§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Mr. Speaker
Before the debate begins may I remark that this is obviously a non-party Bill and that it will help me to ensure a balanced debate if those who are opposed to the Bill and wish to speak on it will let the Chair know.
§ 11.5 a.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Davidson (Accrington)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is quite usual for the House to hear such phrases as "thrustful", "dynamic" and "purposeful"—phrases which we like to use to describe ourselves when discussing party politics. But it is almost unique for an hon. Member to present to the House a Bill which has "inertia" as its first word.
I ought to assure the House that while I find a state of inertia, both in mind and body, very comfortable, and I hope to experience it tonight, this Measure is basically an anti-inertia Bill, not a pro-inertia Bill. It is aimed, in particular, at a method of selling which is bad business practice and which has caused great annoyance and inconvenience to the public.
To clear up any possible misconceptions, I ought at this stage to state what the Bill is not about and what it is not aimed at. I should like to make it clear to the House that the Bill is not aimed at making life difficult for mail order businesses. I accept the fact that the overwhelming majority of mail order firms conduct their businesses honestly and fairly and provide a service which the 1880 public enjoys and uses frequently. That is a perfectly acceptable method of business and I assure them that I have no intention and no desire whatever to hamper their operations in any way.
The Bill is also not aimed at stopping book clubs or record clubs from operating. I accept that the vast majority of book clubs and record clubs, and others like them, also conduct their businesses in an honest and reputable way. They provide books or records, or whatever goods they sell, at prices cheaper than those at which the public is able to buy the goods direct through a shop, and they do so by using the method of getting an established order for several records or books over a period. As long as the recipient is fully aware of the obligations into which he has entered at the beginning of the contract, when he signs the form, I find it a perfectly acceptable method of business.
Perhaps I should make a little more plain exactly what my Bill is aimed at. In fact, it is aimed at a practice which has been described, perhaps inelegantly, as inertia selling. The phrase, I think, was used first in America, where the practice was first started. It has become a convenient phrase to describe the operation over here. Inertia selling is basically the method of firms sending out goods which have not been ordered to people's private homes in the belief or in the hope that they will be unaware of their legal rights and will pay for the goods even though they did not want them in the first place.
The goods are sent out sometimes without any previous communication with the customer, but usually they are sent out with goods which have been ordered. That is the most frequent method that is used. They are sent out sometimes with leaflets or coupons, which are so complicated and are couched in such elaborate language that the recipient becomes so confused at the end that he has no conception of what he is signing.
The next step in the process is to follow up with a letter demanding payment. The first letter is usually couched in matey language, slightly patronising, perhaps, but friendly. Each letter then gets more menacing and is couched 1n much stronger terms, culminating in the ultimate threat of legal proceedings.
1881 As the House well knows, the threat of legal proceedings can be quite terrifying for most people, particularly people living alone. The prospect of appearing in court is one which, to most people, apart from practitioners, who are always more than welcome to appear as often as possible, is usually quite horrifying. Rather than seek legal advice, which is equally objectionable to most people—
§ Mr. Davidson
And expensive, as my hon. Friend quite rightly says—most people will pay up. It is in the knowledge that most people will pay up that these firms have carried out their operations and gear their literature and their propaganda with that aim in view.
The practice of inertia selling has been condemned by many bodies. It has been condemned by the Advertising Standards Authority, which has advised its members not to take advertisements from firms which deliberately indulge in the practice of sending out unsolicited goods. It has been condemned by the Consumers Association, by the Consumer Council and by the National Chamber of Trade, as well as by chambers of commerce throughout the country.
I have support for the Bill from the Consumers Association, whose help has been invaluable, and from the Consumer Council, whose help has also been invaluable. The Advertising Standards Authority supports the principle of the Bill, but has reservations about one or two Clauses, which, perhaps, I may deal with later, and the National Chamber of Trade has also supported the Bill, subject to one or two reservations, which I shall deal with later. The House can, therefore, be assured that this is not a little, solo Measure on my part.
The practice of inertia selling has grown in recent years. Some firms, as a result of the warning put out by the Advertising Standards Authority, have put their house in order and are ceasing to indulge in the practice, but there is strong evidence, as a result of letters which I have received and articles in the Press and elsewhere, that some sort of legislation is necessary to deal with what is an abuse of legitimate business practice. At the worst, inertia selling is a deliberate conning of the public. It is a 1882 deliberate and calculated exploitation of most people's ignorance of their legal rights. At its best, it is due to inefficiency and bad office methods.
One of the reactions of firms which have had complaints made about them of sending unending bills when the goods have not been ordered in the first place, and frequently after the recipient has written to them saying that he did not want the goods and does not want them, is to send an unstoppable supply of books, which becomes almost a nightmare to people. The excuse given by many firms is, "Oh, it is all the fault of the computer." I have never quite understood how it is a little more acceptable to people to be conned by a computer than to be conned by a human being, but in this technological age, possibly the firms feel that they can get away with it.
There is the belief that if an offer is wrapped up in sufficiently elaborate and exotic language, preferably by inserting one or two little technological phrases—"white heat" and the like—one can somehow manage to deceive the public. I wish that the firms which indulge in this practice would realise that, ultimately, they cannot fool the public and cannot con the public all the time. Parliament has a duty to protect the public from deliberate exploitation.
Perhaps I may deal with how the Bill endeavours to deal with what, I think the House will agree, is a growing abuse. I can perhaps do so by describing what the present law is. I assure the non-lawyers that I shall do so briefly and non-legalistically.
The present position is that if a person sends out goods which have not been ordered, 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 is "a reasonable time" has never properly, as far as I know, been interpreted by the courts. It seems to me, however, that it is unnecessarily burdensome and vague, and certainly quite wrong that somebody who is being bombarded with goods—sometimes which people did not want in the first place and for which they have no use—should have to go to all the trouble of perhaps going to a post office and sending them back, or storing them in a house with 1883 limited space and even then, possibly, receiving demand notes afterwards.
The Bill, therefore, seeks to make it the position that a person who receives goods which he has not ordered and does not want can treat them as a gift. I accept that this is an innovation in English law, but I would point out that this is now the law in New York, a place with which we have come to associate inertia selling, and that, as far as I know, it works very well indeed. By making it a gift the recipient would have the right either to keep the goods, or if he wanted to throw them away, as perhaps he would do in many cases.
What are the objectives of this new concept of law? The aim of the Bill is to stop the con man. I do not want, nor I am sure does any other hon. Member, to create a situation where perhaps con men among the recipients could take advantage of the situation. I accept that one of the difficulties of enabling a recipient to treat goods of this sort purely as a gift is that it could lead to some collusion between one person and another by which one person deliberately orders goods in another person's name to be sent to that other person in the hope of taking advantage of the Clauses of the Bill.
I would answer that by saying that hoaxes take place now. All the firms dealing in this particular commodity, book clubs, mail order firms and the rest, know that a certain number of orders will have to be written off because they are the result of hoaxes. It is taken for granted. It is part of the occupational hazards of doing business in this way. I do not consider that the hoaxes would increase appreciably.
One of the reasons that I presume people send goods, or hope that goods will be sent, to somebody else is that it will cause inconvenience to that other person. I am told that frequently No. 10 or No. 11 Downing Street is entered on coupons. I cannot for a moment understand why that should happen. If that person, by his action, is enabling the recipient to be able to keep the gifts that are sent, I cannot see how the person who wishes to embarrass the recipient should want to indulge in such a hoax. He is simply allowing the person towards 1884 whom perhaps he has some animosity to receive something to his advantage. Therefore, I do not accept the argument that hoax orders would increase substantially as a result of the Bill.
As for the fraudulent operator, the one who deliberately sets out to get goods to which he is not entitled in the belief that he can keep them as a result of this proposed legislation, I can only say that there are always people who are prepared to commit frauds. This is a fraud, a criminal offence, and it happens at the moment. I do not accept that it would necessarily increase as a result of this legislation.
I assure my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that I will seriously consider any suggestion she makes about tightening up this particular Clause in Committee. I am willing to co-operate with her, because I know that she has certain views on this matter which she has already stated to me.
Clause 2 sets out certain requirements as to the form and content of the agreement. In other words, it says that if somebody is asked to subscribe to a book club or record club, or whatever it may be, particularly when that person is going to enter into obligations over a long period of time—and it is sometimes an unending obligation unless he cancels it—it should be made quite clear to that person what the obligation is. The Bill requires proper documents to be enclosed, not only for the recipient to sign but also for him to keep.
