§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.6 a.m.
§ Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
In some respects this is the second time that this Bill has been considered. As hon. Members present will know, a Measure which bore a marked resemblance to this Bill passed through all of its stages in this House in the last Session, thanks to the skilled guidance of the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson). I would, however, be liable to prosecution under the Trade Descriptions Act if I were to say that this was exactly the same Bill. It is different in a number of important respects from the Bill read a Second time some months ago.
Not least, the Title has been materially improved by changing it from the Inertia Selling Bill to the Unsolicited Goods and Services Bill. Although the Bill has changed, the problems with which it is meant to deal remain. The Bill sets out to deal with two distinct problems. First there is the practice of inertia selling. This phrase, like the practice, seems to have developed in the United States.
It consists of sending out goods which have not been ordered to the homes of people in the hope that they will pay, even though they did not want the goods in the first place. Sometimes the goods are sent to a person who has had no connection at all with the firm. Quite often the person concerned has ordered something quite different and is already on the company's books. What happens is that a letter arrives asking for payment. That letter is frequently friendly. Then, if payment is not made, another letter comes, not quite so friendly. Finally, there follow letters which become ever more menacing in their tone, eventually threatening legal proceedings. Those hon. Members who are members of the Bar or are solicitors will know the terrifying effect that the threat of legal proceedings can have on ordinary citizens.
1645 Very few people know of their rights here. In the past there has been considerable doubt as to what those rights were. It is plain that if a person sends out goods which have not been ordered then there is no obligation on the part of the recipient to pay for them. What he must do is to keep the goods reasonably safely for a reasonable time. What has not been properly established so far is what a "reasonable time" means. It has been held—it was argued in Committee on the last Bill—that a reasonable time could be as much as six years. In Clause 1 we suggest that six months should be the proper period. At the moment, there is considerable confusion on this aspect.
The practice of inertia selling, of sending out unsolicited goods, has been condemned by the Consumers' Association, by the Consumer Council, by the Advertising Standards Association, the National Chamber of Trade, the County Councils Association, the Confederation of British Industry and, in the last Parliament, by both Front Benches—and I hope that that is the case in this Parliament as well.
How widespread is the practice? In Committee on the Inertia Selling Bill in the last Parliament, the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) electrified us all with a graphic account of how a well known firm of publishers had tried to dun him for a set of cookery books that he had never wanted and had never ordered. We did not know at the time that he was saving up to purchase a book on beard-growing. But from our debates it is clear that he is by no means the only hon. Member who has received unsolicited goods and has been asked to pay for them.
In June last year, the Consumers' Association reported that 170 members had written to it complaining about some aspects of inertia selling within the past few months. There is no doubt that a considerable number of people have felt put upon and done down by this practice. Fortunately, there are signs that it is declining. Fewer complaints are coming through. This is because, in order to be successful, inertia selling depends on fear and ignorance on the part of the public, and the publicity provoked by discussion of the Inertia Selling Bill undoubtedly helped to inform many 1646 people about their rights, and if a fair proportion of people are prepared to stand up for themselves, inertia selling becomes prohibitively expensive.
Other factors are involved. Section 40 of the Administration of Justice Act, 1969, makes it somewhat harder to harass debtors and has therefore led to a modification in some of the threatening letters. At the same time, some of the largest mail order firms, having banded together in the Association of Mail Order Publishers, have condemned the practice of inertia selling. This is a most welcome step. Some of the member firms have been the targets of some criticism in the past. But the practice undoubtedly continues—there is evidence of that—and unless the Bill is passed there is a danger that it will make a comeback in future.
How do we intend to deal with these problems? Clause 1 of the Inertia Selling Bill consisted originally of a simple provision whereby the person who received unsolicited goods could at once treat them as a gift. In Committee this was criticised, and the Board of Trade, as it then was, and certain trade interests raised objections to it. They were mainly concerned with the position of the person who inadvertently or innocently sends gifts which have not been asked for.
The most frequently cited examples of this were the hoax order, where the michief maker completes an order form or fills in an advertisement coupon in the name of someone else, or the sending of goods either in error or to the wrong address. Certainly, sending things to the wrong address is by no means an unknown factor in this sort of situation. Indeed, when the Association of Mail Order Publishers invited the Consumers' Association to join, it managed to send the invitation to the wrong address. Then again, there is the genuine effort made by a tradesman to help a customer which might have ended in a charge of inertia selling—for instance, when he substitutes one kind of goods for another which has been ordered, for example, sending Brooke Bond tea instead of Ty-Phoo because he has no Ty-Phoo in stock.
To meet these objections, the Board of Trade, which assisted with drafting throughout the Committee and Report stages of the Inertia Selling Bill, devised a formula which now appears in Clause 1 1647 of this Bill, giving the recipient the option of acquiring the unsolicited goods within six months, rather than the four months prescribed in the Inertia Selling Bill, without doing anything at all about it, or telling the sender of the goods that he has them and requires them to be removed within 30 days. At the end of that period, the goods automatically become the property of the recipient. In both cases the sender may, if he likes, retake possession of the goods and the recipient loses his prospective rights to them if he unreasonably refuses to permit the sender to have access to them. But no obligation to send the goods back is imposed on the recipient.
Clause 2 of the Bill, dealing with demands and threats regarding payment, was Clause 3 of the Inertia Selling Bill and one can again thank the Minister's advisers for the fact that the drafting has been greatly improved and now covers certain situations not covered by the original Clause. It will now be an offence actually to put a person's name on a defaulter's list for not paying for unsolicited goods as well as for threatening to do so, which was the case in the last Bill. The main difference between Clause 2 of this Bill and the original provision is that there is now no provision for imprisonment. That is made unnecessary by Section 40 of the Administration of Justice Act, which will cover the worst cases of this sort of harassment. But the maximum fine remains the same.
My hon. Friends and I accept that the overwhelming majority of mail order firms conduct their business honestly and fairly and provide a service which the public enjoys and uses frequently. We have no wish in any way to try to drive them out of business or put unnecessary burdens upon them.
I am told that since the Consumers' Association launched a campaign on this subject some 18 months ago the number of hoax orders has increased by about 70 per cent. This may well be so, but there were hoaxers long before any legislation of this kind was ever thought of. One well known record club found that it was sending a voice improvement course to a certain J. H. Wilson at a Hampstead Garden Suburb address. I have the correspondence here. A certain Mrs. Marcia Williams wrote from 10, 1648 Downing Street to say that the then Prime Minister did not want the course and had not ordered it. Who knows but that our political history might have been altered if the course had not been cancelled and the recipient had persevered with it?
That hoax was perpetrated long before the Bill was thought of and hoaxes will continue even if the Bill does not complete its course, but if hoaxes increase mail order firms will have to improve their checking procedure and thus help to eliminate the very real problem of inertia selling by error. I accept that many cases that still occur are created by errors on the part of mail order firms but, as I say, they will have to change their procedure in order to meet this problem: I see no reason why the consumer should have to suffer from the errors of these companies, as is now the case.
The Bill is designed to meet two problems—inertia selling and the bogus directory. The bogus directory side is covered by Clauses 3 and 4. As we have rather weakened Clauses 1 and 2, which deal with inertia selling, so we have strengthened Clauses 3 and 4, because there can be no doubt that the bogus directory is a major and a growing racket.
When I first became interested in this problem I had imagined that it was quite a small scale fraud committed by people who had grown too tired to take the sixpences out of the cups of blind match sellers. I was wrong. There is big money in it, and more money in it every year.
The Advertising Association reckons that possibly £500,000 a year is taken from business firms by the bogus directory people. On the other hand, the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers put the figure at closer to £1,500,000, and in its latest edition of its Vigilance Bulletin it lists 73 different publishers whom it believes are in the racket and produce, or nominally produce, 102 different publications. Since it became known a few weeks ago that I proposed to introduce legislation to deal with this business, I have received scores of individual complaints about bogus directories, and it is clear that attempts have been made to "milk" at least 99 per cent. of our business firms.
What happens is simple, and all too often effective. A demand note is sent by one of these companies to a business, 1649 often containing a proof note of a directory entry. The recipient company is asked to check that the note is correct and to send the form back. Immediately this has been done a letter comes back asking for payment of, say, six or eight guineas, or something like that, with a large stamp on the bill offering a substantial discount for prompt payment, in the hope that alert secretaries or assistant managers will note the discount and will rapidly send the money in the belief that they are saving their firms considerable sums. Alternatively, once the proof form has been returned there comes an offer of advertising space, or an advertising agent calls on the firm pointing out that it has supposedly taken space in the directory and suggesting that it takes an advertisement to get a larger space.
The firm which has provoked the most complaint is Classified Directories Ltd., of 34, New Bridge Street. That firm sends out slips asking for payment of eight guineas for an entry in its directories, and it is plain from the volume of complaints received that many firms inadvertently pay up. The firm has recently been attacking the toy trade, and I have here a thick file of complaints made by toy firms to their trade newspaper in relation to this one firm alone.
Earlier this week I visited the firm's offices in New Bridge Street—offices which are packed high with the notorious yellow demand slips which so many firms have got to know so well. When I explained who I was and said that I wished to buy a copy of one of its directories, if one of its directories was about, I was asked to leave the offices immediately. Since then, however, I have seen one of its directories and it is plain that these have no commercial value at all. I have no hesitation in confirming the views of those who believe that this is a wholly fraudulent concern which makes substantial sums of money and contributes nothing to the country's commercial life.
From that address I went to see what appears to be the second largest firm of this kind—United Publicity Services Limited, Grays Inn Road. This is a much more interesting organisation in that it publishes at least one directory which is certainly of value.
But its main production is the extraordinary volume which I now hold in 1650 my hand, Castle's "Town and Country Trade Directory", a volume which contains some 2,250 pages and the names and addresses of about 200,000 firms drawn, I will not say higgledy-piggledy, but in a somewhat odd order from all over the country. Two thousand and five hundred copies of this directory have been printed, and it sells for £5 a copy and it may be found in some libraries. Indeed, the Ministry of Technology appears to have ordered a copy, which I would regard as a good reason for winding up the Ministry of Technology.
An entry in this extraordinary directory is free, but the main revenue comes from advertisements, and the firm employs no fewer than 30 full-time agents who go round the countryside drumming up advertising, which starts at some six guineas an entry, but which may go much higher than that.
On acquiring this directory, I turned to "newspapers". There I found that the only periodical which I read regularly and which had an advertisement was the New Statesman and Nation. However, from inquiries which I have made of the New Statesman, it would appear that it has not paid the bill, if it has received it.
But it is plain that the whole operation of preparing this directory and, more important, of acquiring advertisements for it amounts to about £100,000 a year to produce 2,500 copies of a book of this size which, if all are sold for £5 a time, would fetch a total of £12,500. It may be that entry in this directory is of some value to some firms, but it is difficult to see that it can be of real value to many of them. I notice that a nursery garden in my constituency has taken an advertisement which must cost at least £20. I cannot see that it could possibly derive any benefit from this advertisement. The commercial value of the whole enterprise is certainly questionable. But at least it produces a directory, a directory which is in a number of libraries. Many of the 72 publishers listed in the "Vigilance" survey produced nothing.
§ Mr. William Price (Rugby)
Do I understand that the hon. Gentleman has estimated the value of the advertisements at £100,000? Is he including the 200,000 names which have appeared in the total of £100,000, or is that in addition?
Most of the 200,000 names are entered entirely free and are just taken from other lists. My estimate of £100,000 is on the salary and commission of the 30 full-time agents, and I doubt whether any of them are paid less than the average wage of dustmen in the Greater London Borough of Bromley, which is now some £2,000 a year. If one estimates that paying the advertising agents of the firm needs some £50,000 a year and the headquarters staff, which I know, having visited the place, is also large and the offices in Grays Inn Road are large, the cost of preparing the publication and producing 2,250 pages—and a great deal of type has to be set and we all know that setting type is by no means the cheapest thing that can be done in the country today—one can estimate that the overall cost of the balance sheet of the operation must be close to £100,000 a year.
A number of the 72 firms listed in the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers "Vigilance" survey produce absolutely nothing. They go round trying to extort money for entries in publications which do not exist. Some firms have titles which are meant to give the impression that they are something to do with the Post Office "Yellow Pages". There are companies which try to sound like other but well-known companies, such as McGraw-Hinds, which has operated in the past with considerable success, or McMillan Graham. A substantial number of companies manage to get some European or Telex connotation in their title, and often both at the same time.
This racket should be stopped. It takes a great deal of money from many firms and, apart from the money it takes, it causes much embarrassment to those firms which fall, as it were, for this sucker bait, because it will quickly become apparent that some well-meaning secretary or well-meaning subordinate has paid up, thinking that that is the right thing, but in fact wasting the firm's money. When those concerned are told how silly they have been, tears ensue and one can see that this sort of approach is not only a waste of money, but causes personal friction within the firms which get caught.
The racket must be stopped and it will be stopped by Clause 3 which sets out 1652 in great detail the information which must be given by a directory-producing firm before any payment is claimed. If the information is not given, a substantial fine is payable. If the information is false, fraud will have been committed.
Clause 4 makes various officers in a company individually liable, a provision which is particularly important as the individuals concerned can change companies with quite surprising speed. Clause 5 gives the interpretation of certain words, and Clause 6, alas, excludes Northern Ireland from the many blessings that will. I hope, flow from the Bill.
I should like to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and his advisers for the work that they have done to improve the Bill, and in particular for the contribution that they have made to tightening up Clause 3. Here it would be appropriate to say a word of thanks to Mrs. Gwyneth Dun-woody, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade in the last Government, who did so much work on the Inertia Selling Bill in the last Parliament. She was materially helped by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker), who sat on the Opposition Front Bench when dealing with the Bill, and who helped to spotlight the problem of bogus directories. I have already mentioned, and I gladly repeat, the thanks we owe to the hon. Member for Accrington for the way in which he handled this Measure in its earlier manifestation.
