the boards for systems operating at off-peak rates. The systems offered by the salesman are, therefore, very costly to run.
I hope the Minister of State at the Board of Trade will be able to give a constructive reply to the speeches which have been made in the debate in support of increased consumer protection in regard to doorstep sales. He has worked very hard for consumer protection and his efforts have been attended by a good measure of success. He can feel proud of the Protection of Consumers (Trade Descriptions) Bill, which is now being considered in another place. What is especially interesting about that Bill is that for the first time it gives local authorities power to enforce consumer protection. People will now know where to go for advice and this is a very important step in the right direction.
Like some hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, I hope that the Minister of State will not ask those on this side of the House to vote against this Bill and that it will be given a Second Reading today. I do, of course, agree that people cannot escape some measure of personal responsibility if they are defrauded on the doorstep and that young married couples are especially vulnerable. Their needs for domestic appliances sometimes exceed their financial resources. From representations made to me I have found that young married women are especially vulnerable to this type of salesmanship. We should tell them what was said to David Copperfield. The House will recall the advice given to him by Mr. Micawber:My … advice, Copperfield …Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure, nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure, twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and—and, in short, you are for ever floored.Consumers cannot themselves escape responsibility, but that is no reason for not legislating for more protection. I hope the Bill will be given a Second Reading, even if it is argued that it will require considerable amendment in Committee.
§ 12.47 p.m.
§ Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)
The hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) has made a bold speech and a constructive one, like many of the speeches we have heard today. As a Member of Parliament closely associated with this problem I have been collecting a lengthy dossier, but in this debate I have learnt very much more of what I do not know about the problem rather than what I do know.
I welcome the opportunity of making a contribution to the debate and the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison) has made this effort by way of a Bill to regularise the activity of doorstep selling. I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill and claim some credit for persuading him to choose this as his subject when he was lucky in the Ballot.
I pay tribute to the Consumer Council, which was devised by the previous Government to deal with problems of this kind. It is right that the Consumer Council should not only interest itself in this problem, but should be active in this field particularly in helping my hon. Friend. It has been most helpful already in dealing with what is a difficult problem. I pay tribute to the fact that as far back as January, 1965 it published a document called "How to Say No to a Doorstep Salesman."
I do not think that too much publicity can be given to the problem and the fact that such a brochure has been printed and is available. It reminds us that we should not feel sorry for the salesman and should not sign anything unless we are sure what it means. It deals with switch selling, special inducements, and the purchase of educational books, magazines, central heating systems and even with the problem of fire extinguisher salesmen.
My task is not so much to talk about the Bill as about the problem as I see it and have seen it. There is already too much legislation. Before new laws are passed we must have evidence that there is an abuse and be satisfied that there is a solution to remove it. In this case both these requirements have been met in the form of the Bill, but I am conscious of the need not to take sledgehammer to crack a nut.
797 In one way, my concern is that the Bill does not go far enough. I am aware of the Hawkers and Pedlars Acts, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes referred. I am concerned that we put the lower limit at £2. Any salesman entering a house, whatever the requirement, should if necessary be forced by law, but should certainly be obliged to indicate his name and that of the company for whom he is operating, whatever the type of sale, including direct doorstep selling.
I come to the exclusion in Clause 1 (4,b):the offer to sell or let on hire is in response to an invitation (whether orally or in writing)".Many people answer Press advertisements and fill in coupons. Persons coming with coupons should be forced by law to comply, and, therefore, this exemption should be deleted. I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Mr. Peter Emery) to give me his opinion on this.
The problem is that many housewives, particularly young housewives with perhaps one or two children, find it difficult to get out. Many have no car. There are many elderly and lonely people. There are other examples of people who find it difficult to get out and who are anxious to make purchases. Their opportunities for window shopping are limited. It is invariably attractive to buy things at home. I live in the country and I know that it is convenient to have people come to the house to sell things. I am not opposed to this, because it is a form of selling which is attractive. However, the fact is that there are many women who are tied to the kitchen sink and who are undoubtedly a sitting target for one more technique of sophisticated high-pressure selling.
How are we to protect the housewife. In Sheffield, there is a consumer protection officer and a Citizens Advice Bureau, of which the Minister of State is well aware. Above all, there is Press publicity. As I come from Sheffield, I should like to pay tribute to the work which has been done in this regard by the local Press, and especially Sheffield Telegraph.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) described 798 some of his experiences in purchasing encyclopaedias. After listening to my hon. Friend's speech, I am well aware that I am one of those who was persuaded over several years to buy an encyclopaedia by means of these techniques. My recollection is that the salesman used a sophisticated technique. He telephoned me first, after writing. I believe that at one stage I even returned a coupon. It took three or four years to persuade me to make up my mind. But I have no objection to legitimate selling of this type, and the fact that the salesman concerned persuaded me that my bookshelf was empty and that I needed to have more knowledge at my elbow.
We have from Sheffield a recent account of the activities of a firm called Preferred Publications Ltd. Its headquarters are in Regent Street. It is a subsidiary of a Canadian firm. It is fair to tell the House that this company "denied pressure tactics" to a reporter. What happened was that one constituent of mine among several was subjected to visits by two separate salesmen. She was offered a free 900-page medical guide. She paid a £2 deposit, the first of 13 monthly instalments, for four American magazines. She later objected to this and was interviewed by the local Press. I wish to relate the words she used to the Press:I said I did not want the offer, but it was obvious he was not prepared to leave. He just carried on talking. I do not know why I signed, really to get rid of him as much as anything, I suppose.Subsequently there was difficulty about returning the deposit, even though she did not want the goods.
Another person from the same area described her experiences in this way:After inquiring as to the number in family, he then went on to tell me about his wonderful medical book and all the help it offered to the home…After elaborating on this she continued:He then produced pen and paper to write down my name and address to which I straightaway told him I would not give him permission to do this and again and again said, 'Sorry, no'. I then dragged the door open from behind him and shouted, 'No, thank you', to which he stepped outside looking very displeased.These are letters which I have received in the last few days.
799 Another correspondent writes:The salesman rang the bell several times and I had to interrupt—for a telephone call—to answer the door, with the receiver still in my hand.I have spoken to the people who have been affected by these incidents. Everyone in the House is aware of the extent to which the housewife is vulnerable to persistency.
This morning I telephoned the manager of Preferred Publications and spoke about the activities of his company in Sheffield which had been referred to in the local Press. He said that the company had a good business in Canada and was opening up in this country, but so far with limited success. I advised him that I intended to speak in a debate in the House of Commons and that I should refer to his company.
To be fair, I asked for his views. I spoke to him about Clause 1 (3) concerning the name and address of the salesman and of the salesman's company. He said, "We comply with that. Every salesman has a card indicating his name and that of the company for which he works." I then asked him about the provision for four days' notice which was in the Bill. He said, "We comply with that. The goods are sent C.O.D. and the persons concerned are at liberty to return the goods."
There have been many other cases in my city. I want to refer to only one more. Last July, the vice-chairman of Caxton Holdings Ltd. publicly dissociated himself from the selling techniques of his firm. It so happened that a reporter on one of the local newspapers, Mr. Barry Lloyd-Jones, signed on as a prospective salesman. He gave a very good account of his activities in a Press article. This is how he described some of the sales patter he was taught:Before the selling campaign begins we wish to place a number of these libraries into the homes of a few families in order to get public opinion. You see, a product of this nature needs a tremendous amount of advertising and with this in mind I am authorised to put a business proposition to you.This is a detestable approach to break down people's resistance. These are problems which somehow or other the House must deal with.
800 I have been rather surprised at the comments of the Retail Credit Federation. Like other hon. Members, I have received a circular from the federation, which states:The Federation, however, regards the Bill now submitted to Parliament as quite unacceptable. In its opinion, it may well prove an advantage rather than a deterrent to the real 'doorstep shark' ".Then the federation complains that there has not been adequate consultation. I spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes about this only a few days ago. He has assured me that there has been consultation. I find from my files that as far back as June there is a reference to a meeting on this subject with the Consumer Council, when the Council discussed likely legislation. This was before my hon. Friend was even lucky in the Ballot. The federation's circular is slightly misleading, because there has been consultation.