It has been pointed out to me by perfectly honest firms in this business that this could face them with difficulties. They say that the documentation could be too complicated; that it could add to the ultimate expense of the article and, therefore, perhaps mitigate against the recipient in the long run. Again, I say to my hon. Friend, who has made similar points to me, that I will carefully consider any suggestion she has to make in Committee. This is very much a Committee point, but I assure the House that I am well aware of the objections to this proposition made to me by reputable mail order firms.
Clause 3 is a vital Clause. It is the penal Clause. There is no doubt that the most objectionable part of inertia selling is the follow-up letters deliberately 1885 couched in terms, not only to confuse the recipient, but also to imply to him that he is under an obligation to pay and that the obligation is backed by the force of law. This culminates in the threat of a solicitor's letter, and ultimately in a solicitor's letter. I have evidence, as I am sure have other hon. Members, that many people have paid up rather than face court proceedings even though they know or sense that in some way they are not liable.
The Clause is quite specific. It would make it a criminal offence for a firm to send out demand notes, which I think would include bills, for goods which they know are unsolicited and which they also know have not been ordered. It would provide a heavier penalty for the sending out of threatening letters, or the issuing of threats, as many firms do, to a recipient on their defaulters' list or something of that sort. Again, the penalties are not sacrosanct; they are taken from the beloved Trade Descriptions Act. I accept that the circumstances in both cases could well be different. But I assure my hon. Friend that I will look most carefully at any suggestion she has to make on this topic.
As I have said, Clause 3 is vital to the Bill, which if it is to act as a deterrent, must contain a penal Clause
The Bill has been deliberately extended by the provisions of Clause 4 to include services, because one of the most objectionable and particularly nasty forms of "conmanship', which is as near fraud as it can be, is the bogus trade directory, a racket which has been condemned by every responsible body. The Clause has, I believe, the qualified backing of the House and also of every other authority, including the Advertising Standards Association, which I mentioned earlier.
How does this racket operate? What happens is that firms receive a little yellow slip, which appears to be bona fide, saying that such and such a firm has been included, or is about to be included, in a local trade directory, or it may be a trade directory limited to a particular area of operation, such as ironmongery or chemists. No mention of money is ever made at the time. The recipients are told on this very official-looking slip—which could be, perhaps, from the G.P.O. or some such organisation—that if the 1886 publishers do not hear from them within, say, a week or a fortnight, they will assume that the entry is correct and publish it in the directory, but that if, they very rightly say, the recipients want to correct the entry they may do so.
As I say, no mention is made of money then, but about a fortnight later an invoice for seven guineas is received, "For your entry as follows.… If you pay within a fortnight—10 per cent. discount." Many junior clerks pay: they think, "I must save my boss some money." Others do not pay, in which case the firm receives a further bill, and a further demand. And so it goes on. I have had so many complaints about this practice that I feel justified, using parliamentary privilege quite blatantly, in naming some of the firms which operate in this way, and which operate quite dishonestly.
I have had a letter from the National Federation of Ironmongers complaining about the practices of several firms, and a letter from the National Federation of Master Painters and Decorators of England and Wales. I have received complaints from similar bodies, and it is always the same firms which are mentioned. They are: Classified Directories Ltd., 34, New Bridge Street, London, E.C.4; Classified Publications, 17, Park Street, The Square, Lytham, Lancs.; County Advertising & Publishing Co., Suite 7—it sounds very exotic—Evelyn House, 62, Oxford Street, London, W.l; Barrett's Publications Ltd.—and in a minute I shall be reading a bit of classic correspondence with them—Allenby Road, St. Annes-on-Sea, Lancs.; United Publicity Services Ltd., Publicity House, Gray's Inn Road, London, W.C.l.
It may well be quite useless to publicise these names, because those concerned no doubt operate under a hundred other names as well, but these are the names on most of the bills I have seen.
§ Mr. Christopher Price (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
Does my hon. Friend say that these are firms which actually produce trade directories, or do they fall into the category of firms which never produce anything at all?
§ Mr. Davidson
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, because I have omitted to mention a very important fact.
1887 One of the particularly disreputable facts about this type of operation is that usually no directory at all is ever published. What these firms do is to publish one directory in order to get round the law. One or two of them may circulate the occasional public library, but that is all. As a trade reference the publication is useless, and they know that it is useless. They deliberately set out to attract money from members of the public in this way.
§ Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)
My hon. Friend may be aware that in some cases the parent body is located at an address in Amsterdam. Will such a firm come within the scope of the Bill?
§ Mr. Davidson
I certainly hope that it will—in fact, I am quite sure that it will. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, because I have had letters of complaint about firms operating from abroad.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), the Leader of the Liberal Party—who is not present today, because he is on tour in Yorkshire—for sending me a classic piece of correspondence with Barrett's Publications. I feel that I should read it to the House, because for sheer cheek it takes some beating. The right hon. Gentleman received a complaint from a reputable firm in his constituency that Barrett's Publications had sent it demand notes for payment for an entry it had never ordered and did not want. It wrote to Barrett Publications telling them this, but received another letter.
The principals of the firm then, as is their right, consulted their Member of Parliament, who wrote to Barrett's Publications as follows:I shall be grateful if you will let me know how your firm can justify sending people bills who have not asked for their name to be inserted in your directory?This has caused considerable offence in my constituency"—
as it has in mine, and as it probably has in other constituencies—and I would value your comments.That was a perfectly normal letter for an M.P. to write. Needless to say, he got no reply, but a little later, after hearing from his constituents, the right hon. Gentleman wrote again. On this occasion 1888 he had the unique privilege of receiving a reply from Barrett's Publications. Whilst I do not necessarily wish to publish the right hon. Gentleman's virtues, he really does deserve the accolade for that.
The reply, written on an unsigned compliments slip, read:We are not in the habit of sending accounts to anyone who has not ordered anything, and we would ask your clients to write to us direct, as we cannot deal with a third party.Since the right hon. Gentleman's "clients"—and I have never necessarily regarded my constituents as clients— had written several times already, this statement is not only inaccurate, but quite astonishing.
Undaunted, the Leader of the Liberal Party replied:From your peremptory slip in answer to my letter of the 13th November, in which you seem to imply that an M.P. has no status when acting on behalf of his constituent, it is quite clear that your company does not believe in observing the basic courtesies.From your failure to answer my constituent's letter of 20th November, despite your invitation to him to write to you, it is clear that you have difficulty in keeping your word. The enclosed photostat from … the Sunday Times"—that was an article exposing bogus directory rackets:therefore comes as no surprise to me and, indeed, reference to the behaviour of your firm will be useful evidence when tabling a Parliamentary Question.…I should have thought it would also be clear that 'Suppliers to Her Majesty's Government', as you purport on your statements of account to be might be expected by the Government to adopt a rather higher standard of commercial ethics than your behaviour to date would suggest.Barrett's Publications then wrote back—again, I am astonished—on paper bearing at the top "Suppliers to Her Majesty's Government", in the following terms:We are in receipt of your letter.…Firstly, your client, whom we have never heard, either from or of"—in spite of the fact that Barrett's Publications had already sent the firm threatening demand notes—sounds very fishy to us. Perhaps you would care to give us his name".The name had already been supplied:Secondly, regarding the cuttings from the 'Times', we are not slightly interested and as we claim to be the biggest Printers and Publishers of Directories in the British Isles, to send us a cutting heading 'Directory Frauds' we think is most insulting.1889 The publishers of Kelly's, and the G.P.O., would be very interested, I am sure, to hear of this claim:Inertia selling is not one of our policies, and as we have been publishing Directories for nearly 100 years, we think you should get your facts right. We supply every Government Department with our books, and have never received any complaint, over all these years.That either indicates enormous inertia on the part of Government Departments from Gladstone's time to the present, or, as I suspect, it is a downright exaggeration.
The letter goes on:If you or anyone, wishes to make any charges against this Company, away from the House of Commons, we shall be pleased to commence legal proceedings against you at any time".The right hon. Gentleman is quite able to defend himself, but I should have thought that the charge which he made outside the House of Commons might result in some sort of action, in view of that comment.
It is clear from the correspondence, amusing as it is, that some legislation is necessary to deal with this racket. The only objection which I have heard to the relevant Clause of the Bill is that it is too narrow rather than too wide and that it might not be strong enough to catch this form of operation.
I have spoken for slightly longer than I had intended. I suggest that the Bill is necessary and I hope that the House will agree with its terms. As I have said, I do not regard it as a definitive Bill by any means; it can be improved in Committee, and no doubt when my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, who has shown a great deal of interest in consumer matters, gets to work on it, it will be slightly altered. In view of the fact that long-range contact between firms and recipients is an established part of business practice and is likely to grow, I am reminded that when we have a growing industry we also have black sheep.