I should also like to say a word of thanks to the Consumer Council and the Consumers' Association. The bulk of the drafting work was done by the Consumers' Association, but this does not mean, as some people suggest, that the Consumers' Association can take over a large part of the work that has hitherto been done by the Consumer Council. To take one aspect other than the preparation of and advice on legislation, the problem of consumer representation. The Consumer Council was represented on no less than 80 technical committees of the British Standards Institute. It is easy enough to appoint 80 people, but it is not so easy to keep them properly briefed and to see that they get all the papers that they should have. With the hon. Member for Accrington I sat on 1653 the council of the Consumers' Association, and I know that the association does not have the resources to undertake this important work.
Then there is the question of who advises the Minister on what consumer legislation is necessary. Mr. Roger Diplock, the eminently sensible expert on consumer protection, who has run the Retail Trading Standards Association for many years, has suggested that the Minister should form an expert committee to advise him on consumer affairs, recruited from such bodies as the Consumers' Association, the Retail Trading Standards Association, the Advertising Standards Authority and one or two other bodies. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will consider this point and recognise that there is a need for such a committee. But this morning, above all, I hope that he will support the Bill and that both sides of the House will support it too.
§ 11.44 a.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
I had the good fortune to catch Mr. Speaker's eye on Second Reading, and to serve on the Committee which dealt with the Inertia Selling Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson). The General Election prevented that Bill from being discussed in another place and from getting on to the Statute Book. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) who has promoted this Bill is to be congratulated on adopting the guts of the Inertia Selling Bill. I know that there are important differences, but he has adopted an important Measure and I hope that he will have better luck in securing the passage of the Bill into law.
This is a very necessary Measure. We have all had unsolicited goods foisted upon us, often followed by an invoice, a request for payment and then the threat of court proceedings. The average person, often ignorant of the law, is reluctant to be the subject of court proceedings, of which he knows very little, and he may yield to pressure—a form of blackmail—and pay for the goods that he has never requested and does not want. Many instances of this sort of pressure were quoted on the last occasion, and no doubt will be on this occasion.
1654 There is also the evil of the directory. A name which was never requested may be inserted in a directory, which when printed is entirely useless to the person named, or the directory may not even be printed. This again is followed by a request for payment, by threats of pressure and of court proceedings. This practice should be stopped, and the Bill is necessary for this purpose.
Clause 1 (1) declares that in the circumstances set out in Clause 1 (2) the unsolicited goods shall be treated as an unconditional gift and may be disposed of as such by the recipient. The circumstances are set out in Clause 1 (2) and recognition is given to the fact that in some cases it would be inequitable that unsolicited goods should be treated as a gift. The mail order business is a recognised form of trade, and the majority of those who carry it on are reputable traders who would not descend to the methods against which the Bill seeks protection. Obviously there is a desire on the part of the promoter of the Bill not to hamper mail order firms in their legitimate business. He has recognised that goods may be sent by mistake, as the result of a hoax or in other circumstances referred to by him. Clause 1 (2) is intended to be a protection in such cases.
I have one criticism of Clause 1, which I respectfully suggest should be considered. It puts a burden on the recipient. He must not take possession of the goods so as to constitute them a gift for a period of six months from receipt of the goods or, as provided in subsection (2), he must within 30 days give written notice in the form set out in subsection (3) to the sender. As the law stands, if a person receives unsolicited goods he is in law a gratuitous bailee. That means that he must keep them safe for a reasonable period. There has been considerable discussion about what is meant by a reasonable period, but there is no obligation upon him to write to the sender or to take steps to return the goods.
The obligation put upon the recipient by Clause 1(2) is far too onerous. I do not see why there should be an obligation on the recipient to do anything at all. It will be inequitable that goods delivered in error, as the result of a hoax or in circumstances referred to by the 1655 hon. Gentleman should be treated by the recipient as a gift, but that situation can be remedied by putting an obligation not on the recipient but on the sender. The recipient has not acted wrongly; he has not requested these goods. It can be cured simply by a provision that the recipient in such circumstances may not treat the goods as a gift if, say, within 28 days the sender informs the recipient of the circumstances in which the goods have been sent. That would mean that for 28 days the recipient is still the gratuitous bailee of the goods and responsible for their safety and that he must thereafter, if informed by the sender, have them at the disposal of the sender.
It seems to me that there is no reason for a person who receives unsolicited goods to have any obligation put upon him. He has, as I have said, done nothing. He has not requested the goods; he has not acted wrongly. Why put an obligation upon him to keep the goods for six months—a very long period—or to send a written notice? After all, it is the sender who is at fault and who should take steps to recover the goods to prevent them being a gift. He can do so by giving notice to the recipient within a certain period. In that way he can prevent the goods being considered as a gift in inequitable circumstances.
§ Mr. Goodhart
Under the Bill the recipient does not have to inform the company concerned. He has to reply if the company tries to get in touch with him. This does not seem unreasonable.
§ Mr. Weitzman
As I read the Bill, the obligation put upon the recipient is to send a notice in writing stating certain things. That is the clear obligation put upon him. It is an alternative to the obligation to keep them for six months. In my view these provisions are unnecessary. The person at fault is the sender. The way to cure the matter is to put an obligation upon the sender so that, in proper cases, the goods can be treated in that way. I do not want to press the point further. It may be that we shall have to deal with it in Committee.
I turn now to consider Clause 2. The promoter has properly prescribed penalties for wrong action taken by a person in delivering unsolicited goods for demands 1656 and threats regarding payment. There is no doubt that there are many cases where real evil has been wrought—I used the word "evil" advisedly—by demands or threats made in that way.
For instance, subsection (2)(b) reads,places or causes to be placed the name of any person on a list of defaulters or debtors or threatens to do soThat is a case where the recipient of the goods can do nothing. He has not solicited the goods; he has not done anything wrong. However, with no action on his part, he can be placed on a list of that kind. That is a serious matter for anyone, particularly in business. I welcome the provision in that Clause. My only criticism is that I am doubtful whether the penalty prescribed is sufficiently large.
I do not want to detain the House on Clause 3 which relates to directory entries, because the point has been so ably put by the promoter of the Bill. This is a real evil and it should be cured in the way suggested. I hope that it will be. No doubt when the Bill is examined in detail in Committee consideration will be given to a number of Amendments which I suggest ought to be considered. I am sure that the promoter will be prepared to consider them and accept them if they improve the Bill.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Beckenham on his good fortune in bringing in this very useful Measure.
§ 11.55 a.m.
§ Mr. Christopher Woodhouse (Oxford)
I join the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) on introducing the Bill. I am sure that the whole House will share his wish to deal effectively with the abuses with which the Bill is concerned.
I have been a little puzzled by the remarks which have been made about important changes since the original Bill was introduced. I did not have the honour and pleasure of serving in the last House and, therefore, took no part in previous discussions. From my study of the previous Bill and the present one the changes, apart from the change of Title and change of title of the first 1657 Clause, amount, first, to the extension of the four months originally provided in Clause 1(2)(a) to six months, and, secondly, the insertion of one or two new conditions in Clause 3(3)(a), which I entirely welcome.
§ Mr. Goodhart
I apologise, Mr. Speaker. Alas, my hon. Friend was not with us when we discussed the Inertia Selling Bill. However, I hope that he will not mind my pointing out to him that the Bill finally approved by this House was markedly different from the one which was given a Second Reading.
§ Mr. Woodhouse
I understand the point. My comparison was between the Bill now introduced and the Bill in its final stage before the Dissolution of Parliament.
I welcome the changes between those two forms of the Bill, but I do not think that they are very far-reaching. The Bill now presented could fairly be described as two separate Bills wrapped in one—one dealing with unsolicited goods and the other dealing with bogus directories.
Concerning bogus directories, I am wholeheartedly and unreservedly in favour of Clause 3, though, like the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North I think that it may be susceptible of improvement in Committee.
I have noticed that, since the last form of the Bill before the Dissolution, one or two changes have been introduced in Clause 3(3)(a). I suggest for my hon. Friend's consideration—I should welcome the views of the Minister on this point—that it might be desirable to take out the terms of the note of agreement specified in Clause 3 and put them in a Schedule which could be amended by Regulation, if necessary. This point may be important since already several changes have had to be introduced in the progress of the Bill in the conditions set down there. I suggest this as a possible improvement for the convenience of Parliament if, after the Bill becomes an Act, further changes are necessary.
1658 On the first part of the Bill, which was originally the inertia selling component of the previous Bill, I ought to declare an interest. Apart from being a person within the meaning of Clause 1—I suppose that we all are, though I think that I am unlikely to commit any kind of offence or wrong-doing under the Clause—I am also a member of the Advertising Standards Authority to which my hon. Friend referred. I know that I have the Authority's support in welcoming the whole of the Bill from Clause 3 onwards.
I have had the benefit of discussing the early Clauses with my colleagues on the Authority; and, although I would not claim to be speaking on their behalf, I think I know the minds of many of them on the points embodied in Clauses 1 and 2.
In recent years Parliament has allowed several new doctrines to be introduced into British law almost unnoticed. In the process of legislation for the protection of the consumer, we have in recent years adopted the entirely new practice of laying the onus of proof on the defendant. I do not question this. I merely say that it has happened.
The Bill contains what seems to be a new doctrine—it may be perfectly acceptable, but the House should be aware that it is introducing a new doctrine on the transference of the ownership of goods. This might be necessary if it were the only way to put a stop to a great and growing evil.
The name that has been attached to the evil is inertia selling. I am not a lawyer, nor am I an expert in this matter, except for my experience in the Advertising Standards Authority. However, I am advised that inertia selling in the strict sense is very little practised in the United Kingdom.
One of the very few cases that could accurately be defined as inertia selling in the American sense is, I am told, the supply of office stationery, but this would be excluded from the scope of the Bill by the words in Clause 1(2)that the recipient has no reasonable cause to believe that they were sent with a view of their being acquired for the purposes of a trade or business".Clearly office stationery is intended to beacquired for the purposes of a trade or business".1659 From my reading of past debates on this subject I believe that most of the complaints which have been quoted against mail order houses, if not all of them, arise from confusion or inefficiency in the mail order house rather than from examples of inertia selling in the strict sense.
For some time the Advertising Standards Authority has been giving advice to mail order houses on how to put their affairs in order. The effect of this advice—we are not alone in this—is shown by the very marked reduction in the number of complaints in the last six or eight months. I am told that a similar decline in the number of complaints has been noted by the Department of Trade and Industry, a matter on which I should be glad to hear the Minister's views, and also by the Consumer Council and newspaper reader services. Moreover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said, the respectable firms involved have recently formed the Mail Order Publishers Authority which should be more effective in imposing self-discipline on the business.
Apart from the declining number of complaints, I wonder whether the Bill is the right way to deal with them. It appears from debates on the previous Bill that the main hope of the sponsors is not so much to prevent inertia selling in the strict sense in which it was pioneered in the United States as to reduce the worry and annoyance caused to people either by the misuse by others of facilities offered by book or record clubs or by the inefficiency of those clubs themselves. However, these are not cases of inertia selling in the true sense if it is not shown—this is the crux of the matter—that the goods in question were dispatched in the knowledge that the person to whom they were sent had not requested them.
I hope that I am not being over-pedantic in the definition I am adopting of inertia selling, but I believe I am right in saying that knowledge that the goods were unsolicited by the recipient is an essential element in inertia selling as defined and practised in the United States but hardly at all in Britain.
Perhaps my hon. Friend will on this point care to consult his father, who has 1660 the triple qualification of being a very eminent lawyer, an American, and a constituent of mine.
For the reasons which I have indicated, the Bill does not make—this is its one possible defect—such knowledge on the part of the sender an element in the definition of the conduct which it seeks to prevent. This overlooks the fact that book and record clubs which include coupons in Press advertisements are peculiarly liable to be the victims of hoax orders by people other than the recipient.
Examples have been quoted. My hon. Friend told us that in the last year or 18 months the number of hoax orders had risen by as much as 70 per cent. Under the Bill the recipients of goods sent to them as a result of a hoax, or otherwise misdelivered in error, would be given an incentive to retain the goods in the hope that six months would elapse before the sender recovered them.
I detect a certain uneasiness about this point in the extension of the period allowed in successive versions of the Bill. Originally no time was allowed. Then it became four months. Now it has become six months. None of us can say what the right period is, but clearly there is some uneasiness on this point in the process of drafting the Bill.
Would it not be simpler to deal with the whole problem by creating an offence of sending goods which the sender knows or ought to know have not been requested by the recipient? This would be simpler and would achieve the effect that is desired by the Bill without any of the troublesome side effects which may arise from the Bill as drafted.
§ Mr. Weitzman
Would it not be extremely difficult to prove lack of knowledge on the part of the sender of goods?
§ Mr. Woodhouse
I take the hon. and learned Gentleman's point. That is why I said that the requirement should be that the sender knew or ought to have known that the goods had not been solicited. I put this forward merely as a suggestion for dealing with a real problem in a slightly different way. I have not any hostility to the purpose of the Bill as such. I am merely looking for another way of achieving the object. I should be glad if the sponsors of the Bill would consider this point.
1661 I should also particularly like to hear the Minister's views on this subject, because clearly the Government's views will be important; and they will be all the more interesting to me because the Chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority under whom I had the pleasure of serving for three years is now a member of the Government and will no doubt make his views known to his colleagues.
I entirely support the principles of the Bill, particularly the Clauses on bogus directories; but there is room for for improvement and for further consideration in Committee.
§ 12.10 p.m.