But the problem of doorstep selling must be dealt with. There are various things which we could do, quite apart from legislation. One hon. Member mentioned the need for an institute of salesmen with an adequate code of conduct. I hope that such an institute will be set up, whatever action the House takes. The second thing which could be done is to teach the housewife how to look after herself against this persistency. I have illustrated the type of persistency with which "so many people" are only too familiar.
The brochure published by the Consumer Council is one way of helping the housewife to protect herself; and the Bill will undoubtedly help. The fact that the salesman has to have a card indicating the company for which he works and bearing his own name means that it is possible to "nail" the salesman. In certain cities there are consumer protection officers and bureaux, such as in Sheffield, which have been set up by the local authority. This justifies Clause 5, which gives powers to the local authority to prosecute. Those powers apply also in another Bill, and I think they should apply in this case. I applaud the fact that the Bill provides four days' notice of terminating an agreement. It gives the wife a chance to consult her husband.
The Bill provides a means of dealing with the problem immediately. The 801 Minister of State knows that if the Government want to take action they can do so, however bad may be a Private Member's Bill. I give him credit for helping me with my Private Member's Bill, the Trading Stamps Act. He was in opposition then, but with good will on both sides we obtained a Bill which was worth while. Therefore, I hope he will give my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes every encouragement and help with the Bill now before the House.
If the Bill is weak, Amendments can be considered in Committee, and I hope that this fact will be brought out in the Minister's winding-up speech. Obviously, this is an effort to deal with a very difficult and urgent problem. This Bill provides a vehicle for dealing with this urgent problem and I hope the Minister of State will agree to give the Bill every support and that the House will give it a Second Reading.
§ 1.2 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. George Darling)
I think that it might be helpful if I were now to respond to the request put to me by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn) and explain the Government's view on the Bill. I have been rather astonished at the gullibility of some hon. Members who, apparently, have been persuaded to buy things that they did not want.
§ Mr. Darling
I was thinking rather of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), who is not here at the moment. I still think that the charge of gullibility applies.
I should like to join in the congratulations that have been offered to the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison) for the commendable way in which he introduced the Bill and, of course, for the hard work that I know he must have put into its preparation. I shall have to offer some highly critical comments on the content of the Bill, although, whatever its merits or demerits may be, the debate has given hon. Members a very valuable opportunity to draw attention to some thoroughly objectionable trading practices, and to present a 802 case for effective legislative action to end the abuses which hon. Members have described.
To begin with, we ought to be clear about the scope of the offences that we want to stop. There has been some discussion—I was going to say disputation—about the degree of consultation that the sponsors of the Bill have had with the credit traders who, by and large, are the people who will be concerned in the terms of the Bill if it ever reaches the Statute Book. What they are complaining about—and, honestly, I think they have some grounds for this complaint—is that, while there were consultations before the Bill was published, there have been no consultations about the content of the Bill, as I think the hon. Member for Devizes will agree.
Here we have a reputable body of traders. In many parts of the country they perform a very useful service, as some hon. Members have said. I think that it was the hon. Member for Hallam who mentioned that they go round housing estates and to homes in the country which are far away from shops. They offer services. In many cases they give quite valuable advice to their customers about the type of goods that the customers ought to buy, such as the kind of carpet they ought to have on the bedroom floor, in the sitting room and so on. We want to see this very good service continued, and we do not want to do anything which would injure it in any way.
The size of this kind of trading is very important. The Retail Credit Federation alone has about 2,500 firms in its membership and about 1,500 salesmen. They have about 8 million customers, and the total annual turnover of all their trade is getting on for about 500 million a year. But this does not cover the whole field of credit trading. The co-operative societies are also in the field, with their mutuality clubs, in addition to all this. So we must take into consideration the degree to which the Bill would put onerous and perhaps unnecessary burdens on this reputable form of trading in order to deal with a minority of fraudulent practitioners who are on the fringe of this credit or household trading system.
I think that hon. Members will accept that there is no difference between us 803 about objectives. Parliament, of course, has a duty, as, indeed, have the Government, to protect householders from doorstep salesmen whose disgraceful practices offend against any decent code of trading conduct. We accept that duty. We recognise that in the main, though not entirely, the practices that are rightly condemned can only be stopped by legislative action. But if we do accept that view, as I am sure the House does, I am equally sure that the House will agree that the legislation that we bring forward so to protect householders must fulfil certain conditions.
It must be clearly directed at the abuses that it seeks to prohibit. It must be practical legislation. It must do what it aims to do effectively, and it must be properly enforceable. Of course, as I have just said, it must not put great burdens on reputable, honest traders if that can be avoided. It must not encourage or promote other objectionable practices, and it must not conflict with other legislation which may be better designed to achieve the purposes of the Bill. I have to tell the sponsors of the Bill that, in my view, the Bill fails on all these conditions.
I am quite convinced that any Bill designed solely to deal with the malpractices of doorstep selling would be equally ineffective and impracticable, and would obviously come into conflict with wider and better legislation. But this is not to be gravely critical of the intentions of the hon. Member for Devizes. As I say, I am convinced that any Bill brought forward merely to deal with doorstep selling would come up against these objections. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams) said, we have been discussing this subject over the years. I have been involved in what he has been trying to do. He has been involved in what I have been trying to do in this field.
My experience in drafting such legislation as this, while it is not conclusive, does not lead me to believe that such a Bill with a narrow scope would be effective. I had several "shots" at framing legislation on these lines when I was on the benches opposite. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Peter Emery) has been 804 looking up previous statements of mine, as he often does, and will quote them against me. When I tried to do the job of framing legislation on these lines, I sought all the help I could get, and I came to the conclusion, when I was not on these benches but on the benches opposite, that a narrow Bill, narrow in the sense that it aimed only at one class of objectionable trading practice, would be unworkable.
But I was always ready to admit that I might be wrong and that others might succeed where my hon. Friends and I had failed. For that reason, I was grateful for the inquiries into doorstep selling which the Consumer Council undertook. I say quite sincerely that I hoped that the Council would produce some useful proposals which we could put into suitable legislation. I confess that I had my doubts as the inquiries went on over a period of two years. It was obviously difficult to frame legislation which would, we hope, emerge. The inquiries by the Council took some time, although in the meantime, as hon. Members have said, it produced the admirable booklet "How to Say No to a Doorstep Salesman", which I am sure has had quite a good effect.
As the inquiries went on it seemed to us that we should try, in the consumer protection Bill which we were, in any case, bringing forward, to cover at any rate some of the malpractices by doorstep salesmen which have been mentioned today. Hon. Members who have studied the Protection of Consumers (Trade Descriptions) Bill will agree that a number of the malpractices are there covered.
The hon. Member for Devizes quoted the Molony Report and said, quite properly, that the Molony Committee, first, gave up the idea of registration and then gave up the idea of framing suitable legislation in this respect. Not only is registration difficult, but hon. Members have been reading far too much into the permit or statutory notice for which provision is made in the Bill. I interrupted to ask who would issue the statutory notice. The reply was that its terms would be approved by the Board of Trade. But in the Bill no obligation is placed on the Board of Trade to issue to doorstep salesmen the permit which they would have to obtain under the Bill in order to get into people's homes. 805 Obviously, a central organisation in Whitehall cannot take it upon itself to say that "Joe Snooks", in Inverness, is a suitable person to have a statutory permit from the Board of Trade to go into people's homes to sell things. We do not know "Joe Snooks", and we are not likely to know him. Whitehall has no contact with the thousands of doorstep salesmen throughout the country.
Even though it might be permissible to ask the Board of Trade to devise the form of a statutory notice for this purpose, if we say to a Government Department, whether it be the Board fo Trade or any other, that it must issue a statutory notice which gives, in effect, permission to a salesman to get into a person's home—because, obviously, that is how it would be used—we should be trying to place a burden on any Government body which it would rightly refuse. We cannot issue statutory notices ad lib, and there is no public authority mentioned in the Bill which would have the task of issuing statutory notices.