The Bill is intended to curtail the activities of the black sheep, and I commend it to the House.
§ 11.41 a.m.
§ Sir Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)
I am sure that the House wishes to congratulate the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) upon his good fortune in having the oppor- 1890 tunity to move the Second Reading of the Bill and upon the moderation with which he has pursued his case. We all agree that when there are abuses we ought to take such steps as lie within our power to stamp them out. But a responsibility also rests upon us to ensure that in stamping out abuses we are not inflicting difficulties upon perfectly legitimate business enterprises.
The hon. Member, I am glad to say, went out of his way, in his opening sentences, to say that he recognises the existence of large mail order businesses which are properly run and excellently administered and that he has no desire to put any obstacles in their way. That is true. The mail order business is one of the fastest-growing forms of retail sales this country has ever known. It represents a very large proportion of the retail selling.
It is, therefore, a business of considerable importance and one for whose activities we should have some regard when we are contemplating legislation designed, quite properly, to stamp out abuses which we all wish to see stamped out. We must, therefore, make quite certain that there are sufficient safeguards in the Bill to protect the legitimate trading interests of those who are involved in such trading companies.
It is true that there are dishonest traders and that we ought to do what we can to put an end to their nefarious practices. But, I regret to say, dishonesty is not confined to traders. There are also dishonest customers. I envisage a position in which people know that if they can arrange for goods to be sent to them without their being solicited, they can keep them—and I can imagine the ingenuity which would be devoted to finding a way of seeing that that occurred. There must, therefore, be some protection for those who are engaged in legitimate trading to ensure that they are not exploited by dishonest customers just as we do not want to see honest customers exploited by dishonest traders.
I had a word with the hon. Member before the debate, and I hope that he will be prepared in Committee to see that adequate safeguards are written into the Bill to see that protection is given to legitimate businesses against some of the practices which could arise—legitimate businesses which are not responsible 1891 for fraud on anybody, but which, under the Bill as drafted, might be in some difficulties.
For example, a legitimate mail order house might receive an order for a pair of shoes sized 10. The man in the factory might make a mistake and send a pair of shoes sized 12. The order was for a pair sized 10. As the Bill is drafted, it could be read that the purchaser could claim that the pair of shoes sized 12 were unsolicited goods. We must have protection to make certain that where there is a genuine mistake in the despatch of goods from the factory they are not treated as unsolicited goods but that it is possible for the factory to accept the goods back and to send the correct goods.
Another common and legitimate practice in the mail order business occurs where a customer orders a certain garment and, by the time the order is received, the garment is out of stock. In a desire to help the customer, the mail order house sometimes, quite legitimately, sends the nearest available substitute in the hope that it will be satisfactory. The customer, of course, has a right to send it back if he does not want it and to insist on receiving the original garment. But would that be taken as having sent unsolicited goods? I am sure that the hon. Member does not intend that it should, but that illustrates some of the complexities with which we have to deal.
A third difficulty which could arise concerns goods which are sent on approval. A perfectly legitimate firm may receive a request from one of its agents to send him goods on approval; they are not ordered, but are sent on approval. That points to another technical problem which must be cleared up.
I mention those three points briefly, because I know that a number of hon. Members wish to take part in the debate, to emphasise that, anxious as we all are to stamp out abuses wherever they exist, we must also be vigilant in the interests of justice to those who are carrying out a proper business and we must see that we do not unduly hamper them in the conduct of that business.
Because I am convinced that the hon. Member for Accrington is a reasonable 1892 man, and because I am sure that he will look sympathetically at Amendments in Committee, I do not wish to stand in the way of the Second Reading of the Bill, but I hope that in its further progress in Committee note will be taken of the points which I have raised.
§ 11.48 a.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
There are many grievances in our laws which call for attention and remedy. Often they are too small for the Government, with their heavy programme and limited time, to tackle, and I have often felt that their remedy is best suited to a Private Member's Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson), with true lawyer's instinct, has seized the opportunity of his good fortune in the Ballot to tackle one of these matters and he has produced an excellent Bill dealing with what appears to be a small problem, but it is a problem which often involves anxiety and in some cases real hardship. There is no doubt that the practice of sending goods unsolicited to a person, putting upon him the burden of returning them, and demanding payment when no reply is received, constitutes an annoyance from which many of the public suffer.
In some cases, as my hon. Friend said, it may impose upon members of the public the legal duties attaching to the care of a gratuitous bailee and in many cases it is a form of extortion. It is one thing for a salesman to push his goods but it is another thing for him to foist them unsolicited on the public. Equally, where a subscription to a book club has terminated, a demand for payment beyond the period is to be frowned upon.
It is right in principle to provide in the Bill that the recipient can treat an unsolicited article as a gift, but I attach great importance to what was said by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden). If a person accepts the article as a gift, in some cases it may lead to some confidence trick. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington would accept an Amendment in Committee to cover that position.
For example, I visualise that an exception might be put into the Bill to provide that where it can be proved by 1893 certain circumstances that the matter should not be treated as a gift, that there had been some invitation by the customer, or circumstances which showed that the customer is not entitled to treat the article as a gift, the provision should not apply. I am of the opinion that the drastic idea of making unsolicited goods a gift should effectively terminate this practice, which is a nefarious one.
I welcome, too, the provisions of Clause 2. My hon. Friend did not go into detail about this, but it is an important provision. It refers toan offer in writing to supply goods, or an invitation in writing to treat for the samewhere the person to whom such offer is made has made no request. It provides that in such a caseall the terms of the contractshall becontained in a document signed by that personand kept by him and, in addition, that there shall be a warning that his signature will make the document a legally binding contract. People often enter into contracts carelessly without appreciating their legal effect.
The Clause is an important one in that it contains provisions which will safeguard the customer. Moreover, the Clause should not be a handicap or a risk to ordinary trading relationships, because subsection (4) contains an exception which will prevent the provisions in the Clause from being a clog upon ordinary business. As I read it, the provisions do not apply to ordinary business transactions.
I am glad, too, that the promoters have provided that a demand for payment for what are known, or ought reasonably to be known, to be unsolicited goods or unsolicited services is an offence punishable as set out in Clause 3. My hon. Friend said that this was vital to the Bill. I agree. A threat to bring legal proceedings or to place the name of the recipient on a list of defaulters or to invoke any other collection procedure is punishable under Clause 3(2).
I read with interest a leader in a recent issue of the Daily Telegraph criticising the latter provision—that is, making a threat punishable. The leader said that the idea of making it an offence to threaten to bring legal proceedings, even 1894 to vindicate a non-existent right, was bizarre and probably even dangerous. I do not agree. To many, particularly to the ignorant, a threat, which is a form of blackmail, may well cause considerable anxiety and worry and may cause them to yield to the threat, even if they are not liable. Clearly such a threat should be punishable.
I was very interested in what my hon. Friend said about the provision regarding insertion in directories. The criticism I make of this provision is that it is, if anything, too narrow and should be examined carefully in Committee with a view to its being extended. Hon. Members may, like myself, have received, for example, a newspaper or publication, without having demanded it, and may have read it; at the end of a certain period we get a demand for the payment of a subscription in respect of the publication. This is an example of the sort of thing which might be added in connection with the Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on having presented a well-drafted Bill which should help to remedy an unwelcome and distasteful practice.
§ 11.55 a.m.
§ Mr. Fergus Montgomery (Brierley Hill)
I hope that the business will be concluded quickly so that the House can debate the Bill which is to be introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, South (Mr. Scott) to deal with a very human problem concerning the oldest section of the community who do not have pensions.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) on his luck in the Ballot and on having introduced this Measure. I have served in the House for almost eight years, and although I religiously put my name each year in the Ballot for private Members' places I have never yet managed to secure a place. This is typical of my luck; the only raffles that I ever win are those where I draw the prize and then I have to give the prize back because I cannot take it having drawn it.
The Bill is not controversial. It highlights a form of selling which has caused much upset and inconvenience. I may be wrong, but I have the impression that inertia selling originated in the United States. Perhaps what has caused concern to the hon. Member for Accrington and 1895 persuaded him to use his time to introduce the Bill is that he believes that there is an increase in this type of selling in Britain.
I think that it is an unethical form of selling, because it commits people to buying goods that they do not want and that they have not ordered. Unless people are quick to cancel them or send them back, they can be involved in a great deal of inconvenience.