§ Mr. William Price (Rugby)
The hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) has made an interesting case and I wish to deal briefly with three points. I hope that he is wrong in his interpretation of the effect of the Bill on the sales of office equipment. This is a major field for abuse and is something we ought to stamp out. This is a matter we must look at in Committee.
Reference was made to the fact that there have been fewer complaints. We are entitled to say that this may have something to do with the amount of time spent in this House discussing and attempting to deal with abuses. We can only hope that further discussions and eventually legislation, when we get it, will mean that we shall end with no complaints at all.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) was arguing in a kind and persuasive way that there may be bad customers as well as bad business operators. Most of us would agree with that remark, and it is a factor to be taken into account. I should like to offer my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on his luck in the Ballot. I am delighted that he decided to take over the Bill, and anybody who heard his speech will agree that he made a devastating case.
A number of us have regrets about what happened on 18th June. Although we may not all agree the outcome of the General Election, most of us would regret the fact that the General Election killed the Bill put forward by the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davison) whom we are delighted to see on the Opposition Front Bench. It is a great pity that this adds another 1662 lawyer among the gods, but this is something we have to put up with. However, for this Bill he has earned his place there.
There is one feature of the Bill about which I am concerned. It is a miserable indictment of our system of government that such a Measure must be taken in private Members' time. It is not a great social issue, it is not a major controversy, nor is it a minority issue, but it is a matter that affects millions of people and should have been the subject of Government legislation. It would have left the hon. Member for Beckenham free to introduce a genuine Private Member's Bill. Some of us today would have preferred to have discussed a Bill on live-hare coursing. Nevertheless, we should be grateful to the hon. Member.
The trouble with this sort of Bill is that in the past there have been people in Whitehall—this has come through clearly in letters I have received from Ministers in the past five years—who have taken the view that if ordinary citizens were taken for a ride it was their fault for being stupid. Apparently all that is needed is good sense and a degree of vigilance. However, they overlook the fact that not all my constituents or indeed I myself have I.Q.s of 170. The curious thing that I have found in my dealings with some of these operators is that the most intelligent people are often the first to get caught. I have received letters from numerous people in prominent positions in business and commerce who regret the fact that they did not argue the case to a logical conclusion but paid up by error.
We are faced with some clever operators, fifth-rate American business types. The dividing line between these people and out-and-out "con-men" is extremely narrow. I can understand some shady character straight out of Wormwood Scrubbs running a bogus trade directory, sending out thousands of fictitious accounts, hoping for perhaps a 10 or 15 per cent. response and then clearing off with the money. As we have heard, he relies on two factors. First, the business organisation which allows the account to slip through its machinery, particularly when those accounts are deliberately copied from organisations like the Post Office—which has enough troubles of its own without bothering with shady operators. Second, he relies on 1663 the fear of the ordinary individual when confronted with threats of court action. Perhaps it can be argued that industrial firms and commercial enterprises should be able to attend to their own affairs. What concerns me more is the fleecing of members of the public.
I have been interested for many years in bogus trade directories. With the help of a business friend, I recently traced one of them. He had received the usual documents, an impressive account for seven guineas, followed by a statement and later by a demand. We made inquiries and, to cut a very long story short, since the matter went on for months, we traced this character to a broken-down railway carriage in the south of England, of which the late Tony Hancock would have been proud. There never was any directory since the man was an out-and-out, unashamed crook. He would have disappeared with the takings and that would have been the end of the matter. Therefore, I welcome, as will all other Members who are present in this debate, the provisions of the Bill relating to directories. When this Measure becomes law, as I have no doubt it will, it will go a long way towards stamping out this miserable practice. But what is more important is the growing and dangerous flow of unsolicited and unwarranted goods. There are two major commodities involved, carbon papers and stencils.
I should like to quote two examples which occurred recently in my constituency. I had a telephone call from some nuns in a convent who had received a box of stencils for no apparent reason and a demand for eight guineas. They were being threatened and were going to pay. I persuaded them not to do so. I wrote to the firm and to my astonishment received a reply which in itself is a major achievement. They were sorry there had been a mistake, they enclosed 6s. in postal stamps and asked whether I would return the stencils. I wrote back and said, "Like hell I will." They sent them out, so they could collect them. That was the last I heard from them. The 6s. I spent in Annie's Bar and my local party is now working its way down a box of stencils, so they can send as many as they like to my constituents.
1664 I have a good system. In my local office we have a great deal of unwanted, unasked-for and unpaid-for goods. I would even advise my opponents that the system works and is effective and cheap. On that particular matter the operators in the firm slipped up, but the nuns as a result of a telephone call were about to pay up and understandably wanted no trouble.
The second example involved a licensee friend of mine, and we all know that licensees are tough people. In fact, it amazes me that the firm in question even tried to sell a licensee something he did not want, but obviously mostly it works. The licensee had a telephone call thanking him very much for taking part in a survey and asking whether he would accept a gift in the form of a pen. He had not taken part in a survey and did not want the pen. Nevertheless, the pen came with a box of carbon paper, followed a month later by a bill for nine guineas for the carbon paper. This is the system that firm operated. Eventually he received a court notice to appear at a non-existent county court. This is the way they carry on.
I was able to trace them. The managing director of the firm was kind enough to reply to my letters. He came to the Central Lobby and I spent an hour there with him. I threatened to report him to the Board of Trade, and he was actually frightened. He must be the first one ever to be frightened by that threat—he did not know that the name had been changed, but that is neither here nor there.
This gentleman gave me the longest hard-luck story I have ever heard since I have been in the House. It was all the fault of the Americans. His honest long-established family business was being driven to dishonest methods in an effort to compete with foreigners. I nearly bought some of his carbon paper, I felt that sorry for him—except that we were already using two boxes which we had acquired free. My tears dried up shortly afterwards when the newspapers printed in great detail the sad case of a man who was sent to prison for embezzling £18,000 of his firm's money to pay for carbon paper which he had never wanted, which the firm had not wanted, and which no one had ordered.
1665 My only fear about the Bill is that it does not, perhaps, go far enough. I should like to see it deal with inertia selling through the post, another rapidly growing market and one which causes a good deal of offence. I get everything imaginable through my post-box, from Harry Wheatcroft roses to the most seductive literature offering sexual pleasures in ways never dreamed of even in Egyptian brothels for the middle-aged. This sort of thing is coming through my letter-box, and it is coming through numbers of letter-boxes in Rugby. It amuses me. Perhaps there is something I do not know; perhaps there is something I have yet to learn. What I do know is that I am receiving many complaints from people who regard this practice as a direct intrusion into their privacy. There is no selectivity about it. It goes to the elderly just as it goes to the young, and, as the law stands, there is nothing we can do about it. I do not believe that the Bill will do much about it, either.
One large estate in my constituency was recently given the treatment. Every household received notice of a book—not yet printed, and never likely to be—which would open up a whole world of sexual fantasy. All one had to do was send 30s. to an obscure address in the Midlands. I wrote to that address, though without including 30s., of course, and I had the most pathetic letter back from the owner, a florist. He said that it had nothing to do with him; it was someone to whom he had rented an upstairs room, he could not get rid of him, and he was receiving hundreds of letters flooding in, as well as people knocking on the door threatening to thump him because they had sent the money, they could not get the book, and they could not get to see the man responsible.
This is going on throughout the Midlands. I feel that it is a weakness in the Bill that we shall be stopping that sort of character and others of his ilk from sending out the book, assuming it is printed, but we shall do nothing to stop him sending out the sales literature which goes with it or before it.
Again, it can be argued that this is a decision for the individual. I do not accept that. In just the same way as the House saw fit to take action against door-to-door salesmen, offering a degree of protection to people in that way, we 1666 shall sooner or later have to deal with the door-to-door sales literature.
As I said, I could understand the crook operating from his disused railway carriage. What I cannot understand, and what I find surprising, is that many reputable firms are operating the hard sell, too. I hesitate to mention just one, but Reader's Digest is a good example, offering the whole world with a year's subscription. It is time they got off our backs, and I hope that the Bill goes a long way towards achieving that objective. For the moment, I regard the Bill as a desirable move in the right direction. We seem to live in an age when it is regarded as a virtue to sell somebody something that he does not want. Thousands of people are being taken in today, just as they were taken in yesterday and just as they will be taken in tomorrow. We all wish the hon. Gentleman well.
§ 12.25 p.m.
§ Mrs. Sally Oppenheim (Gloucester)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) both on his good fortune in the Ballot and on his good sense in bringing forward this Bill once again. It is a Bill which sets out to curtail practices which have been roundly condemned by some of the most informed bodies in the country today.
It is a real pleasure for me to have an opportunity to speak in the debate on this Bill, to which, in principle, I give wholehearted support. To those with both resources and access to good advice, inertia selling is usually no more than a great irritation or an incursion into privacy, but when, as is the case with many of my constituents, the recipients are elderly people living alone, and in some cases, house bound, the whole process of inertia selling can, through ignorance, cause a great deal of distress, even terror, and eventually considerable financial hardship. Many such people would be physically incapable of appearing in court and giving evidence even if they had recourse to advice, which they have not.
What is more, many people who receive unsolicited goods, after being subjected to the various forms of pressure and menace practised by inertia sellers, actually become convinced that they have done something wrong. They are 1667 afraid that their neighbours will get to know about what they take to be a misdeed on their part, so they pay up quickly and quietly in response to what has become, for them, neither more nor less than the blackmail threats to which they have been subjected. One wonders how often a wife does this in order to keep from he husband that she has made what she believes to be a silly mistake.
In supporting the Bill, however, I wish to make clear that I have many of the reservations voiced by the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) about Clause 1(2)(a) and (b), which, I believe, place unwarranted obligations upon the recipients of unsolicited goods. I cannot for the life of me see why someone who has in no way solicited goods in the first place should be expected to give them house room or to store them for the sender. Any mother knows that in a household with small children it is virtually impossible to keep anything safe from prying fingers and from the possibility of damage. If a bottle of ink is accidentally spilled on an unsolicited book, for example, during the six months' period is the householder to be liable for the damage? Surely, the recipient should be able to keep as a gift the goods which come to him through inertia selling, with a right to keep them or throw them away, and with no obligation to give notice to the sender or to store the goods. The total impossibility of recovering such goods might be the strongest deterrent of all against sending unsolicited goods in the first place.
I particularly welcome Clause 5(2) which, in my view, neatly and clearly deals with the problem of the possibility of confusion arising over demands for payment. But, while I accept that the definition of what has or has not been solicited in the first place must be clearly made—and this presents difficulties—it is important, as the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) has said, to make sure, perhaps by further legislation or by Amendment, that confusion does not arise from the receipt of cleverly worded, complicated and elaborate literature. In passing, I have often heard that description applied to election addresses. Confusion can result from people signing such leaflets or forms sent with or in advance of unsolicited goods, for which they may 1668 incur liability from which the Bill will not protect them.
We have heard a number of references to pornographic literature, which could be described as one form of unsolicited goods. It is interesting that a Bill has recently passed through the American Congress which provides that anyone who unwillingly receives pornographic literature may return it through the postman to the sender, who becomes liable both for the return postage and to a fine.
Notwithstanding the reservations that I have made, I am delighted to support a Bill which provides a considerable measure of protection against what is an iniquitous practice that takes unfair advantage of those who can least afford to be tricked in that manner.
§ 12.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Fergus Montgomery (Brierley Hill)
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) will forgive me if I do not follow too closely what she said, although there were certain points in her speech on which I do not see eye to eye with her. Perhaps I might return to them later.
I cannot help feeling that I have been here before. A number of us sat through a similar debate on the subject earlier in the year. I enjoyed listening to the speech of the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) again, because many of the points that he made earlier in the year he underlined again today, and quite rightly because they were varied and very much connected with the legislation which my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) hopes to get on to the Statute Book.
I must congratulate my hon. Friend on his good fortune. He and I both started our political lives in the same constituency. We were both beaten by enormous amounts, and we both subsequently secured resting places in different parts of the country. I must congratulate him on his luck in the draw, and certainly I feel that he presented his case this morning with great skill. At the same time, I sympathise with the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson), who had the luck earlier in the year to present a similar Bill. I was one of those who served on the Standing Committee which considered that Measure. 1669 Undoubtedly it was the happiest Committee that I have known. It was non-contentious, it was not political, and it was always one Committee which I looked forward to attending. That can rarely be said. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman's Bill had almost become law and was in fact going through its Committee stage in the other place when his right hon. Friend who is now Leader of the Opposition decided to call a General Election. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman was shamefully treated by the leader of his party, and I hope that he voted the right way on 18th June.
What exactly is inertia selling? Perhaps the best definition that we have is that laid down by the Advertising Standards Authority Ltd., which states:Inertia selling is the selling of goods which have not been ordered, whether by themselves or with other goods which have been ordered, in the hope that the recipient will be willing to pay for them or to return them to the sender.I have the feeling that the expression "intertia selling" originated in the United States, and I can only presume that the situation in America has worsened, because the State of New York has introduced legislation to stop this form of selling. As I understand it, the law in New York now states:No person, firm, partnership, association or corporation, or agent or employee thereof, shall, in any manner or by any means, offer for sale, goods, wares or merchandise, where the offer includes the voluntary and unsolicited sending of goods, wares or merchandise not actually ordered or requested by the recipient, either orally or in writing. The receipt of any such unsolicited goods, wares or merchandise shall, for all purposes, be deemed an unconditional gift to the recipient who may use or dispose of the same in any manner he sees fit without any obligation on his part to the sender.Broadly speaking, this is the same principle as that put forward by my hon. Friend. Certainly that was the idea of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester; in other words, anyone sent unsolicited goods is automatically allowed to keep them and treat them as a gift. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham has the balance about right in his Bill, because this was a point that was dealt with at length in Committee when we were considering the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Accrington.
