HC Deb 28 January 1970 vol 794 cc1554-8

3.38 p.m.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Derbyshire, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to protect prospective subscribers to periodical publications by enabling them in certain circumstances to rescind the agreement to subscribe; and for purposes connected therewith.

Mr. Scott-Hopkinsrose

Mr. Speaker

Order. It always helps on these occasions if hon. Members who wish to leave the Chamber do so quickly and quietly.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I think that the House is aware of the basis of the problem which I am trying to rectify by asking leave to bring in the Bill. There are, as I am sure hon. Members know, some salesmen going round various areas throughout the country and selling on doorsteps by posing as students selling subscriptions to magazines. These magazines are not always English but frequently foreign as well. The salesmen are selling them for cash as well as cheques on the doorsteps. Hon. Members may not be completely aware how this operation is carried on. It is very dangerous.

These salesmen pose as students. They say that they are working for a company which rewards them according to the number of points they accumulate, which, they say, depends on the number of magazine subscriptions they sell. They make a tremendous appeal to the housewife, or whoever answers the door, to assist them in selling their subscriptions so that they may get a higher points bonus. They say that if they do so they will win a competition and will be given as a prize a holiday overseas. Many of these people are not students. They are working for an organisation which carefully plans its campaign. The story which the salesmen tell is a complete fabrication.

This matter has been investigated not only by the police, but also by several newspapers, particularly the Sheffield Morning Telegraph, which carried out a comprehensive investigation. A young newspaper reporter attended some of the briefing meetings at which the most detailed discussion was given to these would-be salesmen as to how to insinuate themselves into the household and to tell what is virtually a sob story to encourage the householder to subscribe to these magazines.

The story is nearly always a complete fabrication. What they are really doing is selling subscriptions of magazines to housewives. They almost always call on the housewives in the morning when the male members of the family are not at home. In this way they feel that they have the maximum scope and time in which to sell their wares.

Frequently, the subscriptions are not for English magazines, but for American ones. There is a great deal of confusion because many English magazines have the same titles as the American ones. I would as an example cite the magazine Vogue, and there are others. After a subscriber has paid his subscription for a magazine, thinking that it is the English magazine Vogue, he finds that two or three months later he is sent a copy of an American magazine which is far from the magazine he thinks he has ordered. This point is not made clear by the salesman.

The salesman who is posing as a student invariably tries to get cash from the would-be subscriber, or if it is a cheque he goes to the nearest post office where the would-be subscriber is probably known, cashes it, and then leaves the area.

The methods used by these salesmen who describe themselves as students are so dubious that frequently they frighten the people with whom they are dealing. Indeed, in my own constituency, where the matter has been brought to my attention they have terrorised, there is no other word for it, several householders, among them old ladies, so that they part with every single penny they have available in cash in the house, or make out a cheque, purely to get rid of the salesman.

Once the man of the house comes home from work, finds out what has happened, and usually disagrees with what has occurred, he finds that there is absolutely no way in which the subscription, can be got back. If protests are made to the company concerned, it says that the subscription has been paid, that the document has been signed, that there is no legal redress for the subscriber, and that they have no intention of refunding the subscription. Therefore, there is no ways in which the would-be subscriber can get back his money.

The magazines involved often are of no interest to the person concerned. They are overseas' magazines of little or no interest whatever to the subscriber. The subscriber has been talked into it.

I seek to institute a delaying period so that this practice of soliciting on doorsteps may be stopped. I seek to allow would-be subscribers a cooling-off period so they may change their minds on the same lines as the provisions relating to hire-purchase agreements. The practice I have outlined could be covered in the same way. I have suggested that a copy of the agreement could be sent back to the subscriber after he has signed it, and for four days after he has received the copy of the agreement which he originally signed he would have the option to rescind the agreement into which he has entered. This would give the would-be subscriber time to think about whether he needs the magazines.

If they are bought from a reputable firm through a reputable salesman there is no question that the agreement will go through. But in cases such as those I am outlining the magazines do not arrive for about 10 days and therefore this would in no way hold up any genuine process. I feel that this would be an eminently reasonable method by which to prevent these practices taking place.

These agreements would only be included in the proposed Bill if they are signed and made outside normal premises, which means at the home of the would-be subscriber. Anything entered into in the form of an agreement at normal business premises would not come within the provisions of the Bill that I seek leave to bring in.

I understand that there are objections to what I am trying to do. The Government may well say that I have not defined closely enough the type of people that I wish to stop. This may well be so. If it is so, then I hope that, if I am allowed leave, and after a Second Reading the Bill goes to Committee, then the Government will give me help in drafting the Amendments to narrow the definition.

With all the ingenuity that I and some of my hon. Friends have at our command, we have tried to define the matter as narrowly as we can to cover the salesmen who in selling magazine subscriptions introduce themselves as students. These are the only people whom I am trying to restrict and in relation to whom I wish to give a cooling off period. I wish to include nobody else. I hope that I shall be able to achieve this with the wording in the proposed Bill.

I have discussed the matter with many of the interests concerned. The publishers of this country are in agreement with the idea behind the Bill, and indeed they support it. No reputable publisher wishes to indulge in the kind of practice which I have described. They wish to see it stopped. It is not in their interests or in the interests of the ordinary public that it should be allowed to continue.

Since this is a practice which is widespread and which is terrorising, or frighening many people ranging from Cornwall to Derbyshire, in both of which places I have come across the practice, I would ask the House to give me the leave I seek in the interests of the public.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. James Scott-Hopkins supported by Mr. Ridsdale, Mr. Emery, Mr. Bessell and Mr. Bence.

  2. c1557
  4. c1557
  6. c1558