A firm whose products are good should not have to resort to this type of selling. The hon. Member for Accrington made it clear that the Bill is not aimed at reputable mail order firms. We believe that mail order firms meet a need, but in the case of mail order firms we are dealing with people who have placed orders and who have specifically asked for goods before goods are sent to them.
Many people are ignorant of how the law stands. Those who have been getting threats from firms are not aware of their rights. I think I am right in saying that at present the law states that people who receive unsolicited goods should keep them and let the firm which sent them collect them or let the firm know when the goods can be collected. One of the snags is that there is no time limit. The recipient cannot say, having kept the goods for six months, "I can now dispose of them". Because there is no time limit, people could be saddled with the goods for ever, because they must keep the goods and produce them if the firm should ever ask for them.
§ Mr. Arthur Davidson
Is not the position even worse, in that the recipient who is keeping the goods could be sued for conversion of the goods if the sender wished?
§ Mr. Montgomery
I agree. There is the question of the inconvenience for the recipient who perhaps has to store something which is bulky, which he does not want, and which he did not ask for.
Clause 1 clarifies the situation, because under it unsolicited goods received would be treated as a gift and, therefore, the recipient could dispose of them as and how he wished. This provision would help to stop this very shady selling technique. At the moment firms can con- 1896 tinue with inertia selling because they are well within the law.
The State of New York has introduced legislation to stop this form of selling. It has produced a quite simple law to this effect: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.That is what the hon. Member for Accrington has in mind, broadly speaking. I can only assume that this legislation has been brought about in the Legislature in New York State because of the growth of inertia selling and the complaints that have been received in that State.
It would seem that inertia selling in this country is, in the main, concerned with books, book clubs and gramophone records. There was a case which received a lot of publicity not long ago, where a dairy firm used inertia selling methods to market yoghourt. The milk roundsman left a carton of yoghourt on the doorstep with a request to the householder to try it. If the people in the house took the yoghourt in, they were billed for the yoghourt when the weekly milk bill was received.
In the main, however, the chief offenders are book clubs and record clubs. The magazine "Which?" in June, 1969, featured an article on inertia selling and it highlighted the point that people seem unsure of their legal rights. There have been cases where people have paid for goods which they did not want because they were terrified of the threat of legal action being taken against them by the firms concerned. It is true, as the hon. Member for Accrington pointed out, that people who do not pay up when requested receive letters from the firm concerned. In the beginning, apparently, these letters contain an expression of surprise that the person concerned has not paid the bill or the letter may say:we are surprised that a person in your position has not paid this bill.1897 Later, the letters become more threatening, usually culminating in the threat of legal proceedings.
I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Accrington that when these letters go to people, particularly elderly people who live on their own, they get very worried and anxious. They have never had any trouble in their lives before, and the mere threat of being taken to court is in some cases enough to persuade them to pay for goods which they do not want, which are of no use to them and for which they have never asked. Clause 3 will help to deal with these cases by imposing these penal sanctions. I hope that if I were ever threatened in this way by a firm which sent me unsolicited goods, I would sit tight and tell them to do their damndest.
I cite the case of Dr. Alexander Playfair, who wrote a very entertaining article in a magazine about an experience that he had with a firm of the type that we are discussing today. He wrote for a free supply of Vitasafe C.F. Kaps, whatever they may be. He did not make it clear in the article what they were supposed to do for him. I think that he merely wanted to see what the result would be. This doctor received a package of 30 of these tablets which he was told was a month's supply. Then he got a letter saying that he would automatically be sent each month a fresh supply at a special price of 14s. 9d. and that he could stop this supply by posting a cancellation. He said to himself, "Why should I go to the trouble of providing a stamp and writing back to this firm for something I did not ask for?" He had only asked for the free sample as advertised.
The following month he received another supply and this time there was a charge of 16s., including 1s. 3d. postage and packing. He then received regular communications usually beginning with the words "Dear Friend" and asking for the money in the nicest possible way. As time went by the communications became mare urgent, and at last the firm sent the doctor a reply paid envelope, the first time they had done this. So he courteously replied to the firm saying that the items they wanted could be collected from his home at any time that the firm's representative cared to call.
1898 From this time onward the communications were no longer addressed to "Dear Friend" but "Dear Customer", and they became more menacing in tone. One began:I wonder if you realise just how serious the matter is … unless you send us your remittance immediately you will compel us to take steps which may cause you great embarrassment.The following month he got another letter saying:Unless full payment of your account is received within seven days I will take the necessary steps to obtain settlement of your debt".The seven days passed and he waited to see what those steps might be. In fact, 28 days passed before an identical message was received. He then received a splendid slip printed with a facsimile signature of "The Manager". It was headed "Express Urgent" and this was printed three times to make sure that the reader did not miss it. It threatened that unless payment was received in 10 days his account would be… submitted to our solicitors for review and direction.The use of capital letters for that awful word "solicitors" was designed, no doubt, to bring a chill fear of doom.
There was silence for another period. At last Dr. Playfair received a slip labelled "Final Notice" in red, which said:Appropriate action will be taken seven days after this.The message was undated and the doctor felt that it had lost its impact. He said in his article:What, in fact, one wonders would be 'appropriate action'? Something to do with the wastepaper basket? For legally the recipient of unasked-for goods has no responsibility except to keep them until the sender collects them. Unhappily, there seems to be no time limit about this and the victim is saddled with the material. On the other hand it is unlikely that a firm with such business methods would despatch a representative to pick up such small items. Clearly, this technique has commercial advantages. Many, unversed in law and easily impressed by those utterly vague but high-sounding threats, could be frightened into paying for something they never wanted. It began with noble phrases about health and vitality. Over the months it degenerated, to put it as mildly as possible, into a display of the lowest ethics.I congratulate again the hon. Member for Accrington on his good fortune in winning a place in the Ballot and his 1899 good sense in bringing forward this Bill. At worst, we shall have highlighted to many people what their present legal position is. At best, I hope that the Government will be helpful and that the Bill will become law, in which case the hon. Gentleman will have helped to stamp out a growing abuse.
§ 12.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Tony Gardner (Rushcliffe)
I, too, join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) both on his luck in the Ballot and on introducing this Measure. He could have chosen, as some private Members do, to introduce a major and perhaps controversial Measure of social reform and thus gain all the attendant publicity which is attracted to such major Bills. Instead, he has chosen to introduce a relatively minor change in the law but none the less a change which will relieve from worry a great many poorer people. At the same time, it will do away with some of the abuses which have been mentioned.
Mr. Wilfred Pickles, in his radio programmes, used to ask people, "If you could introduce a new law, which one would you introduce?" I suppose that over the years many hundreds of suggestions for changes in the law were made in that programme. Many minor changes are needed. Unfortunately, this House never has time to accommodate all these necessary changes.
Unfortunately, too—and I say this seriously—Governments of either party have been very loath to take action to defend the consumer. If one looks back over the record, one finds that with the notable exceptions of the Consumer Protection Act, passed when the party opposite was in power, and the Trade Descriptions Act passed during this Parliament, all attempts to change the law to the advantage of the consumer have been initiated by back-bench Members. I particularly welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has chosen this opportunity to introduce a Bill which will protect poorer and perhaps less well educated consumers.
The other important matter—and I am no lawyer—is that it is quite true that this House always has the greatest respect for the English common law which traditionally exists to protect the individual. 1900 It is also unfortunately true that the common law does not always keep up to date with changing business practices and changes in technology.
The law of contract is a classic example of this. It has developed over the years during periods when buying and selling was a very personal matter and when one went into a shop and agreed upon a price or went to a local trader and agreed on a price and settled up. The law of contract, although not clear to me as a layman, at least offered the individual a protection.
We have now reached a situation where the business of buying and selling—as other hon. Members have said—has become a long-range operation. Changes in communication, in the postal services and other matters have made the business of buying and selling cease to be a face-to-face operation. Therefore, the individual does not necessarily have the kind of protection he used to have under common law.
The other aspect of common law is that it is expensive and although the individual, as in this case, has certain rights in the way he uses goods sent to him unsolicited, even if he knows about the law, he may, especially if he belongs to the poorer section of the community, be loath to go to law at all.
I am sure that all hon. Members can confirm my own experience in regard to the number of cases with which I have to deal when a constituent will come and say, "I know I can go to law but I cannot afford it and the case may go against me". Such constituents are scared even of going to a solicitor to seek advice. I should welcome a change in the law which would enable ordinary people, poorer people, to know with greater precision what their rights are and to have some protection against the practices which have been described.