1670 The technique of inertia selling seems to be the same. It follows much the same pattern. Goods are sent unsolicited and then demands for payment begin. At first, they are very polite and written in the vein of, "Perhaps you have overlooked this". When payment it not forthcoming, the demands become threats. The idea that both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Accrington have at heart is to protect the general public from the sort of threats that many of these firms have made.
The basic fault is that all too many people are ignorant of the law. When threatened with court proceedings, as many are by unscrupulous firms, they are terrified of appearing in court, and they are worried about seeking legal advice because they think that they cannot afford it. The result is that they pay, and unscrupulous firms gain yet another victory. If the Bill becomes law, it will protect the public from this insidious form of selling.
Perhaps I might now return to the matters on which I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, the chief of which concerns the discussion that has taken place on Clause 1(2). We had long debates on this in Committee earlier this year. At the time, some hon. Members felt that unsolicited goods should be kept automatically as a gift, and that is in line with legislation in the State of New York.
There are certain difficulties that we have to face. There is the problem of the hoaxer, the person with a strange sense of humour who, to annoy someone else, will send slips to firms asking for goods to be sent to that person. There is also the difficulty of possible collusion between two people. If, for example, my hon Friend the Member for Gloucester and I were unscrupulous and my hon. Friend fancied a set of books, I could fill in a slip in her name and send it to the firm concerned, and in all honesty my hon. Friend could say to the firm that she had never filled in that form and that was not in her handwriting. In that way, I would have obtained a set of books for her. Then it might be that I would like a set of gramophone records. Having obtained a set of books for my hon. Friend, I could then ask her to fill in a slip with my name and address 1671 and, in that way, I could say with complete honesty that I had never filled in the form. Unless we are careful with this legislation, in such a case I could automatically keep the records.
§ Mrs. Sally Oppenheim
If my hon. Friend and I entered into such a curious enterprise together, surely we would both need the ability to forge the other's signature.
§ Mr. Montgomery
Not necessarily. The firm concerned would receive the form and accept it as an order.
If the law is not as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham is trying to make it but that anyone who receives unsolicited goods may keep them, the fact that goods have been sent to me when I could say in good faith that I had not filled in the form would mean that I could keep them.
§ Mr. Selwyn Gummer (Lewisham, West)
Were my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) to send in the form on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Montgomery), the problem is that there would be no way in which the firm concerned could tell whether she had written his signature as well as she might or merely written his name. Therefore we must distinguish between a deliberate attempt to obtain goods without payment and the unhappy situation in which someone is sent goods by a firm which knows that they are unwanted. It seems to me that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) has got this just about right.
§ Mr. Montgomery
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Selwyn Gummer), and I support my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham. Although there are unscrupulous firms, there are also unscrupulous members of the public.
§ Mr. William Price
This is an important point and perhaps it should have been raised earlier. Have we not some cover in law as it stands at the moment? I am no lawyer, but would not such a person be guilty of fraud?
§ Mr. Montgomery
Yes, but the difficulty is proving this. I am concerned that the reputable firms should not be 1672 penalised, as they easily could be unless we are very careful with the way in which this legislation is drafted.
§ Mr. Ernle Money (Ipswich)
Would my hon. Friend not make a distinction between goods which are unsolicited in the sense of not having been solicited by anyone and goods which have been solicited by some members of the public, albeit on someone else's behalf? There are some goods which are completely unsolicited and are sent on a firm's own volition.
§ Mr. Montgomery
I accept that point, but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham has the balance just about right. No doubt we can talk about this further in Committee. I think that six months is a reasonable time for people who do not bother to notify the firm. This emphasises the fact that, as the law stands, one is supposed to keep the goods for a reasonable time, and no one specifies what that time is. Six months is reasonable. It means that the person who receives goods that he has not ordered and informs the firm immediately can keep those goods if the firm does not collect them within 30 days of the person writing to it.
I do not like this form of selling. I am sorry to say that, this week, I received eight Christmas cards from the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists Limited, with an accompanying letter which said:I have been asked by my fellow artists to write and introduce you to our work—although I have to hold the pen in my mouth.Overleaf you will see how we, in the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, create our pictures by painting with the brush held in the mouth or by the feet because some misfortune deprived of us the use of our hands. The most suitable pictures from our work have been reproduced as Christmas cards which we are sending you herewith, without obligation, on approval.We are trying to earn our living by the sale of these cards so that we may be independent and not be a burden. It has not been easy for us to learn to paint, it required hard work, patience and determination.We trust that, considering the design and quality of the cards, the price of only 10s. the set and the story behind their production, you may decide to buy them. We shall be grateful to receive your remittance by crossed P.O. or cheque.I think that this a worthy cause, but I wish that they would not operate this form of selling, because they are doing 1673 themselves a good deal of harm in the process. The cards that they send are good value and I do not object to them at all. The eight cards that they are offering for 10s. are much better value than I could buy in the shops, and I am prepared to help these people. It is just the principle of the thing, that they send one these cards and more or less put one on the spot, to which I object. I hope that they can think of other ways in which to sell their cards.
My hon. Friend's Bill also deals with bogus directories, on which there has been a good deal of discussion. When we debated this issue earlier this year, a constituent wrote to me because he had been bothered by one of these firms. He received a communication on which there was a slight mistake in his address. This seems to be the usual form here. He thought that the form had something to do with the Post Office. He was asked, if the address was wrong, to make the necessary correction. He did so, and returned the form, whereupon, he began to receive bills from the firm to say that he was being included in their trade directory. Luckily, my constituent refused to pay and I think that the matter ended there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham mentioned the main offenders in this directory racket. The hon. Member for Accrington named them on 30th January, and I can remember the headlines on that day, with some of the firms that he had named screaming abuse about what they would do to the hon. Gentleman for those accusations. I do not see that they have taken action, but they have still gone on with the type of work in which they are involved. These firms still exist and I hope that this legislation will stamp out these disreputable firms whose aim is to "con" innocent people.
Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his good fortune and on the very useful Measure that he is hoping to get on the Statute Book. I have no doubt that we will go into much more detail on this in Committee. If I am on the Committee, I hope that it will be just as enjoyable as the Committee earlier this year on the Inertia Selling Bill. Again, I should like to endorse what my hon. Friend is doing. The principle of the Bill is to protect the general public and 1674 the reputable firms who deal in this line of business.
§ 12.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Davidson (Accrington)
I should like first of all to congratulate the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Good-hart) on his singular good sense and good luck which he has managed to combine in a very skilful way. I also thank him for the kind remarks that he made about me and I should also like to thank other hon. Members for their kind references to me.
I am very glad to see some of the old faithfuls here from the discussions on the Inertia Selling Bill. I mean that not in years but in devotion and allegiance to the principles of that Bill and their opposition to the abuses that it was designed to kill. I am particularly glad to see the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Montgomery), who was a tower of strength in that Committee. I can assure him that I did vote the right way at the last election. Incidentally, I attribute his increased majority entirely to his support of the Inertia Selling Bill in the last Parliament.
I should like to join the hon. Member for Beckenham in his kind reference to Gwyneth Dunwoody. We are all sorry on personal grounds that she is not here, I am sure. She was of great help during the Committee stage of the Inertia Selling Bill. I mean no disrespect to the Minister when I say that. We welcome him here also. From conversations with him, I know that he will be a keen supporter of this Bill. I am sure that he will find it invigorating and interesting. This is a very select little company that we have and I am sure that it will be a great relief for him to be dragged away from some of the more weighty and controversial matters which he has been discussing lately.
I should like to lament the change of title of this Bill. I agree that this is a far better title, but I had grown to love the old title, the Inertia Selling Bill: it had a certain ring. I am mildly sorry to lose it, but the hon. Member for Beckenham is very lucky because he will not be a target for some of the ribaldry about having his name associated with inertia, which I had. But I am a little disturbed about "Unsolicited" Goods and Services Bill, because it presupposes that there are "solicited" services, which has 1675 a certain pornographic ring about it. But I need not go into that in great depth.
The hon. Member for Beckenham is absolutely right: there was a need for this Bill last year and there is still a need for it. The Consumers' Association and the Consumer Council both have evidence, as I have from my correspondence, that inertia selling, in whatever form, has not diminished. But I agree that the more blatant form has certainly decreased. I think that the sending-out at random, willy-nilly, of goods for which there has been no approach from the recipient has waned considerably. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby, I think that this has been largely due to the publicity given to our debates on the previous Bill. There is certainly still need for vigilance on the part of the public and need for legislation to reinforce that vigilance.
More often than not there is an initial response on the part of the public to an advertisement or to an offer which, in itself, is misleading and confusing. Frequently a member of the public fills in a form in response to something he has read in the newspapers or to a leaflet which has come through his door. Probably it is elaborately worded, extravagantly termed but which, by the time he gets to the end of it, leaves him in complete confusion.
He is offered something like one free copy of Tolstoy if he takes a certain number of volumes of Joseph Conrad, together with a free Winston Churchill medal, plus a map of the world if, in addition, he takes a Charles Dickens volume—and invariably he ends up with the complete works of Thackeray which he did not want in the first place.
All this could be avoided if firms put their offers in simple language which the layman can understand. Unfortunately, however, many of them realise that the public do not understand the nature of the offers; and they are only too willing to couch their offers in extravagant language.
Like the hon. Member for Beckenham, I welcome the setting up of the Association of Mail Order Publishers. This authority contains many of the more reputable firms and I am glad to see that they have drawn up a code of conduct which, they say, will be obligatory for their members to implement in their 1676 advertisements. We will wait and see how effective it is. It represents a step in the right direction, though it does not, of course, obviate the need for this Measure.
I wish these firms would do something about the patronising nature of some of the leaflets that come through my door. I object to receiving leaflets telling me that I have been specially selected—due to my great intellectual qualities, which I may or may not possess—out of millions of people in Britain to enter a special competition. If I enter, all sorts of pleasures will presumably ensue. I know perfectly well that my intellectual gifts, and even my physical prowess for that matter, have never entered into it. They have merely taken my name from the electoral register or the telephone book. I wish they would stop this patronising, annoying, irritating and totally unnecessary practice, and perhaps the mail order firms will do something about it.
The hon. Member for Beckenham, in his able and comprehensive coverage of the Bill, dealt with the main purposes of the Measure and the way in which it differs from the previous Bill. I therefore do not propose to go over that ground. I would only add that I have always considered the most important part of this Bill, like my Measure, to be the penalties which will be levied on firms which send out threatening letters and demands for payment. It is vital that the provisions relating to these matters are reasonably heavy so that they act as a firm deterrent.
The hon. Lady the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) was absolutely right when she said that most people are terrified of anything in the nature of legal proceedings. I agree that most people are law-abiding and honest. They are shocked at the thought that they might be in debt and are horrified at the idea that somebody will put them on a debtors' list. The penalties in the Bill will, therefore, do a great deal to make firms much more conscious of the need to be scrupulously careful about the way in which they investigate complaints.
They must do this in a much less cavalier manner than they have tended to use in the past and they must be even more careful when sending out demands for payment and threats of legal proceedings. I hope, therefore, that they will 1677 increase the efficiency of what I would call their checking and investigating machinery as a first step.
I come to the provisions dealing with directories. The hon. Member for Beckenham was very much bolder than I in that I would never have dared venture into the offices of the classified directories, particularly after some of the threats that they made, if not to my person then certainly to my pocket, by way of threats of legal proceedings.
The hon. Gentleman detailed skilfully and accurately the way in which these and similar firms operate. Since I raised the matter in the House I have received one complaint after another. Other hon. Members have had the same experience and they have been kind enough to send some of the complaints on to me. These complaints have been about demands for money and threats of legal proceedings from firms with fancy names which usually include words like "Telex" and similar in-phrases. None of them is a reputable publisher and most of them have never had any intention of publishing a directory.
The directory racket—to call it "inertia selling" is to overstate what it is—is nothing but a means of enabling these firms to make a great deal of money. The only thing not bogus about it is its money-making potential. In its simplest form, a firm merely sends out an invoice in respect of an entry which has never been ordered. The invoice looks sufficiently like an officially printed document to deceive the average reasonably busy business man.
I have news for the public at large. I am afraid that inflation has now set in, even in this racket, because recently the charges made by these firms for their non-existent directories have gone up, from about six guineas to eight guineas. I was able to tell the Committee at one stage that one of the firms, which to my knowledge had never published a directory and had no staff whatever, was regretfully informing its potential subscribers that its charges were having to be increased due to the incidence of S.E.T. It would not be appropriate for me to discuss the effects of S.E.T. today, but even its most bitter opponents in the House would never claim that it had an effect on non-existent staff.
1678 In its more elaborate forms, the practices or techniques used by the trade directory firms become more fraudulent as they become more elaborate. One practice used by their salesmen is to call on a firm to imply that they are merely obtaining a signature which constitutes a cancellation; and they fill in the details later on the same form so that instead of it being a cancellation form, it is an order form for insertions not just in one directory but in a succession of them.
This is a very profitable racket indeed and I have no doubt that while the Bill will do a great deal to stamp it out, some of those taking part in it will pass on to more profitable pastures. I have no doubt that they will be indulging in what have been described as the carbon paper and other rackets.
These provisions, because they make it obligatory for a firm to give a great deal of information about the date when the directory is to be published, circulation figures, the cost of the operation, will mean that many of the more crooked operators will inevitably drop out because the general technique is based upon the fact that they give no information whatever. I know that the Fraud Squad feels that this Measure will be effective in stamping out the practice.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Beckenham on sponsoring the Bill. He and I served on the Consumer Council and he has taken a great interest in this subject for a long time. If I may make a slightly contentious remark, I endorse what the hon. Member said about it being a great pity that the Government have decided to wind up the Consumer Council. The Council was a great help to me in drafting my Bill and I am sure that while it is in existence it will be a great help to the hon. Member.