In effect, the salesman, would issue his own permit. If the law always kept up with him, if he had a policeman on his tail all the time, the statutory permit would—let us assume—have to be in the terms laid down by the Board of Trade. I imagine that there are hundreds of thousands, or at least scores of thousands, of doorstep salesmen. Ninety-five per cent. of them are perfectly honest and straightforward and therefore do not need permits. The other 5 per cent. will issue their own, and no housewife would know whether the permit was written in the way that the Board of Trade requested it to be written.
In any case, the publicity which we all want to give—the hon. Member for Hallam mentioned how effective it is through newspapers and all kinds of local media—urging housewives to be on their guard against certain doorstep salesmen would be weakened if she were told that the reputable salesman whom she could allow into her home was the one who carried a card with him with his name and address on it and who told the housewife what he was trying to sell and what his business was. It would be the easiest thing in the world for a dishonest operator to forge the card, and the housewife would not know whether it was forged.
806 The hon. Member for Merton and Morden (Mr. Atkins) said that, in his view, the issue of a statutory notice, or, as I have called it, permit, would keep the pestiferous salesman out of the house. It would not. The rogue salesmen would issue false cards to themselves. It would be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for the police to keep up with them. The issue of a statutory notice might have an influence in proceedings which results when we have caught up with a rogue salesman and one of the charges against him is that he did not present a card, or that he presented a dishonest card. But in most cases it will not be possible to find the salesman after he has done his trickery.
Even if my arguments against a permit in this form are not accepted, there is something else which must be considered. The statutory notice, as provided for in the Bill, would, in my view, encourage another kind of fraud which would be very difficult to counter. If the fraudulent salesman does not want to issue a fraudulent permit to himself, he can practise fraud with a perfectly good permit completely in line with the statutory notice by doing it in this way. He goes to a house, presents his card, and quite honestly sells a product at a good bargain price—something small which will not cost a great deal, and a real bargain to the housewife.
This is the first call for which he needs a permit under the Bill. He can call again when he, apparently, has more authority than he had before, because not only has he completed a perfectly honest sale, although it is small and valuable, a sort of loss-leader transaction, but he has the card. But he has used it once, and, under the Bill, does not need it a second time for entry into the house. It is on this second visit—I do not suppose that there would be subsequent visits—that the fraudulent activities begin.
My hon. and learned Friends the Members for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) and for Warring-ton said that the idea of the Bill is good. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington said that it tries to do too much and, in fact, does too little. He put forward some cogent and legalistic arguments against the Bill and how its terms would operate. As he went on, 807 I was turning over the numerous sheets of paper here in my brief with which I have been provided concerning the legalistic arguments, if I may so describe them, against the terms of the Bill, not against its purpose or aims. I have numerous pages here concerning faults in the Bill and what it seeks to do.
Although we will certainly not vote against the Second Reading of the Bill if the hon. Member for Devizes does not withdraw it, I assure him that when it gets to Committee, even before he sees the Amendments which come from other sources, it will be, I will not say difficult to amend the Bill—it will be difficult, but I do not stress that too much; it may be impossible to amend it—but the time spent in Committee will be so long that I do not think he will find the operation quite as satisfactory as he expected.
§ Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
Will the hon. Gentleman give the House his view of whether the Bill is likely to proceed to Committee and pass into law before this Parliament ends?
§ Mr. Darling
I do not know. I can let the House into my confidence if hon. Members wish. I can tell them that so far my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has not consulted me.
As I have said, my hon. and learned Friends have put forward their views about legal defects in the Bill. I will not go over them all again—although I have such a lengthy brief setting them out that it frightened me when I went through it—except to say this. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington was quite right to stress the important point that despite what is said in Clause 5, the Bill places the onus of taking proceedings upon the housewife or complaining customer. I agree entirely with my hon. and learned Friend—this was my experience, too, in my enquiries in the past—that even though the complaint may be serious, even though the householder has been badly treated and, perhaps, lost money, in most cases the householder would prefer to cut his or her losses rather than take action in the county court.
This is one of the problems which we are up against all the time in this kind of legislation which comes down to the troubles, grumbles, grievances and ex- 808 ploitation of ordinary people. It may be irrational, but they have a hatred of becoming involved in legal actions that land them in court, even though they are on the right side. Apart from anything else, this would be a great weakness in the Bill.
Leaving aside, however, all the legalistic arguments and the difficulties which the Bill would involve in Committee to knock it into shape—and those difficulties are very great indeed—we are, I think, making too much of the problem in present circumstances because the area of abuses that will not eventually be covered by legislation will be much narrower than many hon. Members imagine.
First, the Hire Purchase Act cuts out the abuse in hire-purchase sales in households or on the doorstep by the introduction of the cooling-off period. One hon. Member mentioned the number and type of complaints that came to light in the survey carried out by the Consumer Council. That examination, I understand, was made before the Hire Purchase Act came into operation. In so far as those complaints dealt with hire purchase, I should imagine that most of them have now been covered by the cooling-off period in the Act, which came into operation in 1965.
I agree, however, that there is an area of possible fraud in that credit sales of under £30 are not covered by the cooling-off period. But it may be that where a customer has a real grievance, even here, a credit customer may be in a stronger position than was the case for hire-purchase transactions before the 1965 Act came into force. A person who is buying things on credit has the goods. If he has been defrauded, if the goods are not of the value he expected, if they do not come up to the standard which he was led to expect, if he feels that he was misled into signing a contract which he should not have signed and he feels that he has a good case against the company, he holds on to the goods. All that can happen to him is that he can be sued for debt. The goods cannot be taken away.
There is a good reason why we should adhere to the £30 limit. I was responsible for getting the Amendment to include that figure which was carried 809 during the passage of the Hire Purchase Bill in Committee, and I stand by it for the reasons which are implicit in the figures I gave about the amount of credit trading. To impose the cooling-off period for all credit transactions under £30 would place such an intolerable burden upon the vast majority of honest credit traders as to make the whole thing not worthwhile.
I agree that through the cooling-off period which is given on credit sales we would be able to catch a few—relatively few—transactions of the type which have been mentioned today and which we criticise in this House. To use that cooling-off period for credit sales, however, would, in my view, to which I firmly adhere, impose such a burden on credit traders that we should not do it. The cooling-off period is one of the points on which the aggrieved customer was probably in need of help and legislative help, and the Hire Purchase Act, with its cooling-off period for hire-purchase transactions, has removed quite a lot of the complaints of the past against doorstep selling.
The Protection of Consumers Bill, to which reference has been made, is now going through another place and will be on the Statute Book before long. It will cover another wide field of fraud, examples of which have been given today. As hon. Members know, that Bill is mainly directed at misrepresentation of goods and services. When a customer has been pressed into buying goods or paying for services which do not come up to the value or performance as put forward either in literature or by oral statements by the salesman, action will be taken under the Bill, if it emerges in the form in which we have written it, against the offending seller. Thus we are covering the doorstep customer's complaints concerning misrepresentation just as we cover the complaints against shopkeepers, hoteliers, travel agents and the rest.
§ Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)
Does my hon. Friend include under the heading of "services" insurance salesmen who go from door to door selling insurance policies?
§ Mr. Darling
No. We have to deal with insurance salesmen in an entirely different way. When we come to Second 810 Reading of the Protection of Consumers Bill in this House, we will explain the difficulties about the insurance position. To deal with the complaint that my hon. Friend has in mind, we shall have to alter the Insurance Acts; we cannot do it under consumer legislation.
But I would say that, that apart, the vast majority of complaints which we have heard today about doorstep selling of goods and other services would come under this heading of misrepresentation, and we would, therefore, be able to deal with them as they would be caught by the Protection of Consumers (Trade Descriptions) Bill.
§ Mr. J. H. Osborn
I illustrated the problem of persistency—that is, the salesman forcing his way into the house. Persistency hardly comes under misrepresentation.
§ Mr. Darling
I was about to say that the area which will be left to us to deal with will be much narrower than most hon. Members who have taken part in this debate have imagined. I quite agree that it is proper that we should consider how best to deal with this narrower area—not so much of misrepresentation, but the area, to use my words, of the pestiferous salesman. We are more or less covering the area of other frauds and malpractices.