The hon. Gentleman the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) quite rightly said that most traders are honest and reputable, but they, too, need protection from dishonest customers. That is true, but I am worried about some of the methods used. I had a great deal of contact with trade protection societies when we were dealing with another matter in the House last year. I have great respect for the way that some of their 1901 organisations operate, but some of the letters sent to individuals by organisations doing a quite honourable job in collecting their clients' money are, in my view, quite frightening when they are received by poorer individuals.
I refer to the sort of letter which says not merely "You owe us so-and-so", but threatens to take an individual to law and gives an assessment of what the costs would be. Therefore, the individual receives a bill with the charges added on and, faced with a possibility of a very large bill, he simply pays up.
If that sort of method is used—and there is nothing wrong with it when there is a genuine contract—by people sending unsolicited goods it is highly likely that the individual will pay up irrespective of what his rights might be under the law.
§ Mr. Arthur Davidson
Does my hon. Friend not think it is also objectionable that these letters and the solicitor's letters go put as part of a chain? No inquiries, or few, are made by the trade protection society which sends out the letters. This is particularly so when no inquiries are made by the solicitor and the letters are sent out automatically. Does not my hon. Friend find that objectionable?
§ Mr. Gardner
Yes, that is precisely my point. My hon. Friend will remember our discussions on this last year. As a result, the trade protection societies have been looking carefully at their organisation to make sure that they do not do that sort of thing. But what we are concerned with here is the body which deliberately sets out to con people into buying goods which they do not want. If such a body uses those methods it is even more objectionable.
Most of us have had experience from time to time of having goods or services which we do not want imposed on us. I have in mind that in my own front room al home there are a number of very attractive maps and books sent to me by one of the largest publishing organisations in the world. It is based in Holland—at least that is where the invoices come from.
Many of the books are very attractive and make good coffee-table books—I think that is the modern phrase—but I did not ask for them. But they are 1902 sitting there and make my bookshelf look even more attractive and all the letters sent to me in respect of them have gone straight into the waste-paper basket. The reminders which I have been sent started off in a friendly manner, but they have become less friendly as time has gone by.
Until my hon. Friend introduced the Bill I did not know that I was liable to look after the goods, but thought I could keep them and tell the firm to "go to blazes". I am now a little worried that at some stage I may be questioned about whether I have looked after them. We must, therefore, be careful that the cat does not sit on them. As I understand, if the books are damaged I could be liable for failure to look after them in a proper manner.
I also welcome what the Bill says about trade directories. As hon. Members have said, some of these firms give the impression that they are official bodies. I have seen advertisements which have left the impression—although they do not use the words—that they were talking about the Post Office Classified Telephone Directory and even phrases such as "Yellow Pages" were used.
This is a quite disgraceful practice and I might say that, despite the recent exposure of those firms on the Bernard Braden show on television, provincial newspapers are still carrying advertisements inserted by the firms which my hon. Friend was asking about.
May I question my hon. Friend on the point which a number of other hon. Members have put to him? Does the Bill cover international companies or companies based in other countries which are sending unsolicited goods to people in this country with all the follow-up which has been described? I should like my hon. Friend's assurance about that.
§ Mr. Arthur Davidson
Whether the Bill covers it or not, it certainly intended to do so and I am sure that with the help of my hon. Friend it will ultimately emerge that it does cover that point.
§ Mr. Gardner
I certainly hope so and I shall look forward to getting some assurance on this.
In conclusion, I take up the two points made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Southend, East. I agree with him completely that we should not penalise 1903 firms who, through an error, have either sent out the wrong goods, or sent the goods to the wrong person and then followed it up by asking for payment. I do not know what the answer to that is. Perhaps we ought to look at the sort of defences provided by the Trade Descriptions Act. I should not want to widen the defences in this matter too much, but it might be the answer to incorporate phrases covering genuine mistake, and so on.
Again, I agree with the hon. Member for Southend, East that there is nothing wrong with the sending of goods on approval. I imagine that this would be covered by Clause 4, the interpretation Clause:'unsolicited goods' means goods … for which no request or order by or on behalf of that person has been given or made".I imagine that goods sent out on approval in the normal way are sent in response to a direct request. For example, an advertisement in a newspaper offers sets of postage stamps on approval. Presumably, if one writes in to ask for some stamps on approval, that is a request for the goods. Therefore, a person who held the goods and refused to pay or return them would have committed himself and be covered by Clause 4. Perhaps my hon. Friend could clear that matter up.
Subject to those two minor points, I greatly welcome the Bill. I hope that it will have the support of the House and the Government, so that, at the end of this Session, my hon. Friend can feel that he has made a small but important contribution to protecting the consumer and improving the law.
§ 12.21 p.m.
§ Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)
Last week, I came here in the hope of supporting the Right of Privacy Bill, but, unfortunately, an attack of laryngitis prevented me. Today, I am pleased to support another Measure designed to protect the individual.
I arrived back only last night from the Council of Europe, where I had made several inquiries on the point which the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Gardner) has just raised about the situation in other countries. Many of the countries of Europe have already introduced or are introducing Measures along 1904 these lines. I was assured that the Netherlands, in particular, had already introduced such a Measure.
I was much amused when I arrived home to find a postcard—apparently my number is 173621—telling me:Congratulations. Next week is Lucky Number week in your area, and you have been selected to receive a Lucky Number. Look out for a blue envelope that the postman will deliver next week. It brings you a mystery gift which will be awaiting you and the chance of enjoying a luxury transatlantic cruise for two—absolutely free".It is signed by Kathleen Gibbs. I have not the slightest idea who Kathleen Gibbs is, or who wants to offer me these things. My hopes have been raised. Whom shall I choose as my No. 2?
I regard that sort of thing as pernicious. It should not be allowed. But one of the great troubles which the Bill tackles is the fear which is created among people in the lower income groups. Many constituents have come to me telling me of threatening letters which they have received, in some such terms as… authorise the next of our Collection Department procedures which I know are not pleasant. They are, however, effective and in the end you will pay …That is a direct quotation from one such letter.
Next, what about the keeping of goods? I was interested to see what was said when a question was put to one publication about keeping and later destroying the goods if they were not collected. The reply was:Unfortunately, if you did this, the firm could legally require you to pay them the value of the goods (not necessarily the price they ask). But there is nothing to stop you pointing out that you have destructive children or pets, and that you cannot reasonably be expected to watch them 24 hours a day".This is all an extraordinary procedure, and it is another of the reasons why I welcome the Bill.
Someone else wrote to one of these firms asking whether it wished to recover the two unsolicited volumes, saying that, if it did,… my bill will be as follows: Storage charge at 6d. per volume per week 10s. 6d. Two letters Is. 6d. Return postal and packing charges 5s. 6d. Total 17s. 6d.".The advice given by the organisation to which he had referred the question was that one could ask for one's expenses but it was very doubtful whether one would ever receive them.
1905 Then there is the question of proof of return of goods. In one letter which I have seen, a person said:About two weeks later I received a statement saying I owed them £1 10s. approximately for the two books which I had sent back.".There was no proof. So everyone is advised to return goods by recorded delivery.
One of the firms which sends out goods said:I would like to add that we do not send goods unless an order is received, and it would appear that you have been the victim of a practical joker".I do not know whether the Bill would cover that state of affairs. I suppose not, because there will always be practical jokers. But it may highlight to such people the danger they may be in if they carry on that sort of practice.
In another letter—this reminds me of the post card which I received—someone wrote to say:The gist of the letter was that I had won a free prize … anything from a new car to a volume of Shakespeare Sonnets. A parcel arrived. This contained—guess what—the volume of Sonnets, plus two other books which were on approval for fourteen days".The hon. Gentleman the Member for Rushcliffe has already referred to the question of goods on approval.
It appears—my postcard is one indication—that these organisations select an area and then send similar envelopes to all the people there saying that they have won a prize, or can win a prize.
I welcome the Bill for another reason. The mail order system—I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) is not here at the moment—is very good and most useful, particularly in rural areas, but the practices of some organisations cut right across the beneficial service which genuine mail order trade offers.
I am a little worried about Clause 2 which provides that no one receiving unsolicited goods shall be liable unless there is sent to him a copy of the document stating all the terms of the contract for him to sign. I hope that such a document would contain a prominent warning that signature would commit the recipient to a legally binding contract. I mention that because of our experience 1906 with hire-purchase agreements, knowing how many people do not really understand what they sign. I hope, therefore, that this point will be covered so that a prominent notice, if necessary in large print, appears in the document, because, if the Bill goes through as it stands, people could be legally committed in the future, whereas they are not at present.