There is no other body that can take its place and the debates on the Bill have shown that there is a great deal still to be done in the way of consumer protection legislation. I hope that the Minister will at least bear in mind the comments made today about the sad demise of the Consumer Council. I assure the hon. Gentleman that he will receive every possible co-operation from this side of the House in his endeavours and I wish him the best possible luck in getting this Bill on to the Statute Book.
§ 1.3 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)
I start by adding my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) on his good fortune in winning such a good place in the Ballot and upon his choice of subject for the Bill as well as upon his excellent and comprehensive speech, which gave a very good review of the situation and an explanation of the Bill.
The Government welcome Bills which help to define the law as between consumers and traders. It is a new feature in our arrangements for consumers generally that much more interest is being taken in bringing into effect a large number of laws making the position of the consumer clearer on matters affecting his interests. This Bill seeks to add to that legislation and it must be judged as such on its merits. The principle is one to which the Government adhere.
I will say a word about the Consumer Council. This increase in consumer protection legislation is one of the reasons why the Government felt that the Consumer Council was no longer necessary. There were other reasons, but I do not want to widen the scope of the debate. It is right that there should be a clear line drawn between what may and may not be done and what are the rights of the consumer. If this Bill reaches the Statute Book it will be a Measure to be added to the six or seven Acts which have been put on to the Statute Book in recent years.
I do not think that we need an official advisory committee to advise the Government on these matters. There is a large number of voluntary bodies and their advice will always be welcome as will suggestions for legislation. Since hon. Members are acutely aware of these problems I can assure the House that there is no shortage of advice and that the Government are fully equipped to monitor and decide which of the proposals for legislation should be accepted.
The mere fact that my hon. Friend has chosen to legislate on this subject is evidence that the consumer has many friends and that there are many who are seeking to suggest ways in which he might be better protected. The hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) asked me why private Members' time 1680 should be employed on this subject. The answer is because my hon. Friend chose it on the first Friday available for private Members' Bills. The Government welcome this, but I do not think the hon. Gentleman would have expected the Government to have brought in a consumer protection Bill at such an early stage in the Session. The fact that my hon. Friend has been able to jump the queue, as it were, because of his good fortune in winning the Ballot, seems to be something which commends the private Members' Bill procedure rather than detracts from it.
The hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) regretted slightly that the name of the Bill had been changed and my hon. Friend said that he thought he might be guilty under the Trade Descriptions Act for mislabelling the hon. Gentleman's goods. I think a better simile is to refer to it as what the motor industry calls "badge engineering". It is the same product, but under a slightly different symbol. It was wise of my hon. Friend to introduce this Bill. There has been much interest in the subject and it was generally felt to be a disappointment that the last Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Accrington failed to reach the Statute Book.
There was a trickle of complaints alleging receipt of unsolicited goods for many years, but the volume suddenly grew much greater in the years 1968–69. In 1969 the Board of Trade, as it was then, received, mostly from hon. Members, but in some cases from individuals, a total of 60 complaints. In addition the Consumers' Association invited complaints from readers who had been troubled and received about 170 replies from about .3 per cent. of the subscribers to Which? That was quite a formidable number of complaints.
There were two distinct strands in the pattern of complaints. The first was that the people had been sent goods they had not ordered or had continued to be sent goods under a cancellable standing order which they had taken due steps to cancel. The second heading was that payment was demanded with insistence and increasing pressure where no liability to pay existed. Under both headings the great majority of complaints related to the sale of books or gramophone records by mail order. I have never thought it 1681 likely that deliberate inertia selling techniques were being used although, as the hon. Member for Rugby hinted, there will be the odd occasion where a fraud or a hoaxer engages in those techniques. Investigation of the main body of complaints last year convinced officials, who talked freely to some of the firms concerned and inspected their operations, that there was no deliberate attempt to engage in inertia selling. I think that it was perhaps clear that the trouble had arisen from a combination of three factors.
First, the hoax orders; secondly, the use, in conjunction with direct mail advertising, of reply cards which confused some respondents into thinking that they were saying, "Do not send books" when in fact their tick in the box meant, "Send books"; thirdly, the rather unexpectedly large increase in orders which some of these firms received and which threw their administrative and computer facilities out of gear so that they were unable to manage efficiently to cope with the orders they received. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) would agree that the Advertising Standards Authority reached the same conclusion.
Nevertheless, it was apparent from the many complaints that unsolicited goods could cause recipients, particularly the elderly, considerable anxiety, especially when followed by increasingly threatening demands for payment which the computer—of all things—issued automatically and at regular intervals, oblivious to letters of explanation or complaints until the overloaded office organisation got around to reprogramming it. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) was right to draw attention to these harassment techniques, although it is interesting to note that they may have been more because of human error than of deliberate action. It was this which spurred the Consumers' Association to press for legislation and which led to the Bill introduced in the last Parliament by the hon. Member for Accrington.
As a result of the hon. Gentleman's Bill being published in January, 1970, there was an upsurge of complaints which continued throughout the first three months of the year but which tailed off later in the year. Since April this year, only nine complaints about 1682 inertia selling have been received by the Department, only one since August. I think that this shows that there is now little evidence that people are being worried in the way they were earlier this year. Complaints to the Department have virtually ceased.
I think that there must be a close link between this reduction and the efforts which have been made by most of the mail order publishing firms to tighten up their individual procedures. Latterly a number of the leading firms have co-operated in further steps to minimise the trouble in future. I refer to the formation of the Mail Order Publishers Authority—with the slightly unfortunate initials of M.O.P.A.—under the energetic and redoubtable leadership of the noble Lady, Lady Burton of Coventry, which, I believe, has had the effect of greatly reducing in amount the complaints which have taken place. The new code of practice appears to have been observed, both in the letter and the spirit, and in these conditions there should be little further cause for complaint.
That is not to say that it is not necessary to have the Bill. Mistakes are bound to occur. People may be outside the Mail Order Publishers Authority and not conform to its code of practice. Hoax orders are virtually impossible to detect. In these days of high volume computerised business, it is virtually impossible to ensure that no parcel of unsolicited goods ever arrives to puzzle occasional unsuspecting recipients. It would be helpful, therefore, to improve the existing law by provisions which enable the recipients of unsolicited goods to clear up a situation in which they find such goods on their hands, cannot get the sender to respond to explanations that the goods are unwanted and that demands for payment are misconceived, and in the meantime, as the law stands are obliged to go on taking reasonable care of the goods for an unspecified "reasonable period of time".
Before discussing the point which was perhaps the kernel of what argument there was—while there was no great disagreement, there was some about Clause 1(2)(a)—I want to mention, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Rugby, that, as far as I can see, office stationery is not included in the scope of the Bill 1683 because, of course, it is goods, ordered for a trade. But that point might be taken up later in Committee.
One of the great virtues of the Bill is the fact that it will make the law clear and make it freshly clear to all of those who take an interest in these matters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Montgomery) said, ignorance of the law is probably one of the problems which people suffer from in relation to this matter. The existing position in the law, as the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) said, is that goods belong to the sender and that the recipient does not have to pay for them but must take reasonable care of them for a reasonable period of time. That is the existing position as I understand it. But what the law does not state is for how long a reasonable period of time is and, of course, it could mean for ever, and taking care of goods can be a nuisance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester rightly said. It can be rather a hardship to be a gratuitous bailee. I think that was a delightful term from the hon. and learned Gentleman, and I do not think that we want harassed mothers and families up and down the land acting as gratuitous bailees without being quite sure of what their position at law is.
The Bill would transfer the ownership of the goods after six months if the recipient did not send a notice in accordance with the second option open to him. This would make the position of the law clear. It would make it such that a recipient would know how long he had to keep the goods as a gratuitous bailee before they automatically passed into his ownership, and that period as suggested in the Bill would be six months. What we do not know and what we have to consider further in Committee is whether this is how the law should be, because there are many other considerations which the Committee will have to take carefully into account.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) asked whether it was right automatically to transfer ownership at any time. That is a question which I think the Standing Committee will consider very carefully, 1684 because there is a change of principle here. My hon. Friend the Member for Brierley Hill was right to say that the main danger is the fraudulent or unfraudulent hoaxer. That is the answer to the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester and others who believe that unsolicited goods should automatically become the property of the recipient. It would be very easy to arrange for a friend or accomplice to require unsolicited goods to be sent to a certain person and this would leave the mail order houses in a completely defenceless position and lead, I feel sure, to a very large extension of the practice of hoaxing or fraudulent ordering without any intention of paying. This is clearly a major consideration which the Standing Committee will have to take into account.
My hon. Friends will say—and it is a fair argument—that firms should be sufficiently aware of what they have sent and to whom to be able, in a reasonable period of time, to recover goods they have sent out in response to hoax or fraudulent orders. It will be for the Standing Committee to consider whether a period of six months is long enough. This is a vital matter and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford realised, it is a very sensitive and difficult matter to decide whether the period should be four months or six months, or any other number of months, so as to give a firm the right amount of time in which to defend itself against hoax orders without requiring the recipient to keep the goods for an unnecessarily long time.
The suggested criterion that the sender knew that he was sending unsolicited goods would be very difficult to phrase in legal language. My hon. Friend will doubtless wish to table an Amendment to permit debate, but I suspect that he will find great difficulty in drafting. The Committee will wish to look at this aspect very carefully, but my own very tentative opinion is that the simpler we can keep the Bill the better it will be for all concerned. What we are trying to do is accurately to define the law so that people of quite unlegal propensity will be able to comprehend it without difficulty, and the more complex the Bill becomes in this respect the more difficult will comprehension be.
1685 The criminal provisions in the Bill will do something to make sure that no one in future undertakes inertia selling as a deliberate act of policy, but it is necessary to seek these improvements without, at the same time, creating conditions unduly onerous to the legitimate trader. I am sure that the Standing Committee will bear this point in mind if, as I hope, the Bill reaches that stage.
The other part of the Bill deals with directory entries. Many hon. Members no doubt receive large numbers of forms to be filled up with personal details for very reputable and respectable directories such as "Who's Who," "Dod's" and many other publications. Unfortunately, some of us, as I myself, even have to receive forms from publications such as "Debrett" and "Burke.". One has some doubt whether one is flattered or annoyed by the number of times one has to remember all the details of one's private life, and the extension of this activity into the sphere of bogus directories, which has been so clearly spelt out today, is something which must definitely be brought to an end.
These provisions are aimed at an abuse which has caused, and still causes, the Board of Trade, as it then was, and the Department of Trade and Industry, as it now is, to continue to receive a stream of complaints. I have had the impression during the course of the year that the established practitioners in this field have been joined by a whole host of newcomers bearing names which, among them, must cover every combination and permutation of such words as "directory", "area", "commercial", "trades", "publication". Not only have the sums demanded increased in amount but they have been demanded not only from traders who are usually small traders, but such voluntary bodies as the local tennis club. In spite of the fact that most of this trouble could be avoided if people only took more pains to read what they received before signing it, and paid only what they owed, this abuse deserves our attention.
I will not comment on the detailed provisions in relation to directory entries, as I have already dealt at some length with the contents of the Bill. These things are better left to the Committee stage, but the provisions will have to be 1686 carefully framed to deal with the abuses at which the Measure is rightly aimed.
It only remains for me to wish my hon. Friend every success in getting his Bill read a Second time; to assure him that I shall continue to take a close interest in its further progress, and that I look forward personally to joining what on an earlier occasion appears to have been a select and interesting little club which I suppose might be called the "inertia club", though I hope that inertia departs from it and that action is the outcome of all its deliberations.
§ 1.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, North-West)
I welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to this excellent Bill. The housewives of Leicester are sick of having unwanted goods delivered to them or dumped upon their doormats, and many small local traders are particularly cross about directory entries. There are only two matters which, I regret have not been either fully or properly dealt with.
Clause 2 provides for a very lengthy period during which the goods must be held if no notification is to be given. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) that these provisions are apparently completely reasonable. But the trouble is that people do not know their rights in law and they do not know what is reasonable. If they knew what they could do there would be no trouble at all, but people do not know, and therefore to require them either to hold the goods for six months or to write back is not in my view a fair provision. Whilst one appreciates that one cannot encourage people to invite their friends to receive unsolicited goods which immediately become their property, a period of three months might be more appropriate.
There is, alas, no reference in the Bill to an entirely different kind of unsolicited items, namely, documents that come with goods which have been ordered and are wanted. I hope that the Standing Committee will give careful thought to the introduction of a Clause making void unwanted and spurious guarantees and bogus warranties. These are documents which people receive in the belief that they are getting benefits but which, in fact, usually remove from them rights they already have.
1687 I am sure that hon. Members will know that under Section 14 of the Sale of Goods Act, 1893, any buyer of new or secondhand goods is generally entitled to goods of merchantable quality and reasonably suitable for the purpose supplied. That is a very broad protection given by this House in Victorian days, but it applies, alas, only in the absence of agreement to the contrary. No one in his right mind would normally give up that protection knowingly, so what do the manufacturers do? They say to the customer, "We will give you our guarantee." That guarantee is very often in place of the Sale of Goods Act guarantee.
The result is that instead of the buyer having a right which, under the Limitations Acts, may last for six years he has a right limited to three, six or 12 months. Instead of having the right to have defective goods replaced at the seller's expense, the purchaser acquires the right to go against the manufacturer; to ask him, in his own discretion, to replace those parts which he deems to require replacement because they were defective in workmanship or manufacture.