Now the major complaint seems what the hon. Member for Hallam has mentioned, the doorstep pest. He does not misrepresent either goods or services he is peddling, but he misrepresents himself. We do not catch him, we cannot catch him, under the Protection of Consumers (Trade Descriptions) Bill, which deals with goods and services.
Examples have been mentioned of the encyclopaedia salesman who falsely describes himself as coming from the education department of some authority, or the "phoney" magazine salesman who says he is a Commonwealth student engaged in some kind of competition; and I was very interested in the description of the bowler-hatted "representative" from the local authority.
Of course, these are frauds, and I would have thought that my hon. and 811 learned Friend who has been helping me in one or two issues would agree that these are all offences against the existing statutes. It seems quite clear to me that these are fraudulent practices, but that the law is not itself clear about how the statutes in these cases are to be applied, that is, how to get hold of the pests and how they are to be prosecuted. I would agree we might look at the appropriate statutes to see how and where they might be strengthened for the purposes we have been discussing, but that is outside the scope of this Bill.
What we are really concerned about is the best and quickest way of stopping pests who will not be caught by the Hire Purchase Act, or other existing legislation, or by the Protection of Consumers (Trade Descriptions) Bill. I would suggest that the real, immediate needs are two: first, effective publicity to put householders on their guard against frauds; and secondly, more effective pressure to stop objectionable sales methods.
The hon. Member for Hallam mentioned the Consumer Council pamphlet, "How to Say No to Doorstep Salesmen". I think that this has had some effect. He also mentioned the consumer protection officer we have in Sheffield. This is a very good experiment and something we have to bear in mind as we consider the administration under the terms of the Protection of Consumers (Trade Descriptions) Bill. He also mentioned the local Press. I am sorry that he mentioned only one of the papers. That was the one he deals with. I deal with the Evening Star, which, I think, has done a much better job. But we will not argue about that. The Sheffield Telegraph and the Evening Star between them have done a first-class job.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) that the key to deal with this problem of the narrower area is to be found in the administration part of the Protection of Consumers (Trade Description) Bill. Not the terms of the Bill, because, as I have said, we cannot deal with the person who misdescribes himself and gets into the house to sell something; but in the administration of the Bill, for the first time we put a clear duty on local authorities to administer 812 the terms of a Bill and enforce its provisions. We have in mind also not merely the terms of the Bill, but the influence which a local authority officer can have.
Here, the experiment which we would proudly call the Sheffield experiment has been so valuable. This officer has been dealing with consumers' complaints for about two years. It will be appreciated that many of the complaints he has had to deal with cannot be dealt with legally. He cannot take any legal action because we have not got the Protection of Consumers (Trade Description) Bill on the Statute Book. However, this Sheffield experience is interesting, because the consumer protection officer has had surprising, in some cases almost startling, success in getting complaints put right merely by telling firms that, in his view, they were doing things they ought not to be doing. Of course, how he expresses it is as an indication to the firms concerned that there will be adverse publicity. The two Sheffield newspapers have played an admirable part in all this, for adverse publicity is needed to stop from going on something which ought not to go on, and the consumer protection officer and the two local newspapers have worked together.
The hon. Member for Hallam has mentioned complaints in his own constituency. I have had similar complaints in my constituency. The housewives concerned have not hesitated to let people know—their local M.P., the consumer protection officer, the local newspapers—because they now realise, because of this experiment and experience, that everybody is on their side, and that everybody wants to protect the housewives against these sharks and frauds.
Everybody who is able to use publicity, to bring influence to bear against offending firms, is eager and willing to do it, and the adverse publicity, I am quite convinced, has meant that many of the firms which might have come into Sheffield with their underhanded work have not come in, because they were afraid they would come up against this kind of publicity. I repeat, I am sure that where we have a local officer—in every part of the country—to receive consumers' complaints, and where he is in a position to do something about them, we shall be able to get most of 813 the activities which fall outside the scope of present and future legislation dealt with satisfactorily.
In my own case, in dealing, for instance, with complaints the hon. Member for Hallam described, I have written to the firms concerned on behalf of constituents, saying that I, as their Member of Parliament, have urged my constituents to cancel their contracts and not to pay a penny, and inviting the person concerned to take legal action, prosecution. One does not hear a word from that point onwards. I have had, perhaps, not as many cases as other hon. Members, but I have found over a period of time that this works; in no case has any action been taken either to get fulfilled a contract which people unwisely signed, which they were misled into signing, and they ought not to have signed; and in no case has any of these firms carried out a threat to prosecute if the customer did not pay up. Given the help which we shall have in that sort of field outside the scope of legislation, I feel sure we shall be able to stop many of these practices.
§ Mr. J. H. Osborn
I have listened with great care to what the hon. Gentleman has said, and it appears that there is an element of this pestiferous activity which is covered by legislation. Could he let us know exactly how it is covered, and ensure that publicity is given to that form of protection after the debate?
§ Mr. Darling
I was coming to that.
When we have the Protection of Consumers (Trade Descriptions) Bill on the Statute Book, one of the first things that we shall have to do is to ensure that its provisions are widely publicised throughout the country. Everyone must be informed that in every locality, even though it is the county councils in the case of the rural areas which will be operating it, that there is a consumer protection officer, or whatever other name he may have when we have finished with the legislation.
In post offices and other places in every locality where public notices are put up, we shall have to display a poster explaining briefly what the Protection of Consumers (Trade Descriptions) Act does, and telling people the person with whom to get in touch if they think they have complaints and grievances against 814 traders who have offended against the Act. I am quite convinced that publicity would help a great deal.
I agree that we have not covered the whole of the ground, and there may still be gaps in the legislation. I have mentioned that we cannot catch the man who misrepresents himself, although I think that we can stop his activities by a great deal of adverse local publicity. However, we want to get to the firms employing the salesmen who are doing things that we find reprehensible. During 1965, which was the first year of operation of the new Hire Purchase Act, we had a number of complaints about companies selling encyclopaedias whose form of agreement was not quite in terms with the Act. We got in touch with them, and they put things right. There was no need for police court proceedings, or anything like that. Their credit sale agreements have been criticised, and we understand that encyclopaedia firms have offered to cut out undesirable sales practices as a result of representations from the Board of Trade, and they have agreed to make sure that their terms of contract are in line with the spirit as well as the letter of the Hire Purchase Act.
If we get no further complaints about the activities of these firms, when the Protection of Consumers (Trade Descriptions) Bill is on the Statute Book, and we have had experience of its effect combined with that of the Hire Purchase Act, 1965, we shall be able to see what area is left and whether it can be dealt with by the sort of publicity and persuasion that I have tried, perhaps inadequately, to describe. It is then that we should consider whether further legislation is needed. I would suggest that the best thing to do, after what has been a very useful debate, is for the hon. Member for Devizes to withdraw his Bill, so that we can return to the subject after we have had experience of the working of the legislation that I have described and the efforts of consumer protection officers and the Board of Trade to get the other malpractices stopped without legislation.
§ 1.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Emery (Reading)
I join with every other hon. Member who has spoken today in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison) in bringing forward 815 his Bill, and not the least for being lucky enough to come up in the Ballot.
What has not been mentioned is that, having come up in the Ballot, my hon. Friend had to have a serious operation. In the interim, he had to consider the Bill that he would bring forward. He struggled out of hospital to come to the House and present the Bill for its First Reading, and then he went back to hospital to recover. He deserves all credit in pursuing the matter in the manner that he has. There can be no doubt that he has put forward the objectives of his Bill very clearly, and the principles of it have been supported by every hon. Member who has spoken.
The concept of identification of doorstep direct salesmen should be known, and no one has suggested that it is wrong. Nor has anyone suggested that a cooling-off period as provided for in the present Hire Purchase Act should not be applied to other aspects of direct selling.
Therefore, it is of considerable importance that the first thing that I should do is to pay particular tribute to the very large number of honest men and women who work as doorstep salesmen. In discussing a small section of doorstep salesmen who carry out malpractices and who might be described as sharks, it would be absolutely wrong if we cast any cloud over the hundreds of thousands of people who are doing an excellent and hard working job as direct salesmen.
After all, it is a form of selling which is one of the oldest in the world. High pressure salesmanship is nothing new. The ancient Britons had the same problem, so I am informed, in having to resist the fast-talking Romans who first came here trying to pressurise the less well-educated Britons into buying jewellery and cooking utensils.