I am pleased to support the Bill, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman the Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) on bringing in a Measure to support the individual, so different from other legislation recently before the House which seems to be on the other side of the line. I hope that the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary will give her blessing to the Bill, and that in due course a minor change can be made in Clause 2 to protect the individual in the way I have described. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ 12.27 p.m.
§ Mr. William Price (Rugby)
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson), who, as we all know, has long had an interest in inertia selling. It is necessary to bring a Measure forward because we are in danger of changing our traditional rôle of shopkeepers to that of "fiddlers". As for increased productivity, those engaged in inertia selling have a record unequalled in almost any other enterprise.
What worries me a little is that the Bill could have been, and should have been, introduced by the Government. That would have left my hon. Friend to introduce another highly desirable Measure which, I hope, would have rid us of live hare coursing, deer stalking, And one or two other activities. However, he has brought the present Bill forward and we ought all to welcome it.
The Bill will give considerable protection to those people who are most likely to fall for the sales patter of some of the disreputable operators now engaged in inertia selling. I understand that it will be a popular Bill, although, apparently, there is one gentleman in the other place who—I ask the House to excuse the pun—has a big bee in his bonnet. We shall discover what is the matter with him in due course, but, as far as I can tell, the Bill will receive 1907 practically unanimous support throughout the country.
No one should underestimate the extent of the problem. There is growing up in Britain a system by which "sharks" are exploiting the decency and honesty of the majority of our people. The time has come when we should get a grip on them, and I shall not be happy if the Minister, for whom I have a soft spot, as she knows, takes the view that this is a matter which should be left to people's discretion. I think that that is a totally unacceptable argument. What chance has an elderly person when faced with the sort of seductive alluring salesmanship of those who live by their wits? We have a duty to protect them, and I hope that the House will make it clear today and during our consideration of the Bill that it is not prepared to put up with some of the American-type business methods that we have had in recent years.
I have been involved in this for a long time, and I have investigated a number of these "fiddles". Perhaps the most famous is the carbon paper racket, but now we are finding that more and more people are dealing in plain, straightforward, elementary sex. The carbon paper racket is perhaps the most fascinating of them all. I can illustrate it best by quoting the experience of a licensee in the West Country, not a constituent, but a friend. He gets a telephone call from a firm thanking him for taking part in a survey. "I ain't taken part in any survey" he says, but he is told, "If you did not, then one of your staff must have", and in the end he is told that whether he wants it or not he will be sent a gift.
The gift is a biro pen worth a few shillings, plus a large consignment of carbon paper, followed two months later by the bill for £9 7s. 6d.—what must be the most expensive carbon paper in history. He then receives a long series of demanding letters. He writes on three or four occasions, but gets no reply, and in the end the threatening letters start to come in. To cut a long story short, they end with a letter saying that he must appear at a county court in a certain town on a certain date. The problem is that there is no county court in that town.
1908 In the end he handed the documents to me. I did not tell him, but I looked into the matter for him. I traced the character concerned to a basement in London—a very odd set-up if ever I saw one—and had a two-hour discussion with him and his staff. I told him that I would refer the matter to the Board of Trade. That put the fear of God into him. I do not know why; it has never put the fear of God into anybody else. I knew that the Board of Trade would not take action anyway, and that is precisely what happened, but I am working my way through a box of some of the best quality carbon paper that I have ever used.
We have heard a lot about trade magazines. I have had many of these. The latest to come to my attention was one in which a character probably straight out of Wormwood Scrubs was sending out thousands of bills for seven guineas each for insertions in this magazine. I wrote three times asking for a copy of the dummy magazine, but did not get it. I then asked a journalist friend of mine to make inquiries about this firm, and he, believe it or not, traced it to a disused railway carriage.
I can tell the House what will happen. This fellow will probably receive X number or seven guineas, operating on a return of one in 20 or 30, and he will be off like a shot. The chances of any directory appearing are about as bright as my chances of becoming the first back bencher on Venus. That is the sort of situation with which we are faced. He is operating on the same principle as all the rest of them. Many of these accounts slip through the accountancy systems of the bigger firms. They ought not to, but they do. Second, many small firms, and I include thousands of people like this, will pay rather than face any court action.
The Board of Trade says—or it has done in the past, before my hon. Friend got there—that people must use their common sense. They should throw away the accounts, and nothing more will be heard. It has been said that the State of New York has introduced legislation on this, but we have a problem which they do not have. We have our civil servants. I hope that my hon. Friend, who I know pursues these matters with some vigour, has been able to get 1909 into their hands the certainty that we need some action in this respect.
The police say that no offence has been committed, "It is no good coming to us brother, we can do nothing about it". I do not dispute that no offence has been committed, but the trouble is that by the time the offence is apparent this character will have gone, and all that we shall be left with is a disused railway carriage. This is the sort of thing that is going on all over the country all the time.
I give one final example. My constituency has recently been flooded with some exotic sex literature offering advice on all sorts of ways of enjoying oneself in bed. I thought that I knew most of them, bit it is apparent, after seeing the leaflet, that I did not. It invites people to send 30s. to an address at Wellingborough. One of my hon. Friends hopes that I bought it, but he will see in a moment why I could not. One is invited to send 30s. to an address in Wellingborough, and in return "all sorts of unknown pleasures will be yours for the asking". The leaflet is offered free of charge, and there are some silhouetted examples to prove the value of the commodity.
That leaflet went to many old-age pensioners. I know that it was opened by many children, and that it gave offence to many people. We can laugh about it, but that is the serious side of the matter. I wrote to the Attorney-General and asked whether the book contravened any Acts. My right hon. and learned Friend is most helpful, but he cannot do anything about it. He said, "I am very sorry, but the leaflet does not contravene the Act. However, the D.F'.P. and I are prepared to consider the book."
I thought to myself, "We are winning but there is a problem. There ain't no book. I see that there is a very perceptive Whip on the Front Bench for a change. There has not been any book. There will not be any book. I wrote to the address at Wellingborough, but I did not include 30s. I asked what was going on, and received a most pathetic letter from a florist, who said, "Mr. Price, I am glad you have written to me. Can you help 1910 me?" I wrote to him for help, and in return received a most pathetic plea running to six pages. What was happening was that this was an accommodation address upstairs, and he had had people knocking on his door day and night, using the most abusive terms, and asking either for their book of bedtime reading, or the return of their 30s. The chances of them getting either are very remote.
In one of its uncharitable moments the House might take the view that that is their fault, but that is the sophisticated view of people who are not themselves likely to be taken in. There are millions who do not fall into that happy category, and for a variety of reasons legislation to protect them is long overdue.
I have often wondered about the possibility of making it a straightforward offence to send out anything without a written order. I have come to the conclusion that it probably would not work. It is just possible that I.C.I. would want to order a dozen nuts and bolts, and it may be that that sort of legislation would catch the company. The Board of Trade has pointed this out to me, and I accept that the criticism is valid. I think that my hon. Friend has got it right. If firms send out unwanted goods, then those goods become the property of the person to whom they are sent. If he wants to pay for them, he can, and if he does not want to, he need not.
I know that the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) has pointed out that there are dishonest customers. Of course there are. I recently had a letter from a businessman enclosing a copy of a letter from one of his customers—not a constituent of mine—in which the customer said—this is a very old story, but it has a new twist—"Thank you very much for your demand note. I should inform you that at the end of each month I put all my bills into a hat and draw out so many and pay them. I am sorry to have to tell you that your number has not yet come out". Now that is not original, but I thought that the end bit was. He said, "Any more of your impertinence and your bill will not even go into the hat". So there are problems on both sides.
1911 My criticism of the Bill, if I have one, is that it does not go wide enough. I do not think that it will deal with much of the sales literature. I cannot see how it will stop anyone sending the sort of postcard mentioned by the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devon-port (Dame Joan Vickers). I do not think that it will. It tends to deal with material goods rather than literature, and this is something that we should consider.
The only other thing which worries me about this matter is that politicians send out literature from time to time which is not always either desirable or apparently popular. I put out a great deal on my own behalf—it is really sales literature—and I know that, in some houses in Rugby, it is not welcomed. I called at a house the other day which had a placard in bold print at the gate saying, "No salesmen, no religious callers, no canvassers and certainly no politicians."
It has not been easy for him, but I congratulate my hon. Friend on maintaining what I think is a genuine balance between the majority, who are carrying on honest trading, and the few but nevertheless growing number who are doing no such thing. I think that we have an excellent opportunity of producing a Bill which will be welcomed by the great majority of people. The only people who will suffer will be not the genuine business men, but the spivs and crooks. I have enough documents in my possession to indicate that there is a growing number of spivs and crooks. It would be a disaster if the Bill did not become law.