Instead of the purchaser of a car being able to say, "My car has broken down, it is defective, take it back at your expense, fix it up and provide me with another car in the meantime because you are in breach of your contract by selling me a 'dud' vehicle", he finds that acceptance of that so-called guarantee or warranty very often takes away his Sale of Goods Act rights and replaces them with something very much less. One may have to pay for the cost of the labour and certainly for returning the car to the factory, and consequential loss will probably be excluded.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)
I am sure that the hon. Member is aware that there are many garages which now refuse to sell cars other than under their own spurious guarantees. This is something which we should certainly look at.
§ Mr. Janner
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I ought to declare an interest in that I recently purchased a car from one of the largest and most reputable dealers in the London area. When we had reached an agreement on price and "trade-in", I said, "I will of course 1688 not buy this car on the basis of the manufacturer's guarantee". He said, "We are very sorry, we sell only on that basis." I said, "Then you will not sell it to me and I will go elsewhere." He said, "I will 'phone you back." Half-an-hour later he 'phoned back and said, "We have never had this before in our experience, but if you do not want the manufacturer's guarantee, you need not have it."
I purchased the car two or three weeks ago with no guarantee, except that I wrote to the garage to agree that if the vehicle went wrong in 12 months for any cause other than accidental or wilful damage, the garage would fix it at entirely its expense. I said that if the garage wished to rely on its warranty against the manufacturer, that was its affair. If you stand up for your rights and know your rights, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you can get a long way with dealers, because they are in business to sell cars and if one dealer will not sell a car without a guarantee, go down the road to another who will.
This applies not only to new cars, but to second-hand cars. People think that they have no rights when they buy a second-hand car, but they have the same rights under the Sale of Goods Act as if the vehicle were new. The secondhand car dealer says, "We will confer the benefit of our guarantee upon you", and the average buyer says, "Thank you very much". Indeed, the average buyer will go to the dealer and say, "I presume that this car is guaranteed by you", and if the dealer says that it is not, the average man will not buy. So greatly has the public been fooled for so long by these guarantees that people actually ask for them when in fact they should refuse to be tied by any guarantee which excludes their statutory protection.
It is because the public is being misled that I earnestly hope that the sponsors of the Bill will consider the insertion of a Clause in Committee. I know about the difficulties of drafting a Clause, but some of us have some experience in the matter and I should like to see a Clause providing that no guarantee or warranty or other exclusion clause incorporated in any manner into any contract of sale shall exclude the effect of Section 14 of the Sale of Goods Act, 1893, unless a judge shall certify that it would be reasonable in all the circumstances of the case to give effect to the 1689 said clause. That would be perfectly simple and at one stroke—and I do not mean that unkindly to hon. Members opposite—one would wipe out the effect of the document.
Meanwhile, I have two suggestions. First, the public should be told not to sign any guarantee without making sure that the guarantee is worth having. They should remember the man who bought the Jaguar in Cornwall a little while ago and who refused to drive it out of the garage unless the garage company took away the guarantee. He camped overnight, but he was allowed to drive it out without the guarantee. The public should do that, or tear up the guarantee. If a member of the public gets a guarantee with a toaster, or washing machine, or vacuum cleaner—and suppliers of electrical goods are among the worst offenders—he should read it and cross out all the clauses which take away his rights, initial the changes, get a photostat made of the document and post it back: he may be almost certain that the manufacturers will file it.
§ 1.35 p.m.
§ Mr. David Walder (Clitheroe)
If I had not known it already, after listening to the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Greville Janner), I should have known that he was a lawyer.
I should like to return to the Unsolicited Goods and Services Bill. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson), I welcome the title "unsolicited", because as the Bill goes through the House, as I trust it will, we shall inevitably reach the stage at which we have to distinguish between unsolicited goods and goods which are solicited. I share the dismay and fury of the hon. Member for Accrington about the amount and the type of literature which he and I both receive as we are neighbours both here and in Lancashire. I naturally resent being told that I am extremely lucky in that something has come to me of which I may take advantage when I know perfectly well that the whole street has had the same letter. Of course it is irritating, but we should be stretching ourselves too far to try to prevent such commercial puff and trying to contain it within the Bill.
I should declare a sort of interest, because I wish to mention the subject of 1690 book clubs. Admittedly, no book club, at least in this Kingdom, has yet had the commercial acumen and literary good taste to take up one of my own works, but it is a possibility. There is a danger that the perfectly reputable book club, which works on the basis of a choice being made for perhaps 12 months and thereafter choices which may be exercised month by month, will find itself in difficulty because of the Bill. I am not thinking of the Reader's Digest pressurising with one volume, but of the reputable, sensible and worth-while book clubs.
While saying at one point that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) is drawing the net too tightly, I have to say that on another matter he may need to draw it even more tightly. I was rather intrigued that my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Accrington said that they thought that the operations of persons engaging in this sort of selling was on the decline. I bring one matter to my hon. Friend's notice. It concerns minors. As Professor Ross has produced another volume on pronunciation, I should make it clear that I am talking about children and not '49ers or the corvine bird.
There is an increasing practice of inserting advertisements in perfectly reputable children's comics and magazines which cover the early reading stage, from about five to eight. This is the age group at which the comics are directed. The advertisement says, "Show this to your parents", but that is not much of a safeguard. The child is encouraged to write for something like a stamp album, which turns out to be a small booklet and not some leather-bound volume.
He is given a few free stamps, and in the next post, the child—and I stress that all these communications are addressed to the child—is bombarded by a number of different firms, which must have some connection with the first firm, with samples of stamps, needless to say at a higher price than those first sent. The child is then given exactly the same sort of choice that an adult would have.
One may say that the wise child goes to his parents, or perhaps a wise parent does not allow a child to have access to postage stamps, but I think we all know the realities of this situation. This is a pernicious practice, and I hope that 1691 my hon. Friend in Committee will hear representations on this and possibly include a Clause to deal with children. Special considerations apply to children, but questions of consent and writing to the firm as set out in the Bill do not.
§ 1.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)
I begin, as so many of my hon. Friends have, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Good-hart) on his good fortune and welcoming the Bill wholeheartedly. I should like to concentrate on three matters. First, I have one reservation about the Bill before us. I hope that it will not encourage people to treat too cavalierly charitable organisations which send Christmas seals and so on through the post. This is one of the biggest sources of revenue for some charities and I hope that nothing we do in the House will interfere unduly with deserving charities.
Secondly, I utterly deplore the way in which many organisations are pretending to award prizes. I have frequently had letters offering an enormous range of prizes. Such letters will say "You are a lucky winner, you have a number and you will receive a prize". The prize may be anything from a Cadillac to a notebook. Every time the prize I have received has been a notebook—such a small one as to be totally useless for any purpose. This practice should be made illegal.
Thirdly, what I feel most strongly about is pornography. This was referred to by the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim), both of whom spoke of circulars which try to persuade people to buy pornographic material. I have consulted my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham on this and he will be happy to consider the possibility of extending the Bill to cover this type of circular.
It is one thing to go to the Library of this honourable House and to find a book which contains a notice saying that there is "a waiting list of members wishing to read the book and it will be much appreciated if it can be returned as soon as conveniently possible". It is one thing to go to the library and deliberately take out "Variations on a 1692 Sexual Theme", published by the Julian Press. It is another thing for people in my constituency, as they were immediately before the General Election, to be urged to buy this book. Letters were sent to me by clergymen, widows—even one or two recently widowed ladies—and irate parents of young teenage daughters who had been urged to buy this book. In many dormitories circulars were smuggled under the bedclothes and read at night. The practice of sending such literature should be outlawed. I do not know a great deal about Julian Press, except that the firm tried to get me to buy one of these books, but I have made a few investigations. I have found that Julian Press, which housed itself in those days at 16, Curzon Street, appeared to share the same premises as Earldene Press, which was also at 16. Curzon Street.
I have received a letter from a constituent about the Earldene Press, part of which I should like to quote:My real reason for writing is that I noticed in one of your election speeches you complained about certain types of circulars at present being sent through the post, and I suspect you were referring to a book on sex techniques, which could at least have been called educational!That is the book to which I have just referred.I enclose other literature which came to my house fairly recently which I feel hasn't the merit even of education. I always understood that there was an Act of Parliament to stop this sort of thing …Many people think that, but of course there is not.
At the risk of being accused of bringing offensive weapons into the House on two succeeding days, I will refer to the documents which my constituent sent to me. I will not hold them up because they are pornographic and totally revolting. This is what an old age pensioner of 73 was being exhorted to buy. There is a picture of a naked woman, and it reads, "Exciting women, powerful men, couples in stimulating nakedness", and so on. Here is another one which an old lady of 69 was asked to buy called the "Naked Man". These documents are obnoxious.
It is one thing for someone to go along to one of Miss Summers' new shops to buy one of the articles displayed there or a book on the secret techniques of eroticism, but it is another thing for 1693 such documents to be sent indiscriminately through the post to people of all ages and of all religious beliefs, and that they should be exorted to buy them.
When we discuss the Bill in Committee I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to translate his wishes into action and that we shall be able to insert a powerful Clause into the Bill which would have the effect of the recent measure to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester referred, whereby a person in America receiving such a circular through the post can return it to the company, and the company is liable to pay double postage and is also liable to be fined. People who set themselves up as purveyors of vicious pornographic nonsense should not be able to shelter within the confines of the law. I hope that the law will be so tightened by the passage of the Bill that these people will have to take their dirty trade elsewhere.
§ 1.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)
I join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) on taking the opportunity to introduce the Bill. I couple that with congratulations to the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) who originally introduced in January of this year the Inertia Selling Bill. I share with him the slight disappointment that we have lost that Title. It was one that hit the newspaper headlines, and I suspect that the decrease in the number of complaints to the Department about these practices is largely due to the publicity that was so widely purveyed when the hon. Gentleman introduced his Bill.
We have heard a spectacular recital from the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) of the complaints he receives from his constituents about inertia selling. His experience goes much further than mine, and I heard with some surprise that he thought it right to take the 6s, and spend it at Annie's Bar. I do not know how far hon. Members are protected by parliamentary privilege, but, prima facie it would appear that an offence has been committed. That part of the problem is not general, but when it occurs is most distressing.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham on recognising that a change in the law is required. It 1694 has been suggested in many quarters that a code of practice would be sufficient, but it must be generally recognised that that is not sufficient and never could be. It is no bad thing that we should recognise that there are good defences to legal practices, but it must also be recognised that the postal order business has grown tremendously since the war. Existing law was framed to meet a different set of circumstances.
I am pleased to see that two valuable aspects of mail order selling are not affected so long as they are controlled and kept within reasonable bounds. This proposed legislation will do nothing to hinder mail order concerns that send out catalogues. The mail order service is a valuable one to many old and sick people, many of whom live in my constituency, who do their buying in this way. They are not able to get out to the shops, they look through the catalogue and it gives them a variety of goods, which is important.
We should be equally careful before we do anything that inhibits the selling by book clubs of reputable books, though there has been some criticism in the debate about certain forms of book selling. Admittedly, the books which are offered are restricted in range, but they are one way that books get into homes in which there may be no other books at all. It is important that we should do nothing to interfere with those.
The hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) drew our attention to the present position of the law. He told us that the law simply provides that if goods are delivered unsolicited and come through the letterbox, there is no obligation for the receiver to do anything at all, save as a gratuitous bailee to look after them reasonably. That is to some extent the answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) who raised the question of what would happen if her child were to spill ink on such goods in her house. As the law stands, all the recipient has to do is to take reasonable precautions and if there is an accident that is too bad for the sender.
However, we must recognise that there are problems when goods are sent in error or where they are sent as a result 1695 of dishonest ordering which was a matter dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse). It is right to say that those who indulge in dishonest ordering would be subject to the criminal law as they are at the moment, but the practice is difficult to prove for the simple reason that it is not known who did the ordering. The material comes from a bogus address with a bogus name and there is no easy way of tracing it. Although I have no doubt that this is a comparatively widespread practice, I do not think I have have ever had occasion in the magistrates' court or in the higher courts to see anybody charged with an offence based on that type of activity. It is difficult to control but those aspects of the matter are not the ones about which I am particularly concerned.
The people we wish to protect are those who come to see Members of Parliament in their surgeries or who write letters to their Members about these abuses. They are often old people, sometimes widows, and the cases quite often involve somebody who has to cope with an emergency and who has found it difficult to pay attention to his mail, or somebody who may just be inexperienced. The people who do not seem able to cope comprise by far the largest number. The number of people who simply have failed to take the most rudimentary precautions to protect their interests are legion. We must recognise that simply to pass legislation such as that provided in the Bill may do very little to help those sorts of people, but at least it would give them a legal remedy. Because the Bill undoubtedly would help such people, I wholeheartedly support its purposes.
I should like to raise two queries about Clause 1(2)(a) which is the heart of the Bill. It is apparent that subsection (2)(b) will be resorted to only by those people who know what they are up to, and I believe that very few people will resort to that provision unless they have had previous advice. The main safeguard is simply the fact of retention by the recipient without any retaking by the sender for six months.
It was suggested by the hon. Member for Oxford that rather than have a six months' retention the matter could be 1696 cured by making it an offence to send unsolicited goods.
§ Mr. Woodhouse
The core of my proposal was that it should be done by a sender knowing that the goods were unsolicited.
§ Mr. Miscampbell
I should have been more careful in the way that I phrased that remark. I understand the position. It envisages a knowing sender—that the sender knows the goods have not been solicited but still sends the goods to the other person. The hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North suggested that this would be difficult to prove, and I accept this. The sender would simply say, "You must show that I did not know they were wanted." If we were prepared to change the burden of proof—which is something that lawyers do with great reluctance—and simply say that it would be a defence to such a charge to show that a person did know, then there is no doubt that the proposals put forward by the hon. Member for Oxford would be easily implemented; the burden of showing that the goods had been solicited or that the person had good reason to believe they had been solicited would be a complete defence. I think that we have gone far enough in reversing the burden of proof.