That is not to say that we should not attempt to extend consumer protection by a fairly simple Bill. Ever since I have been in the House I have believed that I was returned to cut down legislation and not increase it. There is too much legislation, and it is much too complicated. It is not readily understood, and I am against having to block up the Statute Book with even more legislation unless there is a real need.
816 I liked the suggestions made by the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman), who said that one of his main objections to the Bill was the legal difficulties that might be created by it. Unfortunately, he is not in his usual place at the moment. I should have liked to ask him what legislation had gone through the House without creating certain legal difficulties, and whether he had not been one of the people who had benefited from some of them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes has a definite case to present. The Molony Committee and the Consumer Council both advocate definite action being taken by Parliament to deal with the problem of the sharp salesman.
Because of the problems involved, we have had a particularly high standard of debate this afternoon. Everybody has shown great interest in this subject. Indeed, I wonder whether it is not the case that before very long we shall all be doorstep salesmen, selling ourselves at a rather larger auction than that with which many people in commerce have to deal. All I hope is that the propectus presented by us will be approved by the "Consumer Council" as being honest and straightforward.
§ Mr. Darling
It is, I think, comforting to us all to know that the existing legislation does not cover the doorstep salesman who misrepresents himself.
§ Mr. Emery
I do not want to go into the matter of broken promises, because I think that that is the worst form of misrepresentation, and it seems to me that there is only one side of the House which would come out very badly on that score.
Let us come back to the Pedlars Act, the Hawkers Act, and the more modern Acts of 1964 and 1965. I do not think that there is anything in that legislation to catch the cash sales methods now being used by direct selling firms. Indeed, it is evident—and we have had statistics presented to us to show this—that cash sales, with a direct personal loan in addition, rather than hire-purchase agreements, are being used to get round the existing legislation. An argument which has not been put forward today, but which is of particular significance, is that my hon. Friend's Bill 817 would close the loophole which certain direct-selling organisations have found to get round the law as it stands.
I do not wish to pour cold water on the Protection of Consumers (Trade Descriptions) Bill, which is going through another place, and with which the Minister of State dealt at some length, but there is nothing in it to deal with the misdescription of selling techniques. What we are dealing with here is not the misdescription of goods, but incorrect selling techniques, and there is nothing in that Bill which meets the objections which have been raised by many hon. Members, and propounded so well by my hon. Friend. No attempt is made to set up a new code of selling techniques.
We have heard a lot about the letter written by the Retail Credit Federation setting out its opposition to the Bill, and I have read it with considerable interest. I believe that the federation does a good job in trying to assist many people and many firms to establish standards by which their direct selling is regulated, but I have before me the federation's year book of 1965 which sets out its objects, and I should like to tell the House why it seems to me that some of them are rather strange.
Paragraph (g) says that:canvassers employed by members shall be required to conform with the foregoing principle …and shall in respect of each transaction conducted by them hand to the customer a copy of the completed order form, the contents of which shall include the following:—(1) Name and address of selling firm. (2) Name and address of collecting firm if different from (1). (3) Description of goods. (4) Cash price, credit price, and agreed terms of payment…There the federation sets out the kind of information which Clause 1 of the Bill would require the customer to be given before he purchased anything, whereas the federation is content for the information to be given after the purchase. I cannot see why it would make the position so much more difficult, or would be likely to encourage the shark salesman if that information was given when the salesman got his foot in the door. I am not a supporter of the pestiferous salesman. Let us call a spade a spade. It is the salesman who gets his foot in the door and then tries to push his way further into the house.
I do not accept the Minister's argument that prescribed the form in which 818 a salesman should present his card will assist the shark salesman. The absolute criminal will be a criminal whatever happens, but many people who are employed by reputable firms use selling techniques of which their firms would not approve, and the customer has no redress because he has no idea of the salesman's firm. It therefore seems to me that it will be of considerable advantage if, from the word "go", the intending purchaser knows the name and address of the salesman. I do not suggest that the Bill is absolutely clear on this, or that we are necessarily wedded to the wording of it. It may be necessary for legal reasons, to alter it.
The Minister said that the provisions of Clause 1 would enable a salesman to make out his own card, and would not require any authority to regulate it. It is true that the Bill gives the Board of Trade permissive power, which it might not wish to use, but I would have thought that this could be debated in Committee, because it seems to me that it would be nonsense to have a Bill on the Statute Book if the Board of Trade did not intend to take this power. It may be that instead of being a permissive power it will have to be a statutory one.
I do not understand the Minister's argument that it would be necessary to include in the Bill a provision to specify that it was "Joe Snooks", of Newcastle who was to be given authority by the Board of Trade to act as a salesman. On my reading of the Bill, that is a complete non sequitur. It seems to me that what the Bill requires is that the salesman shall present a certain type of card, and also that the Board of Trade shall stipulate the things to be on it, no more or no less. The Board of Trade will not need to know the man, or to approve of him. All that the Board of Trade will be required to do is to make regulations laying down that on the card there shall appear the name and address of the salesman, the name and address of the company, perhaps its telephone number, and any other information which is considered necessary. The regulation is clear, and every salesman will wish to comply with it. The only person who will not is the fraudulent salesman.
I agree that if a man is a crook the Bill will not stop him—but it will stop 819 people who are on the fringe from practising bad selling techniques, when they are employed by firms who do not wish them to do so. That is one of the major points which has not been followed through in the arguments put forward today.
Another organisation which has not been mentioned is the Direct Sales and Services Association. This is a new body, formed in the last 12 or 14 months, which sets out a complete code of practice for its members. This code has to be carried out by its sales personnel. It goes so far as to direct that its members must guarantee to publish, in all literature, the name of the company and the address of the head office. This body is attempting to set up ethical standards which will be embraced by everybody who is interested in direct sales. It is interesting to know that it sells about £24 million worth of merchandise, £4 million of which is for export. That shows how extensive direct selling methods are, and how little they are understood by people.
There is a definite need for firms to insist upon a code of conduct for their salesmen and to take strict disciplinary action if that code is broken. Irrespective of the other provisions of the Bill, that would greatly improve the situation.
My hon. Friend asked the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North whether, in objecting to the Bill, the Retail Credit Federation had set out any arguments against the prescribed form. I have read the document carefully. It is clear that the federation has not set out such arguments. Its objection is stated quite generally. It is important to realise that the Consumer Council supports the Bill. It has made this fact known to every Member of Parliament. If I had to judge between the Consumer Council, which has a vested interest in consumer protection, and the Retail Credit Federation, which obviously has an interest in increasing selling by direct methods, I would obviously come down on the side of the Consumer Council. That is one of the reasons why I believe that the Bill ought to be given a Second Reading.
The hon. and learned Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams) argued that the Bill would be of benefit to the 820 fraudulent salesman. I do not understand that argument. Reading has had some experience of fraudulent sales techniques, such as are employed by the man who represents himself as coming on behalf of Reading Education Authority and then attempts to sell books. Even worse than this, there have been instances where salesmen sell knitting machines on the understanding that the purchaser can buy wool with which to make up garments, which the firm will subsequently buy back from him. I have sent the Board of Trade particulars of many such cases in my constituency. No maintenance is carried out on the machines and no instruction is given as to their use. When knitted garments are sent into the firm it claims that they do not reach the required standard, leaving the purchaser with a large number of garments, of which he or she cannot dispose. This is a shocking business, and we should do all we can to prevent it.
I have attempted to trace the headquarters of this firm. We hear talk about "fly-by-night"; this is a case of "fly-by-day". The firm goes from one address to another, and has no telephone number. The address is often poste restante, and the firm can never be caught up with. Further, no particulars are provided as to the addresses of its salesmen, and there is no attempt to state which is the major or holding company. In these circumstances a crook or shark does not want to leave any evidence if he can help it. That is why it would be useful to insist upon some introductory information being provided as evidence of the bona fides of the salesman.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) has now left the Chamber. His statement that his wife is a compulsive buyer of encyclopaedias and that she has now bought enough terrifies me. It seems to me that every direct salesman in the land is likely to be knocking on Mrs. Goodhart's door from now on selling her everything but encyclopaedias. My hon. Friend was very gallant to provide this information. The hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshaw (Mr. Alfred Morris) made a very good and honest speech. It would appear that some work has been done by the Government in persuading certain Members opposite to speak today in order to point out the drawbacks of the Bill rather than its advantages.