§ 12.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Latham (Paddington, North)
As an intended victim of inertia selling, I rise to support the Bill and to recount some personal experience in the matter, since I have yet to be satisfied that the Bill will cover all the devices and tricks employed by those who practice inertia selling. But first, I say to the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) that I have not only received my card with the lucky number but have since received the blue envelope and am completely baffled by its contents. Perhaps when she has received her blue 1912 envelope we can look at the thing together and see whether we can make any sense out of what is being offered.
This bears out the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Gardner)—the way in which literature received through the post is, often deliberately, worded in such a way that it is beyond the comprehension of the average recipient really to understand its meaning. Then, when further communications are received it is easy to frighten such a recipient into believing that he agreed by accepting, for example, the blue envelope, the terms and conditions he was not aware of but which nevertheless he thinks may have created for him obligations in law, morally and in every other way.
But my hon. Friend has been more fortunate than I in receiving goods which have at least some ornamental or decorative quality during his custodianship. I have been less fortunate. Nor do I think that he in his experience has had the full treatment, because he merely mentioned the receipt of letters which became a little less endearing in their form of address as time went on. They do not seem to have reached the other stages in which these campaigns seem to culminate.
I want to give some detail of the process of systematic bluff and de-deliberate psychological intimidation which has been attempted against me. I was in the rather extraordinary position during my by-election campaign last October of being threatened with legal proceedings. At that stage, I would very much have welcomed such proceedings, for a variety of reasons which hon. Members will appreciate, not least of which was the possibility that one might thereby make a further contribution to trying to expose publicly just how flimsy are the claims of inertia salesmen against customers—perhaps "customers" is the wrong term to use here. "Victims" is more appropriate.
A year or 18 months ago, I started to receive through the post, without any request or action on my part, 45 r.p.m. records from an organisation calling itself, "Concert Hall Record Club". Apparently, these records, which came at two or three weekly intervals, were free gifts, quite unsolicited. They were 1913 not, for that matter, records in which I was particularly interested. I subsequently received a note explaining to me that these free gifts were coming to me at the request of a very good friend of mine.
I was mystified but decided that I would sit tight and do nothing, that I would make myself a guinea pig and experiment to see just what would happen. I therefore took no steps to stop the supply of these "free gifts" and sought no legal advice. Indeed, I must admit, as my hon. Friend has done, that, until my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) spoke today, I was completely unsure of my legal position.
Then larger records began to arrive, this time 33 r.p.m. records. They also arrived at regular intervals of two or three weeks. At one point my resolution to see the process through wavered, because these records were too big to be delivered through the letter box, although they came by letter post, but required the postman to bang on the door in order to deliver. There was one unfortunate occasion after a very late night when the postman, on a dark and cold morning, arrived early and I found myself awakened by his impatient knocking on a freezing doorstep.
Then the process really began to start, just as described by other hon. Members. The records stopped coming and an invoice followed. Then came the process of systematic bluff and attempted psychological intimidation. First, there were the normal reminders. Then came a very pleasant letter from a director of the firm expressing the extremely charitable view that my not paying the bill was all due to a misunderstanding which he was ready to forgive and that he really believed that, in order to avoid bad feeling, my cheque would be sent to him by return.
This was followed, with some reminders in between, by the kind of letter that some of the pools firms are in the habit of sending out and which say that the little girl in the office is shedding tears over one's account and that she is worried at night and suggesting that for the sake of her health one should clear up the matter.
Then—and I should like my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington to 1914 consider whether this kind of activity would also be precluded by his Bill—there was a letter to tell me that the friend who had recommended me as a member in the first instance would be extremely upset that I had failed to honour the recommendation which he had made. Next, after a couple of reminders, as one would expect as the continuation of this process, there came the threat that the matter would be put in the hands of a solicitor. Again there was a reminder and then came the solicitor's letter.
I should like some hon. and learned Member to explain how it is that reputable members of the legal profession seem so readily to lend themselves to what is in fact an abuse, how it is that they appear to be ready at any request, presumably on payment of a fee, to dun a client's alleged customer, without, apparently, any desire to satisfy themselves that there is a genuine debt to be recovered.
§ Mr. William Price
The answer to that is that the legal profession had its problems, too. I have dealt with some of these characters who are almost as devious as their clients.
§ Mr. Latham
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. This may be the explanation. Perhaps the promoters of the Bill will consider whether it might not also be an offence to be an accessory in this matter, because there are some members of the legal profession who tend to specialise in doing this almost illegal work and one might extend the scope of the Bill to take account of factors of that kind.
Then, after reminders, came the threat that the matter would be placed in the hands of debt collectors. This is mentioned in the Bill and I am glad that it is, but it has not been mentioned in the debate. Following the notification that the matter was being passed to the hands of debt collectors, I received a letter, marked "personal", from a director of the firm, who clearly, from the way in which he had phrased the letter, was concerned only about my genuine interest in the matter and who explained to me that before the debt collector proceeded, he would like to tell me that these people used most unpleasant 1915 methods in order to achieve their objectives, methods of which the firm, Concert Hall Records, itself did not approve, but methods over which it had no control and methods which apparently it accepted as inevitable if it was obliged, and it had no alternative, to put my offence in the hands of debt collectors for them to resolve.
I must admit—and I have had a fairly tough experience in public life for the last 25 years and one gets a little hardened to threats, perhaps more hardened than the average member of the public—to having become a little worried. I had a wife and relatively young children and one has a picture in one's mind of thugs arriving on the doorstep and one wonders what action they would take. None the less, I have resolved to go on and I overcame these fears and decided to see the matter through still further.
I must conclude that the firm of debt collectors was not very efficient, because I never received any approach of any kind. This is what I mean by the process of systematic bluff. The matter was probably referred to non-existent debt collectors. It becomes clear as the process continues that this is deliberate practice and not something to be dismissed as office error or computer error. It is a carefully thought-out process of psychological intimidation.
Then came a letter from the firm to explain that by now I would realise that it meant to collect its money, in other words, that the game was up, that I had seen the steps it was prepared to take and that now, despite my obstinacy, I must recognise that in the end the firm was going to win and suggesting that, nevertheless, we could settle the matter amicably—it did not mean an amicable settlement by a discount, but that it would forgive and forget provided that its account was now met in full.
Then came the next stage with which the Bill deals—the threat to place me on a bad debtor's list and the declaration that this list would be circulated to other businesses. Clearly I was now faced with the choice of paying for goods which I had not ordered and which I did not want, or being put on a bad debtors list so that never again, if ever I wanted to 1916 be able to obtain credit, would I be able to do so from any trade house in the country.
With a family dependent, as so many are, on some element of credit or hire purchase, one can well understand how at this point anybody who has seen the thing through this far may well feel that there is no way in which he can get his name removed from such a list and he may pay up in order to avoid the greater risk. Again, this is psychological intimidation.
I wish that I had kept the letter which I then received, during the by-election campaign. After a very long delay, when I thought that I had seen the process through to the bitter end, I received a letter from a new and most imposing-sounding legal-cum-financial organisation. I will not attempt to pronounce the name in case I malign some organisation which does exist and which is not the one concerned. Obviously the intention behind this latest move was to impress upon me that the really big boys were now after me and that so far I had been dealing only with the small fry and that I could now expect serious trouble unless I paid up and that these people would go ahead with legal proceedings.
That was in October and since then I have heard no more. I am awaiting the next move. I do not know whether I have reached the end of the process, or whether they read the newspapers and found that one of their victims had been elected to Parliament and thought that it might be time to stop.
These were goods which I had never ordered and which at no time had I acknowledged, because of the feeling that acknowledgment of some kind might be misinterpreted and the firm might be able to claim against me. There is no evidence that I have ever had these goods. They have been more of a nuisance than those which the hon. Member for Rushchile has been able to keep in his room. They have been ready to be collected at any time, but at the firm's trouble and expense and at my convenience.
§ Mr. Arthur Davidson
Presumably, as far as my hon. Friend knows, there is no "friend" who made the request in the first place.
§ Mr. Latham
I have no friend who would make a request of that kind, as 1917 far as I know, and the "friend" must be entirely fictitious. No doubt I received a stock letter.
I wish that I had kept a careful file of this correspondence so that I was able to produce all these letters, for this example incorporates pretty well all the methods which are used in this process of systematic bluff. But one of the reasons why I have not been able to file the correspondence is that I must admit having tried to keep it away from my wife. There are not many secrets that I have from my wife, but I knew full well that she would be extremely disturbed by some of the letters—and she has a background in public life. People who do not come up against these things and who do not know how the Government and local government work and who do not know their rights are likely to be far more frightened than those who have been connected with these activities.