The other matter that concerns me is the rights of the sender under Clause 1(2)(a). Again, I put out these ideas simply for discussion and consideration because there may be grave difficulties and objections to them. I inherently dislike the prospect of people who for some reason perhaps in error have received goods which may be of some value, such as a set of gramophone records, sitting it out for six months in the hope that those goods will eventually become theirs. This may be something we have to accept as a small and perhaps not too important problem if we are to cure the greater problem that the Bill sets out to do.
§ Mr. Miscampbell
If I understand my hon. Friend aright, he is talking about receiving unsolicited goods. I am not clear whether knowing would come into 1697 that. A person will know that he has not solicited them. That appears to be the essence of getting unsolicited goods. As I understand the Bill, if a person receives unsolicited goods and simply sits on them for six months, the Theft Act would not apply.
§ Mr. Miscampbell
No. Clearly if one knew that goods had come by mistake that would not be the case. For example, if a refrigerator is delivered by mistake to someone who knows that the people for whom it was intended have gone to South America for six months and that person keeps it, he would have to take the consequences in the criminal court for that behaviour.
I was dealing with the possibility of those who simply sit it out when goods have been sent to them under the terms set out in the Bill. But I think that is a small problem.
§ Mr. Arthur Davidson
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. Is not one of the complaints which people make that they write to the firms saying that they do not want the goods, but, not only do they get no reply, they frequently get more goods; they are constantly bombarded by books and demands for payment, none of which they wanted in the first place.
§ Mr. Miscampbell
It is because of the valid points which have been raised that I support the Bill. While I am querying the provisions of Clause 1(2,a), I have no doubt that the purpose behind it is not only abundantly right, but something which we ought to be doing.
The only query I wish to raise, which we may consider in Committee, is that Clause 1(2,a) appears to require that the sender should take back into possession. That would mean at the very least that the sender has to come to the door and ask for the goods to be given to him. The person who has the goods does not have to wrap them up or do anything about them; he merely has to hand them over. I foresee circumstances where there may have been genuine errors which may create difficulty. It may not be possible, 1698 but within whatever time limit is finally decided for the sender to indicate, by post or otherwise, that he was not accepting that the goods were not his and that he was going to repossess them, could that notification be drawn so as to prevent the property in the goods passing after six months? It may be that drafting such an Amendment would prove too difficult and would undermine the purposes of the Bill.
I have confidence in the general purposes of the Bill which seeks to remedy the ills about which we have been talking. I wish it well and hope that it will soon be on the Statute Book.
§ 2.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Selwyn Gummer (Lewisham, West)
I welcome the Bill not least because, as a publisher of what I hope are reputable books, I have a kind of opposite of interest in it in the sense that anything which outlines and clearly defines actions which are wholly disgraceful in this sphere helps any reputable company. I am pleased, too, that reputable companies have set up the Organisation of Mail Order Companies and the code of practice which comes from it.
I should like to address myself, first, to that part of the Bill which refers to classified directories. I do so because, in the course of the last year, as many hon. Members have said, there has been a considerable increase in the operations not only of our old familiar friends but of some new persons who have appeared upon the scene. I believe that while the Bill is going through the House there will be a kind of end-of-season sale by these companies to see how many unwary people they can catch.
It might be helpful if I described quickly a series of letters which passed between myself and one of these companies. One of my constituents has a small antique shop. He received, on the familiar coloured paper, a letter from Classified Directories Ltd., a company easily identified by the quality and colour of its accounts. It reads,To classified listing, 8 gns.Indeed, the price has gone up. It may be because of selective employment tax. In that case it might have been a good idea for this company to start to produce the directories which it advertises, 1699 in which case it might become a manufacturer and find that its s.e.t. burden was less onerous. In any case, this small bill went out. It contains,Classification, Antique Dealers. Terms: 5 per cent. discount allowed for settlement in 7 days".My constituent sent a letter, not of agreement, to myself pointing out that he had not asked for it, he did not want it, and he did not see why he should pay for it.
I wrote a very charming letter, as is my wont, to the chairman of Classified Directories Ltd. of New Bridge Street House. I said that I was sure that he would agree with me that this form of business was extremely unattractive and that the firm would not wish its name to be besmirched by my quoting its name in connection with this business and that it would wish to dissociate itself as rapidly as possible from it.
I received a letter from the chairman—well, "p.p" as so often these letters are—Mr. Stewart, saying that I should be hearing from him in due course, which I did not. So I wrote him another letter and suggested that "due course" was now past. He wrote, not another letter, but sent me a letter from his solicitors.
It is here that I should like to suggest that firms of solicitors, acting in their professional capacity, might be careful about the way that they write to Members of Parliament and to members of the public. I should, therefore, like to quote one or two passages indicating the way with which my complaint was dealt. The letter, which came from Mr. Ellis Lincoln of a well-known group of solicitors, said:Our clients have produced to us a Proof dated June, 1970 signed by Mr. Hellyer—the name of the gentleman who has been charged for this account is Hillyer—whom we understand is someone in control of your client's business.He has now become my client, which hon. Members will understand.'If, of course, your constituent does not desire his name to be included he merely has to say so".I have not yet seen the directory to which the solicitor refers. But obviously the solicitor is associating himself with the directory, because he is saying that there is a possibility of inclusion or non-inclusion.
§ Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not seeking to cast aspersions upon the solicitors' profession as a whole on the basis of this single letter which he received from a gentleman who is no longer a solicitor.
§ Mr. Gummer
I am not trying to cast aspersions on any organisation or group of people. I am merely suggesting that there are groups of people, whether they are known to be solicitors or whether they work for a firm of solicitors, who have a special duty to be extremely careful about the way in which they carry out their profession. That is what I am suggesting, and I believe that it is reasonable. I would expect it to be suggested of me in my profession, and one should be willing and able to suggest it of others in their profession. Mr. Lincoln goes on to say that he hopes that the client, if he does not want it, will not have it inserted.
I, having checked with the gentleman concerned, wrote back and said something which seemed to me to be perfectly reasonable, which was that I was happy that he as solicitor was himself satisfied—because that was the word that he used—that this was a proof signed by my constituent. I merely asked whether it were possible for me to receive a photocopy of that proof.
Not only did I not receive it, but I received a letter from the same gentleman saying:We are perfectly satisfied that the signature upon the form is that of your constituent and we cannot accept that his allegation is correct and as our clients do not wish to be troubled any further with this matter would youetc.
It is now his clients who do not wish to be troubled by the matter of their classified directory.
I hope that people will realise that it is largely small firms which are affected by this practice. We should not think that these large numbers of small firms are any less worried by threats of legal action and by demands than the ordinary individual who receives similar communications through the post because of unsolicited goods.
I hope that those who are concerned with the protection of the legal position 1701 of companies will think that it is incumbent upon them not to appear to be implicated with the mode of business which some firms operate.
There is not only the question of bogus directories. I, like the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price), am very unhappy because the Bill does not cover the office stationery racket. I regret that the hon. Gentleman took the action he did, because I believe that there are occasions on which people send unsolicited goods in error and that, if they were to send a sum to Dover the cost of return, it would be reasonable for the recipient at least to return the sum, if not the package. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knew full well in this case that the package came from a company probably well known in the area for this kind of activity.
I am worried that by the inclusion in the Bill of the phrase which the hon. Gentleman mentioned we are, in an unhappy way, restricting the Bill so as not to help often junior members of staff who have, or appear to have, the power to order small quantities of stationery. What starts as a small quantity of stationery, by the nature of this operation becomes an increasing quantity of stationery. The hon. Gentleman referred to cases in which people have very unhappily been led into all kinds of criminal activity by bills which they think they owe because of actions which they have almost been forced to take by persons such as those mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.
I wonder whether we should not look a little more carefully at the exact reason why we are so opposed to bogus directories, because this may lead us in Committee to consider more carefully the Clauses concerned with bogus directories. There are two problems. One is that the customer is billed for an entry which he has not asked to have inserted. The second is that there may be no such classified directory in any case; and, if there is, it may be of no use.
The second part is well covered by the Bill. Should we not be careful to phrase that part dealing with a bill for an unwanted insertion to cover, not only the case of the directory, but other similar cases which are not only in the office equipment area but are, I detect, coming 1702 along in all sorts of other services? We are moving into the era of the service society and there will be increasing opportunities for people to claim that services have been requested and send in a bill for them.
I hope that we shall carefully examine this part of the Bill to ensure that it covers not only the present problem of bogus directories but other similar problems which may arise. It would be a pity if the House had to discuss this type of problem year by year as new fake services were produced by organisations of the kind we are seeking to outlaw.
One kind of operation which has not been mentioned is that which operates out of Paris—a kind of European directory which is actually an inertia selling operation. Members of various artistic professions receive letters saying that they and their abilities will be advertised in a directory which will be circulated. The artist fills in a form and is then sent a copy of the directory some months later, together with a bill. This is the only example of an inertia selling directory operation where the objection is not that the directory is bogus but that it is sold on the inertia principle.
There are few true examples of inertia selling of books and records. I declare an interest in that I have sold books by direct mail, some of them books connected with military history, an area which I do not think has worried any of my constituents or those of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart). A person must be especially interested to want to write for the type of book in which I am interested.
I repeat that I believe that there is little inertia selling of books in Britain. But there has been some bad selling of books by direct mail, with the result that large quantities of books which perhaps have not been ordered, or which have been ordered as a hoax, or which have been ordered and then cancelled, have continued to be sent to families, whether people refuse them or not.
One man in my constituency ordered a specimen copy of a series of books produced by a large American company. Having seen a book he decided not to continue with the long series of which it was the first. He therefore returned the 1703 book with a note saying that he did not wish to continue, as was envisaged in the advertisement to which he had replied. The next month another book arrived, which he returned. The next month another book arrived, which he kept; and he wrote. This has continued for some time and he now has two-thirds of a very attractive series on wild life—which I have enjoyed immensely.
This was not inertia selling. It was thoroughly bad business practice by the company concerned, which seemed unable to stop its computer from spewing forth these books. Those books cost that company a great deal of money because I, as a publisher, can say how much each of those books cost the company and what the postage was, even though sent from Amsterdam where it is much cheaper.
I am very pleased that one of the indirect effects of the actions which have taken place because of the activities of the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham is that these companies have been forced not only into producing a code of practice but into enlisting the aid of the associates of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) in forming some conclusions as to how they should run the machinery which they have for fulfilling their bona fide orders and also for stopping the orders if they are cancelled.
I wonder whether we have taken sufficient account of the possibility—indeed, probability—of fraudulent orders and of hoax orders. Here is an example, not from this country but from Canada. There is in Canada a reputable company—it is well known in this country, too—which sells Bibles and other religious books in quite a large way. Also in Canada there are people, of religious views close, perhaps, to those of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), who wish to do good to their friends. The friends do not order the Bible or the religious book concerned, but it is ordered in their name. In this way, large numbers of religious books are parcelled out to people who did not request them, who do not wish to pay for them, but which have been ordered on their behalf by others of, perhaps, somewhat perverted good intent but who, 1704 in their turn, do not wish to pay for the books.
It would be a pity if the wholly laudable activity of selling such religious books by post were stopped because it was made difficult for the company to reclaim the article from the person who had been hoaxed into receiving it. This is not true inertia selling. The company does not know that it is a false or fraudulent order. All the company knows is that it has received an order and it has delivered the article to that order. We should be careful in framing the provisions of the Bill dealing with that aspect of the matter.
When a company has not improperly, or in circumstances in which it ought to have known that the order was fraudulent, sent out an article, it might be reasonable for the recipient to indicate, or have a responsibility to indicate, if the company requests it and pays for such indication, that he has not ordered the article. Otherwise, if the gentleman who has received the unsolicited package as a result of a hoax order merely keeps the package for six months, refusing to answer letters or requests covered by a pre-stamped or business reply form, he will be able to retain it.
I am somewhat worried that we might find ourselves restricting the practice of direct mail selling and in that way do major damage. I hope that hon. Members opposite will agree with me when I say that parents whose education has been limited and who are concerned for the education of their children will often buy books by post. As someone concerned with selling books through bookshops, I know that one of the troubles of this side of the trade is that the bookshop is so often like a church, and the only people who go into a bookshop are the cognoscenti, the people who know about that sort of thing. A bookshop is a special kind of place, and it is known that only 16 per cent. of the population of Great Britain ever buy a hard-back book from a bookshop.
It would be a pity if we were so to restrict or make difficult the selling of books by post that the families of whom I have spoken were not given the wide opportunity which they ought to have, and which is open to them in many other countries which have a law similar to 1705 the one now proposed but in which the provision corresponding to Clause 1(2)(a) makes it possible for a manufacturer or supplier to require an answer as to whether the recipient did solicit the goods. I feel that a change in that direction might well be sensible if we can so draft it in Committee.
There is a large difference between obliging someone to return something which he has not solicited and obliging him to inform the supplier that he did not solicit it. It would be reasonable to ask people who receive an article because of a hoax or because of a mistake to say that this has happened and that, if the article is not repossessed, they will keep it as their own property.
Were this done, it might be reasonable to make the period of bailment much shorter than six months. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) has already spoken of the likelihood of damage or loss to goods during a period of six months while they are held by the recipient as gratuitous bailee.
This is a Bill to be sincerely welcomed. We all have a heavy postbag, and one of the largest sections of it is made up of letters from people who complain, first, about the classified directory fraud and, second, about unsolicited goods. However, in trying to frame legislation, we must be particularly careful to distinguish between the reasonable activities of reputable companies and the scandalous activities of those who wish to use this form of selling merely to make a "fast buck". My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham is to be congratulated on seeking throughout his Bill to get the balance right. I think that it might with advantage be changed slightly in Committee, but, at the same time, I believe that we should stand out firmly against two kinds of pressure.