821 The Minister, although pointing out the defects of the Bill, gave no information as to the way in which the Government would deal with the problem of the direct salesman. He suggested that we should see how the legislation that is already on the Statute Book, or which is now going through Parliament, works out. That policy of "wait and see" gives no immediate consumer protection. The Bill is complicated, but it should be allowed to go to Committee, where we can attempt to hammer out something better. We believe that the question of protecting the consumer from the activities of shark salesmen should be dealt with now.
§ Mr. Darling
The Bill to which the hon. Member is referring is going through another place. Assuming that there is no election, if the Bill is given a Second Reading it will go to Committee. Both Bills, if they ever go through, have to prove themselves.
§ Mr. Emery
Certainly, but the Minister of State; has not answered my point. In the present Protection of Consumers (Trade Descriptions) Bill, there is nothing which deals with selling contracts. That is predominantly what this Bill deals with.
Therefore, it seems nonsense for us to wait for a Bill which does not deal with the main problems which this Bill would tackle. That is not an argument for not proceeding with this Bill. Because the Minister has suggested that he would not oppose the Bill going into Committee, I will tear up the pleasant quotations I had about his support in Opposition for the objects of the Bill. He was fair to suggest that the Bill should go to Committee.
If my hon. Friend does not wish to withdraw the Bill and the Government do not object to its going into Committee, added weight would be given to consumer protection, which the Conservative Party would like to see. For that reason, I urge the House to allow the Bill to go to Committee so that we can see whether we can make a worthwhile addition to the Statute Book.
§ 2.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Mahon (Preston, South)
The hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison) is to be congratulated 822 on his public-spiritedness in espousing this cause. Virtue being its own reward, if, in preparing his case, he has experienced some adversity, we wish him excellent health in future, particularly during the next few weeks. We hope that he is able to get over the strain.
The important first Clause of the Bill states that it is the duty of the itinerant salesman to disclose his business. They very often do. They often adhere to the first principles of salesmanship, though for spurious reasons they also often prefer to ignore other principles. Good value and honest dealing must always be the criteria. In our efforts to check the slick doorstep operator, which are laudable, we must be careful not to restrict the activities of honest salesmen whose name is legion. The decent, honest, upright salesman is and always has been a social asset.
Well-disposed doorstep salesmen, because of their character, ability and knowledge are often friends, philosophers and guides to many folk seeking advice. They sell to them and go on selling to them, and always go back to the homes where they are successful and where they are invariably welcome. Home signing in the absence of the husband is a particularly obnoxious business. It often creates bad feeling in the home and can have devastating effects on family unity. This is possible, very often, where the breadwinner is a seaman or follows some other calling which necessitates periods away from home.
By all means let us take steps to curb the rogue and the vagabond, but let us of necessity be assured that we are indeed separating the wheat from the chaff and not militating against honest doorstep trading, which is of value to the community. The salesman who endeavours to assess the depth of a person's purse instead of accepting her word about what she can or cannot afford is a social menace. An hon. Member opposite referred to the infirm and aged who are tied to the kitchen sink and who, of course, cannot resist the intentions of very assiduous sales people. But this, as well as being a disadvantage, can also be an advantage when the salesmen are well-disposed and honest. They can, of course, help in breaking the monotony for old and lonely people who are left very much to themselves during their later days.
823 The Minister of State referred to the gullibility of hon. Members. With my hand on my heart, I confess that I have been gulled. Many moons ago I was induced to part with the rates for inferior value. This was because of a sop to my vanity. In the presence of other people the salesman said that I was a very good-looking, honest and intelligent sort of a fellow who knew a bargain when he saw one and who could not be duped. I do not want to deceive hon. Members, so I must inform them that this was many moons ago—
§ Mr. Mahon
I was particularly pleased with the tenor of the discussion. It was on a very high plane. I imagine that there was only one discordant note, and that was sounded at the Dispatch Box. Anyhow, we can afford to ignore it, as we shall undoubtedly be vindicated in the not too distant future. In espousing this cause, the hon. Member for Devizes has performed a public service and pinpointed abuses. However, I agree with the submission that legislation is vitally necessary to deal with the situation.
§ 2.19 p.m.
§ Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith (Chislehurst)
I am grateful for having caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I regret that I was unavoidably prevented from being present for a good deal of the debate.
Like the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Peter Mahon) I must disclose two interests. First, I was equally "had" by a doorstep salesman. Second, I took some part in providing evidence to the Consumer Council in that, after a good deal of heart searching, I made it public by a Question to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition when he was President of the Board of Trade, in relation particularly to magazine salesmen. I was inundated with letters. The matter was taken up by the Daily Express which collaborated to the extent of allowing me to see the letters which that paper had received. There were about 700, which were analysed. A dossier was passed on to the Board of Trade and, subsequently, to the Consumer Council.
I am concerned about the fact, although I have had discussions with 824 Ministers in the Board of Trade, both in this Government and its predecessor, that we will not, by the new legislation to protect the consumer, catch the under-£30-a-week salesman. While the big money may be more attractive, there are fewer people in households who can be persuaded to commit themselves to a £30 or £50 or £100 purchase. The field is much wider and there are far more families who may have £3 or £5 to put down as a deposit; and they come into a category who are excluded from legislation because the total sale is under £30. I do not minimise the extraordinary difficulties about legislating on this matter, but I think that we should try to do so.
I am grateful for a letter which I had from the Minister of State, Board of Trade, in which he told me that although the police had carried out exhaustive inquiries they had found no ground on which they could prosecute. The publicity was such that as a result of the police effort or the direction actions of the legal departments of certain newspapers, between 100 and 200 people who had been deprived of money in these magazine sales had received their deposit back or, if they had been misguided enough to part with it, their total money back. There may be snags about the Bill, but I hope that the Government will look at it again, because the new legislation going through another place does not cover the wide field of the small catch-as-catch-can salesman.
There are three aspects in which the Government should seriously consider the Bill and, if necessary, make Amendments to it. The first concerns the responsibility of the company. Ten different literary or readers' services or magazine agencies were concerned in the 600-odd letters which I received, and at least five of these had directors in common. A company came into being, make a killing, did not provide what it had undertaken to provide, and then moved its address and became another company. There was the greatest possible difficulty in tracing the headquarters. In one case the nearest one could get to the company was by speaking through the letter box of a locked and bolted door.
By the process of liquidating one company and forming another, they took very considerable sums of money from the 825 public. Thanks to the publicity, the reputable publishers withdrew their magazines from the circulation lists of these companies. A few weeks ago I received a letter from the Board of Trade stating that although there had not been grounds to prosecute, the hon. Member was pleased to tell me that the main company concerned had gone into liquidation. It was good news at least that the publicity, the pressure, and the work of the police had made this company feel that it was not worthwhile.
But we must take action on the lines of the Bill, taking the advice and guidance of the Government and their experts in making Amendments in Committee. We must stop this very slick method of selling. Knowing that it affects this enormous field of the under-£30 sale, which covers the whole of the magazine salesmanship, I should like to strengthen the Clauses not only in relation to the salesman but also in relation to the responsibility of the company for the salesman.
Many students from abroad are employed as magazine salesmen. They come over here to see Europe and they get a few weeks' pay and free travel in selling these magazines. I am sorry that the Minister of State for the Home Office has left the Chamber, because I should like to inquire how they get away with the regulations concerning labour permits. Have any of them had a labour permit? I believe many had six to eight weeks of this work and that by the time anyone could catch up with them they were back in Canada or Austria or any other country from which they came. It is important that we should hold the company at any rate to a certain degree responsible for the actions of their salesmen. We should not lightly dismiss this on the ground that it is only small beer, because £30 is a considerable sum in many households.
The salesmen in the cases which I investigated collected a minimum of £2 and sometimes £5 and sometimes £7. Hundreds of the people concerned never received any of the publications at all, and others received printed magazines which were cheap and shoddy and of a very low quality. These were the so-called children's educational documents. At least two-fifths and perhaps a half of the people received no return of their money. One heard of a projected maga- 826 zine which had the largest number of subscribers and which came out with only one edition. It then changed hands and amalgamated with another magazine, and the original concept of a great glossy magazine went into limbo.
I fully support my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison) in bringing forward the Bill and I congratulate him. The Bill may not be perfect, but we must take some action to prevent the manner of entry used by these people. If they could produce a document stating that they were salesmen, at least we should know that they were salesmen. Many reputable analyses are made by National Opinion and Gallup Polls and market researchers to discover our opinion on various subjects, and these salesmen too, gain their entry as "social researchers." I know that from my own experience. They came as social researchers and used the name of a former hon. Member, now a noble Lord. I got in touch with noble Lord and found that that everything they had said about his giving them information was a complete and absolute lie. They had never seen the noble Lord. They had never met the noble Lord. It was a complete lie, and it was this fact which prompted me to make known my own gullibility in these matters.
It is important that we should keep a close watch on the companies, because 200 or 300 cases were followed up through the Board of Trade by the police and in almost every case the salesman concerned had vanished. He had been sent home or had been sacked, and never was there an address at which he could be found. These young people had been trained for a week in a hotel in Bays-water on how to make an entry. They were trained to go down in gangs to an agricultural area, concentrate on particular publications or to go to parents whose children were known to be members of young farmers' clubs, in order to sell them very inferior agricultural magazines, published in America. They went to young parents, where they knew that the children were in technical colleges, in order to try to sell so-called engineering journals.
Something must be done to prevent this, even if the Bill has to be amended on the advice of the Government, and with the aid of the vast experience of 827 the Board of Trade. We should try to legislate for the millions of families who, even if the other Bill goes through all its processes, will still be at risk as the under-£30 category. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes has done great service in bringing the Bill forward and in using his opportunity in the Ballot to do so.
§ 2.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Albert Murray (Gravesend)
I would like, first, to congratulate the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison) on the introduction of this Measure. Some hon. Members, and I am among them, believe that it does not go far enough. Certainly, in so far as it gives some protection against doorstep selling it should be welcome. I doubt very much if there is any hon. or right hon. Member who has not at some time had complaints about doorstep salesmen; and if the Bill stops one complaint from one constituency, then it will have been worthwhile. I am sorry that the Minister of State is not endorsing this and that insurance companies are not involved.
I would like to quote a case involving a company selling insurance. I will not mention the name of the company, because I hope that it has improved its methods. This concerns the point of persistency which has been raised already. A constituent sent me a prospectus, if you can call it that, of an insurance company with an enclosed letter which said:The enclosed may want investigating.He was certainly right.It arrived this morning and the follow-up man knocked at my door about 6.45 p.m. I did not let him say much, as I cut him short and said 'Write to me and tell me the obligations and benefits', to which he replied, 'I can't.' I had to use force to close the door against his body pressure, after which he hammered on the door with his fist, and followed by loud use of the knocker. Whatever their business may be it seems to me that their methods are objectionable, and I trust you think that inquiries should be made. Apart from the conduct which I have discussed above I am concerned about the intimidatory nature of the attached. If everything is above board why is their printed matter"—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I am not suggesting anything. The hon. Gentleman must address his remarks to another hon. Member through the Chair.
§ Mr. Murray
I am certain that they do. The point is that after writing to the Minister of State he told me that the companyis a mutual life company incorporated by special Act of Parliament…. While it is not one of the giants of the life assurance world, it is quite sound.If the Bill were to ensure that this type of company would be closely watched we would be making a great step forward.
After the Minister of State had been in touch with the company, the company agreed that the salesman had been rude and added:…will you please note that this gentleman is no longer in our employment. We have extremely clear-cut instructions to our field staff that in no circumstances are they to make themselves a nuisance, or in any way to disturb the privacy of the individual who has been sponsored for membership.If there was legislation to ensure that this firm became responsible for the attitude and conduct of its employees we would be getting somewhere. It is not enough to sack the employee, because the attitude of the company, had my constituent been a little more gullible, would have been that it would have received his custom gladly.
This is where the Bill does not go far enough. The sanctions against the employers of such salesmen ought to be stronger. The case I have quoted is evidence of a practice which must be stopped. I would like to deal with salesmen who pretend that they are the representatives of the local authority, or who have been given the blessing of the local authority before selling their encyclopaedias. It is usually the fastest utterance that they ever make, once they are on the doorstep. It may run, "I am the representative of…" or, "I am being sent by the local authority" or perhaps one just heard the words "local authority". This is usually the "Open sesame".
829 We have heard that hon. Members themselves have suffered from being gullible. Once the salesmen are inside the house, with their slick sales talk they usually have a customer, not for one set of books, but for more and more over a period of years. I lived in Brixton at one time and on a Friday afternoon the tally man could be seen in the roads selling the usual sort of silver gilt mirrors and flashy looking objects. A failing in this; Bill is that, because of preceding sales within the year, we are not going to cover these other people. However, the Bill should still be welcomed. Any measure which can help to stop the flashy salesman on the doorstep misleading people will be a boon to very many people. If the Bill is not successful I hope that the Government will take note of what is being said here and of the very strong feelings, and introduce a Bill of their own.
§ 2.35 p.m.
§ Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison) on bringing forward the Bill. There is little doubt that the majority of people who earn their living by doorstep living provide a service and are people of integrity. But there are rogues in the game and the people who suffer from them are very often those who can least afford to, people who may enter into purchases without knowledge of their husband's earning power.
I am sorry that people who are selling services as opposed to goods are not included in the Bill. Many of us know of the quite unpleasant trick whereby someone who is an agent for a company represents himself to be a consultant, that is to say, someone who has expert knowledge, and has no personal interest in selling one type of service over another.
This occasionally happens in insurance. When I was in Derby an agent for a Canadian life company used to represent himself as a consultant. There are some people who go round selling heating systems and represent themselves, not as salesmen for a specific design of heater, but as heating engineer consultants, which they are not. There would be great merit in the information card specified in the Bill because it will make quite clear, with a criminal penalty if it 830 does not, where the financial interest of a person lies.
Thus, if that person who comes to the door is genuinely a consultant, as opposed to an agent for a particular brand, this should be obvious to the person visited. If, on the other hand, the salesman is, perfectly reputably, the agent for one manufacturer, or for a restricted line, then this should be evident to the person called upon. There is considerable merit in such protection.
I am trying to find out what are "goods". This applies to vendors of goods. Clause 8—the Interpretation Clause—states that…'goods', 'safe' and 'sell' have the meanings assigned to them respectively by the Sale of Goods Act, 1893…Turning to the Sale of Goods Act, 1893—which was enacted in 1894—we find that…'Goods' include all chattels personal other than things in action and money…What "things in action" are, I do not know. Whether it means that if someone brings a watch to sell that has been wound up and moving it is not covered by the provisions of the Bill, but that if he allows it to run down before bringing it through the door it is covered, I do not know. We all know, of course, what "money" is—it is a rapidly depreciating means of exchange.
The 1893 definition continues:The term includes emblements, industrial growing crops, and things attached to or forming part of the land which are agreed to be severed before sale or under the contract of sale.I think I understand all that except "emblements"—what they are, I do not know, and I doubt very much whether many people who are called upon by itinerant salesmen will know, either, but as they are included in the term "goods", whatever they may be they fall within the provisions of the Bill.
I should like a definition of "appropriate trade premises", because the Bill comes into force if the sale takes place other than in appropriate trade premises. Clause 8 states that…appropriate trade premises, in relation to the offering of goods for sale or on hire, means premises at which the person, who at the time the goods are so offered is the owner or seller, normally carries on business…831 That definition is obviously intended to refer, as it were, to the shop or market stall of the vendor, but is a farm covered by it? If someone normally earns his living by visiting farms and selling to the people there, is it or is it not appropriate trade premises?
I should have thought that one could put up an equally good case either way. A farm is partly business premises and partly residential premises. It would be ridiculous if the Bill applied if the man called on the farmer in the milking shed, but not if he knocked at the door of the house. I should value advice on that point.