One is the pressure from those who would say that all we have to do is to rely upon people's good sense, that sensible people just ignore this sort of thing and are not frightened by the threat of the courts. I hope that I am a sensible person, but I very much dislike being threatened with court action. Worrying it certainly is to old-age pensioners and to persons who are infirm or of unsound mind. It worries me, too. I 1706 do not like it when people suggest that they will sue me. I am having a problem with the Post Office telephone department at the moment because I do not consider that we should pay backdated rentals. It is not reasonable to say that everyone should be sensible, not be frightened by threats, and just ignore them. It is right that the penalties should be stiff, and we should resist pressure of that kind.
On the other hand, nor should we give way to pressure from those who would say that there is something so inherently nasty about direct mail selling that we should make it practically impossible. I regard it as a legitimate way of selling goods. For many people in this country, it is a way which enables them to buy things which they would not otherwise be able to buy, through illness or through incapacity, and it opens opportunities for them to buy a number of things which, perhaps, they have not thought of before.
Having said that, however, I have great sympathy with those hon. Members who have raised the question of extending the scope of the Bill to cover the sort of advertisement which we are now receiving. I do not wish to go again into the long story of the pornographic book business. The methods used to sell pornographic literature have been deplored from both sides of the House, and by people of very differing attitudes to the subject of pornography. I wonder whether it would be possible to extend the Bill in some way so that it made a statement about the rights of privacy of the individual in his own home, through whose letterbox advertisements and unsolicited goods are now being pushed.
In a sense, this is what we are discussing. The reason why we object to the sending of unsolicited goods is not merely the nuisance involved in having to send them back or look after them in our homes; it is that goods have been sent which are not wanted. Moreover, it is an English tradition to feel strongly about one's home and what one wants in it. If we are able to curtail some of the actions of these sorts of people, we shall be doing a great service. Just as people are worried by bills which come after books have been sent to them, so, too, they are worried by demands even before they have received the products.
1707 Once again I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham on producing this Bill. He showed great foresight by sending hon. Members a little note earlier in the Session reminding us that, if we were lucky enough to secure a place in the Ballot, perhaps we might think of the Bill with which he and the hon. Member for Accrington had been so concerned.
§ Mr. Gummer
I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham was involved in inertia selling. If he had been he would have sent us a free copy of the Bill in advance. What he was doing was requesting the offer of a service that hon. Members might do for him.
This is the first Private Member's Bill to come before the House this Session, and, therefore, today's debate is the first occasion on which a number of hon. Members have taken part in a discussion of this sort. It is clearly a most interesting Bill. It not only looks after the legitimate grievances of many of our constituents, because I hope that, if it is amended suitably in Committee, it may protect our citizens against other methods of selling which will obviously be resorted to by people who are put out of business by these provisions. I hope, therefore, that we shall extend the operation of the Bill to the great carbon paper racket, having dealt with the unsolicited book racket.
§ 2.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Ernle Money (Ipswich)
May I first add my congratulations to those already given to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) for promoting the Bill and to the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) for first bringing the issue before the House?
I, too, believe that this is a Bill which will be received with great satisfaction both in the House and outside it. I say that for a number of reasons. In the first place, inertia selling has become a pest to many of our inhabitants. In the second, it has become a piece of impertinence and in its present form frequently represents a ruthless interference 1708 with the privacy of the individual. In the third place, very often it is the last resort of the producer or marketer of shoddy articles.
I am pleased that Clause 3 deals with directory entries. One additional disadvantage of some of the directories which have been put before the unsuspecting public is that, even when they are printed, the quality which reaches their recipients culled merely from the telephone book, is sometimes of a very low order. A friend of mine who happens to be a Cambridge don is a doctor of philosophy. He was listed in the Cambridge telephone book under the prefix "Dr.". His name, address and telephone number were lifted straight from the telephone book, in the days before the Yellow Pages, and published in a list of general medical practitioners. As a result, he received a constant stream of inquiries, including night emergency calls. That kind of situation is intolerable to members of the public who have no control over whether their names go in such a directory.
I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Selwyn Gummer) about the gullibility of the public, even of educated people, in the face of the actions of the unscrupulous. I have always been haunted by the story of the person in the City of London who merely took a room and had printed an infinite number of letter headings showing that he was an umbrella restorer. Whenever he read in The Times or any other newspaper of the demise of a member of the public, he wrote to the executors saying that there was a bill for three guineas owing to him. Executors rarely bother about a bill for three guineas, and the outcome was that he died worth £250,000 sterling, which is hardly surprising.
I echo the doubts expressed by some of my hon. Friends about the restrictions in Clause 1(2). I appreciate the force of the argument put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Montgomery) about hoaxes and collusive frauds or genuine mistakes. At the same time, I do not see why additional burdens should be placed upon the recipient of goods which have not beeen ordered by anyone. I accept the case where an order has been made by a member of the public on behalf of someone else, but 1709 where there has been no order the burden must fall entirely on the would-be vendor.
Mr. Selwyn Grimmer
The difficulty is that a person receiving a product does not know whether it is unsolicited or whether someone else has solicited it on his behalf. If one could make that distinction, it would be easy to say in one case that he had no obligation and in the other that he had some small obligation.
§ Mr. Money
I take my hon. Friend's point, but that can be dealt with by a small insertion in the Bill in Committee providing that all goods that are sent unsolicited must bear a message to that effect when they go out to the recipient.
I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) and the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) about placing further burdens on the private person in the shape either of having to give house room to a miscellany of goods that he has not asked for and often not heard of before they arrive, or of being put to the expense of having to buy a 5d. stamp so that he can inform the sender of the articles that are not required.
I also agree with those of my hon. Friends who have expressed regret that the Bill has not been extended to deal with the sending of pornography by post. It is a matter of great concern to many people that unsolicited invitations to subscribe to pornographic literature are being distributed. A great deal of distress is caused by prospectuses or "puffs", which cause offence to many members of the public. I should like to see the Committee consider the extension of the Bill to cover the sort of problem caused by the activities of the Julian Press and certain other institutions of that sort.
I welcome any Measure which will control the pushing of "grotty" goods by greedy people. This Bill is to be warmly welcomed accordingly.
§ 2.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)
I, too, should like to join in the chorus of congratulation which has surrounded the head of my hon. Friend 1710 the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart). I congratulate him on having introduced such a useful Measure and having called forth such a torrent of eloquence on this superficially unpromising subject. It is a very necessary extension of protecting the right to privacy. It has been said—I make no claim for coining an original phrase—that an Englishman's home is his castle. In the conditions of modern life, it is becoming more and more like a wigwam, in which anyone can lift up the flap of the tent and push in anything he pleases.
We have had today a whole list of the horrific invasions of the home which are possible in our society. The two lag speakers referred to pornography being circulated when it had not been solicited. I agree that it would be very nice if the Bill could be extended to cover that case, but that might mean the end of the Bill by making it so controversial that it would go no further. But I hope that the Home Secretary will read the accounts of this debate and take note of the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friends.
§ Mr. Ridley
My hon. Friend and others will probably know that this whole question of pornography is being looked at by the Committee which is considering the matter of privacy, and that it would be much wiser not to mix up that issue, which has not yet had any official comment upon it, with the matters in the Bill, which are separate and which should I think be kept separate for the purposes of this exercise.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for supporting me on that point, but there is an analogy between the invasion of the home by the particular type of unsolicited goods that we are talking about and the invasion by pornography. But I agree that this matter should be dealt with separately. My point is that it should be dealt with by someone. If my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham has not been able to deal with it in this Bill, I hope that it will be dealt with elsewhere.
I am not entirely happy with the thought of it being dealt with by a Committee. This is an urgent problem which needs to be urgently considered. I hope that my hon. Friend will use his powers of persuasion on the Committee to get 1711 it to come to a speedy decision and recommendation. I do not think that Parliament is prepared to wait much longer on this issue.
§ Mr. Arthur Davidson
Whether or not a Clause dealing with pornography is included in the Bill, I must warn the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) that he will get an enormous amount of mail from people who think that the Bill deals with pornographic questions.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I suppose that that would be an unbeneficial side effect, but it is one of the risks of introducing legislation.
In trade, there is this rule, caveat emptor. I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. Speaker, for lapsing into Latin—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would translate it for the benefit of the House—if not of the Mr. Speaker.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I was presuming not only on the knowledge of Mr. Speaker but on the knowledge of the House, and did not intend to translate, hoping that I knew what it meant myself.
There is great difference in buying an object in a shop and receiving objects unsolicited in one's own home. That is the aspect of the privacy of the home which is invaded by this practice. Several hon. Members have explained how laymen are terrified of the law. It is true that a threat of legal action, however ill-based, can cause great alarm in those with no technical knowledge of the law. I should like to give the House an example of an attempt to use this kind of blackmail against a constituent of mine, a Mr. S. C. Beeson, of Chelmsford, who courageously resisted the attack. However, had this attack been made against someone of rather less strength of character and courage, the result might have been very different.
My constituent was a subscriber to a journal called Practical Householder. I must confess that it is not a journal that I read regularly, but it is a reputable magazine. He filled in a form asking for what is called "literature" from 1712 various advertisers on subjects which interested him.
In due course, these pamphlets arrived, with the addition of a small package from an advertiser from whom he had not requested anything. This package proved to contain a battery-operated hand drill of poor quality. The letter was headed "Select Supplies, 5 Blythe Lane, Catford, S.E.6."
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I will take up the case from there in the words of my constituent. He wrote to me:I put the drill in a safe place and waited. The next letter came from a firm describing itself as Professional and Trade Services, from their debt recovery department, 3, Rectory Grove, London S.W.4. It informed me that my debt to Select Supplies of £1 19s. 6d. had been transferred to them and to it they were adding a recovery fee of 10s. It then said, 'Unless this sum is paid through the post at the above address within the next four days, we shall have no alternative but to arrange for legal proceedings to be initiated.' All this paragraph was underlined. The following paragraph was to the effect that if disputing the debt and if I could substantiate my claim, I could reply in writing in four days. I was invited to use the back of the letter for my reply. I did not in fact reply.A week later, Professional and Trade Services Ltd. wrote again on a form dated 29th April … and with a slightly altered heading that prominently stated, 'Nationwide Debt Recovery Service'. This was to the effect that unless I paid by return of post, 'we shall have no alternative but to arrange for a bailiff to serve a summons on you through the county court.'Again he did not reply and then received a letter from the same firm saying that if he did not pay, they would expose him in the local Press and ruin his reputation.
I was appalled when I received an account of this from my constituent. I immediately wrote to the President of the Board of Trade and to Professional and Trade Services Ltd. demanding that they stop harassing my constituent. I received a reply from the Board of Trade which, by its inadequacy, underlines the overwhelming case for this Measure. The then Parliamentary Secretary wrote:This is by no means the first case in which my attention has been drawn to the annoyance caused by companies requesting 1713 payment for goods which the recipient is under no obligation to buy. In fact, the existing civil law already gives protection to the recipient of unsolicited goods which he is under no obligation to pay for them or to put himself to the trouble and expense of returning them … and … having made this clear … he need only keep them until the sender arranges to collect them. We have done our best to publicise this so that people know where they stand. For example when we recently put out our free leaflets on the Trade Descriptions Act we added a full explanation of the position of recipients of unsolicited goods … although this has no connection with the Measure in question.The Minister added:Mr. Beeson may be interested to know that the advertising industry's practice supported by, among others, the Newspaper Proprietors' Association … is that advertisements for goods subject to inertia selling … or advertisements for goods which are sent without authority from the recipient should not be accepted.That was fine, but it certainly was not protecting my constituent; and since the Board of Trade seemed reluctant to do anything further in the matter. I sent the papers involved to the Attorney-General asking him whether he could intervene and prosecute the persecutors of my constituent for demanding money with menaces. The Attorney-General referred the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions and, having discussed the matter with him, informed me thathaving given the case anxious thought, we have concluded that it is not an appropriate case for the taking of criminal proceedings".If it was not an appropriate case, it is difficult to imagine what would constitute such a case.
Fortunately, this gap in the law will be filled by this Measure and by the provisions in, for example, Clause 2 (1) which provide for a fine of not more than £200 for demanding a payment in these circumstances, and a fine not ex-ceding £400 for uttering any threat and so on to bring legal proceedings. The case which I have outlined makes it abundantly clear how necessary it is to have this extra legal protection.
If the Bill becomes law, which I hope it will—and I hope the House will give it an unopposed Second Reading—it will constitute a major improvement in the law governing the sale of goods. However, 1714 an improvement in the law by itself will not be enough. The public must know that the law has been improved and I hope that the Minister—as he has already replied to the debate I suppose he will not be able to deal with this point now—will, when the Bill becomes law, explain in simple terms to the public just what their rights and duties are.
The ordinary members of the public studying this Measure will not find it easy to understand, certainly at a first reading. I am not criticising the drafting of the Bill. This is merely part of the intrinsic obscurity of legal language.
The Bill will constitute an improvement in the law. It will protect some of the rights of the individual which are not adequately protected now. It was explained with skill and eloquence by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham and I hope that the House will give it an unopposed Second Reading.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman will have to seek the leave of the House if he wishes to speak again.
§ Mr. Goodhart
With the leave of the House, I will, if I may, have the final word. At the end of a parliamentary week which has not been entirely free from contention, it is pleasant that we should have had a debate in which it is fair to say that every speech has been helpful.
I had not expected even a brief debate on postal pornography. My only comment on that subject is that while I would like to curb this traffic, I wonder whether this Measure is the right vehicle for tackling the problem.
The hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) referred to the high-pressure activities of certain record clubs. If we proceed to pass the Bill, as I hope we shall, we will be able to say at long last that their Bach is worse than their bite.
§ 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).