I end, as I began, by congratulating my hon. Friend on introducing his Bill; and expressing the sincere hope that it will, after amendment in Committee, find its way on to the Statute Book instead of being cut short by some sort of truncation of this Session of Parliament.
§ Miss J. M. Quennell (Petersfield) rose in her place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put, but Mr. SPEAKER withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question.
§ Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you not agree that there is something seriously wrong with the procedure of the House that prevents discussion of the important Measure that is likely to be brought forward after the termination of the debate on this Bill?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. That is not a matter for the Chair. I know that the hon. Lady is interested in the next Bill on the Order Paper, but it is not a matter for the Chair how the House of Commons discusses the first Bill on the Order Paper. It may cause the hon. Lady some distress, but it is not a matter for the Chair.
§ 2.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Ted Fletcher (Darlington)
I, too, am interested in the next Bill on the Order Paper, and do not now propose to detain the House for very long. However, like other hon. Members, I have received many complaints from constituents about the activities of door-to-door salesmen. Although the Consumer Association has publicised these methods 832 to a great extent, it is all to the good that we should discuss the subject in the House so that we can add our own views to the general and growing volume of opinion that action should be taken to deal with some of these more outrageous activities.
The right hon. Lady the Member for Chislehurst (Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith) mentioned one aspect of the subject which I think is particularly important, and that is the elaborate techniques employed by these firms in training their salesmen. Some months ago I got into my hands a document setting out the type of educational facilities given to these salesmen, and one can recognise that, in some cases, inarticulate and ignorant people are bamboozled into signing documents after talking to highly-skilled and highy-trained salesmen.
I remember that the first six lessons given in the specially-arranged schools for door-to-door salesmen deal with how to get into the house. Managers are instructed to get good-looking salesmen—if possible those with wavy hair—and neatly dressed. The salesmen are told to wear clean shirts. After knocking at the door, the first thing they have to say is, "Please may I come inside?" If they are refused, there is a long technique for breaking down that refusal, because the first thing a salesman must do is to get inside the house. Half a dozen lessons are, therefore, devoted to that technique.
Assuming that the salesman has got into the house, there follow another half-dozen lessons on how to frame conversation in such a way that the answer will never be negative. Marks are awarded for the bright students who can compose sentences readily in such a way that affirmative answers are always given. That technique is so built up that, in effect, the prospective purchaser is brainwashed in order to get his signature to a document.
There follow another six lessons on how to consolidate the sale that the man has already made. That means that if the salesman has persuaded the housewife to buy some books worth £10 or £20, or a sewing machine worth £10 or £20, he persuades her to increase the value of the purchase from £20 to, say, £30, £40, or £50.
833 The last series of lessons is on how the salesman can exploit the sale. In effect, it means that he gets the names and addresses of the customer's friends, so that he can knock at their doors and say, "I have been sent by your friend Mrs. So-and-so". This is an elaborate technique to train men to become highly-skilled door-to-door salesmen, using a psychological approach that is very dangerous, particularly to the elderly and the inarticulate. The telephone salesman is also invading the privacy of prospective purchasers. I know that he is not dealt with in this Bill, but the telephone sale is another technique now being exploited by highly-trained and highly-skilled salesmen.
The public are entitled to resent this invasion of their privacy, because that is what it is. I have had many complaints from harrassed housewives with, perhaps, three or four small children, about their being summoned to the door four or five times a day by salesmen, and perhaps having to leave cooking utensils on the stove, with the children wandering about, and so on.
Householders should be entitled to some protection of their privacy. Many householders place a notice on the gate saying "No canvassers allowed", but that does not stop a salesman knocking at the door. I do not for a moment suggest that there are not reputable salesmen. There are many who have been engaged in this profession for many years, brush salesmen, for instance, who build up a clientele in a district and get a band of customers whom they visit regularly. Some have been employed for 20 or 30 years, calling on customers every few months.
There are many reputable salesmen calling from door to door. What the Bill is concerned about is the highly disreputable salesman who bamboozles people into purchasing goods they do not want and of which, if they do want the goods, they do not know the ultimate price.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will give consideration to the representations made to him and that as a result of this debate we shall add our little quota to what is being done by the Consumer Council and other bodies to warn the public about the activities of this type of high-pressure salesman.
§ 2.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Ian Gilmour (Norfolk, Central)
In this debate there has been agreement on two points throughout, first, on the admirable way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison) introduced the Bill, and secondly, on the broad objectives of the Bill.
Some hon. Members, like my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffild, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn), thought the Bill does not go far enough. Others thought that it went too far. The hon. and learned Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams) thought that it went too far and not far enough. He was one of the supporters of the Bill. He was perfectly fair about it; but in view of what he said, if I ever introduce a Private Member's Bill I shall think twice before asking for his support.
He and my hon. Friends the Members for Reading (Mr. Peter Emery) and Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) made some valuable remarks on the question of criminal procedure. If it can be avoided, no one likes to introduce new criminal offences. The hon. and learned Member for Warrington put forward an alternative proposal which has some merit and should be looked at closely in Committee. He seemed, however, rather to under estimate the difficulties of proving fraud. He said that under the procedure he suggested the onus would always be on the seller, but he seemed to forget that that would not be so when cash had been handed over. The seller would not then want his goods back and the purchaser would have to take proceedings to get his money back. The hon. and learned Member for Warrington said that local authorities do not want the power to prosecute. No doubt that is true of some local authorities and not true of others.
If publicity about these practices was given in the way the Minister of State requested, I should think that very soon local authorities would find that they had to prosecute. The Minister of State made very heavy weather about the issue of a statutory notice which to me seems a simple thing. He said that the way in which it was provided for in the Bill was wrong. I find that the way in which it was provided for in the Bill was wrong. I find that very odd, because Clause 7 is in almost identical terms to Section 835 57(5) of the Hire Purchase Act which presumably was drafted by the Board of Trade. Even if Clause 7 needs some slight Amendment I do not think it needs radical amendment.
The Minister of State went on to say that the statutory notice might lead to another form of fraud and that once a seller had obtained entrance to a house and completed a legal transaction he might come back and perform an illegal one. But that is exactly what a salesman can do now. The idea that merely because he once gave a statutory notice to an occupier his subsequent frauds will be greatly facilitated does not seem to bear very serious examination.
The objection by the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman), which was slightly endorsed by the Minister of State, was that there have been insuffient consultations with some of the interests involved. The Minister of State said that the Retail Credit Federation had not had an opportunity to discuss the actual terms of the Bill. The federation has had plenty of opportunity to discuss its principles. I do not think it should be necessary for it to have an opportunity to discuss the actual terms of the Bill before the Bill was presented. We have gone a long way down the road to becoming a corporate State. We have gone a long way since the late Mr. Aneurin Bevan objected to consultation with outside interests. In this case there has been considerable consultation with outside interests and a considerable amount of agreement.
I thought the most unsatisfactory part of the speech of the Minister of State related to what he called "the pestiferous salesman". This seems to be the core of 836 the Bill. The Bill seeks to give protection to the privacy of the householder. Privacy is being cut down all the time. This Bill is to prevent salesmen gaining access under false pretences. Of course it would not stop a fraudulent salesman gaining access, but it would cut down the sort of procedure followed by people who purport to be Canadian students. That part of the Bill is not dealt with in any other legislation before the House. In itself it should be sufficient to make my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes refuse to withdraw the Bill.
The Minister of State said that he would not oppose a Second Reading, which is surprising because all his arguments were against the Bill. He suggested that it would be unenforceable and ineffective, and he used a whole series of epithets. We do not complain about his having said that he is prepared for the Bill to have a Second Reading. But he suggested that it would not be worth while for my hon. Friend to proceed with the Bill in Committee because of the many amendments which would need to be made. He brandished a rather threateninig pile of them. But my hon. Friend is not intimidated in any way, and we are prepared to fight it out all summer in Committee.
For these reasons, I think the Bill is worth while. It is a necessary Bill. It will give protection to privacy and a valuable protection to the consumer. Therefore, my hon. Friend does not intend to withdraw the Bill and I hope the House will give it a Second Reading.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).