In my own case I was afraid that it would distress my wife if she saw this correspondence. She might have urged me that it would be cheaper to pay and avoid the trouble and inconvenience which might result from non-payment. It needs little imagination to realise how much distress this can cause to many families Sending goods that people have not ordered, and do not want, with no stated price and then dunning them is a very dirty way of earning a living. In the example I have described there was the "softening-up" process at the beginning where so-called gifts are offered with the implication that a friend might be offended, if I even returned the gifts since he had recommended me for them.
This is a carefully-worked-out piece of trickery. It is good business, if it can be considered ethical in any way. I am certain that at each stage more and more victims pay up. This is why it is worthwhile, why it is worth the expense of postage and letters, because each time fewer and fewer people hold out. It is rather like the G.L.C. and those who are withholding their rent increases. At each threat the number withholding becomes fewer.
It is clear that the ordinary, average, decent, honest, innocent member of the public needs to be protected. The whole process is designated to play on the emotions of scared people. There is the fear of being in the wrong and the idea that a 1918 person will want to pay up to give the large firm the benefit of any doubt. This is the reaction of any decent citizen. There is anxiety over being involved in legal procedings.
Is there any legal recourse that we now have against the implied threat that someone may call at one's door to collect a debt, with all the attendant fears? Then there is the concern lest one is denied hire-purchase and other credit facilities. It is an extremely nasty business and I hope that this Bill puts a stop to it.
I have one or two questions I should like to ask about the Bill. I want to be certain that the onus of proof will rest upon the supplier that goods were ordered or solicited and that there will not be any danger either that the onus will be on the recipient of the goods to prove that there was no order, or that the goods were unsolicited. As at present drafted the Bill talks about a person who in the course of any trade or business… has supplied what he knows or ought reasonably to know are unsolicited goods …If what has been said is true, and I am sure it is, that the majority of people do not know their legal rights, giving them further legal rights will not provide a remedy. It is true that the Bill provides that in certain circumstances this practice shall be an offence and the practitioner shall be subject to prosecution. This means that if a few people are victimised in this way and take proceedings, the practitioner may be put out of business. Maybe he will not be. I can recall a problem in the market of the town where I live, where constant fines were imposed upon unauthorised market traders—barrow boys. The regular fines became a simple part of the barrow boys' costs. They were more acceptable than the overheads of running a shop with heating, lighting, rates and so on.
Is there any need to strengthen the Bill so that a series of offences would result in such punitive action against the practitioner that he would find it unprofitable to continue in business? For every handful that might be prepared to have proceedings taken in respect of their cases, there would be many thousands who pay up, as the majority do now. Can my hon. Friend on the Front Bench say whether, disregarding the Bill, there is anything that the Board of Trade is 1919 prepared to do in order to publicise people's existing rights in this matter?
I know that television, magazines and newspapers have contributed, but this is developing on such a scale that determined Government action must be taken to make clear to the public that when they receive unsolicited goods, as the law now stands, they have no legal obligation to make payments, and that it is not their business to worry about how the goods should be returned. All that they need to do is to drop a postcard to the firm concerned saying:These are your goods, I did not order them, I do not want them, and if you want them back you must come and collect them.I wonder whether a further postscript saying:If you do not collect these goods within 8 weeks I will destroy themwould be a further help.
Admirable though the Bill is, I feel that it may need strengthening in a number of respects. It will not achieve the laudable objects of my hon. Friend unless the Government and the Board of Trade are prepared to co-operate in making its provisions as widely known as possible.
§ 1.9 p.m.
§ Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)
My hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) has done a service by focussing the attention of Parliament on the problems with which his Bill deals. I have not any very startlingly serious matters to deal with, but in the last few days I have come across examples of matters with which the Bill deals which are worth making public.
On Wednesday morning this week, I was ready to leave my home for the House at about 10 o'clock when the door bell rang. I opened the door and standing outside were two nicely dressed and very attractive young girls of, I would judge, 19 or 20 years of age, or near that agreeable part of the feminine span. One of them had in her hand the little tract which is now in mine. She said, "Would you like to understand the Bible?" My answer was that I would, and I thought that I did, to some extent. However, I said, "I am in a great hurry at the moment, because other duties"—nothing less important 1920 than a Committee—"compel me to move quickly and, therefore, I must be on my way".
As I journey to the House, I looked through the little pamphlet. It offered to give me a Bible and asked whether I would be willing to devote at least an hour each week to its discussion. At what cost? The answer is, completely free of charge. A later paragraph reads:This service is offered free of charge to persons of all religions and to those who practise no religion, but who are sincerely interested in increasing their knowledge of God's Word.It is comforting and encouraging reading, and it is free. I have often heard from those who hold their services at street corners that salvation is free.
I then turned to the back page, and at the top I was told:As an aid for such Bible discussion we recommend this book, pocket-size, 192 pages, 853 scriptures, easy to understand, only 2/3. … Also, available is the documented 192-page book 'Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation?' To obtain your copy of either of these hardbound books send just 2/3 or 4/3 for both".It was difficult to realise from the attitude and introductory words of the two girls that this was a sales venture. I know that it is not a major point of serious disturbance that the Bible should be made a source of profit in this way because if we want a Bible we have to pay for it, although nowadays Bibles are distributed so widely that I cannot think of an occasion when I have had to pay for one. But here is an example of the Bible being used as a source of profit. That in itself cannot be condemned, but people must be careful about the approach and the manner of doing it.
There are other appeals to this sympathy on the part of people which are widespread, because today people are anxious to help when they hear of what are called hard cases. Over a number of years, I have had letters from men who fought in the 1914 and 1939 wars. Each of them put forward the position with which they were now faced: wounds had left them in such a physical state that they were bound to jobs which kept them tied to a particular place. Some of them had ventured into craft work and were making ties.
1921 I expect that many hon. Members, like myself, received appeals at Christmas and other times during the year which were followed by sending ties and asking customers to select the ones wanted and return the price for each tie. A very sad story generally accompanied the appeal. I bought these ties for a number of years and accumulated so many that I had to put a stop to it.
This is the sort of appeal which brings in money. It makes me feel rather harsh when finally compelled to reject such appeals, because we are living under a social system which should prevent this type of hardship from occurring and those who have suffered in war should not have to resort to such methods to make ends meet.
A more serious case has presented itself, not to me, but to my wife. Because of her occupation, which is teaching, she is vastly interested in craft work. She received from Time-Life Books a letter which reads:Dear Subscriber,I am pleased to be able to send you with this letter your copies of the antique maps we promised when you subscribed to the Great Ages of Man series.That opening statement would, naturally, cause a temporary arrestment in anyone's mind when the letter was opened, because it happens that the opening sentence contains not one word of truth. No subscription has been paid to Time-Life Books. No copies of antique maps have ever been ordered. No letter is in my possession or in the possession of my wife which suggests that we have at any time asked for those ancient maps. Certainly, no money has been paid and no cheque can be traced which slows that we have paid for any such series as is mentioned in the first paragraph of the letter.
In the last paragraph, there is a courteous note which says:Thank you for subscribing to Great Ages of Man. We hope you find these lively recreations of history enjoyable.Then there is the name, which is typewritten below:Noel Sherry, Director",but other than the name Time-Life Books there is no address and no date on the letter.
1922 Two of the books were on Egypt and the rise of Russia. Since the summer we have received two invoices, both for 33s. 6d., plus post packing amounting to 8s., making a bill of 75s., for which payment is now being, and has been for some time, requested. The address of the parent firm is in Amsterdam, at 5, Ottho Heldringstraat. That was why I interrupted my hon. Friend when he was explaining his Bill to ask whether it applied outside this country. He assured me that it would certainly cover persons who had their establishments outside Britain.
We are not asked to send the money to Amsterdam, however. We are asked to send it to Life Books, c/o Time-Life International, Time and Life Building, New Bond Street, London. No date is on the invoices, the first of which was for the book on Egypt and the other for the book on Russia. The two together tell us that we owe a debt of 75s. to the firm, but there is no date or anything other than that statement on the invoices which have come to us.
We are asked immediately to send either the money or the books. This is where the trouble arises with most people. Why should we have to take the trouble of bundling up these books, addressing them back to Amsterdam or to New Bond Street and paying the postage back to the point of origin, when no request, either vocal or written, has at any time been made by us for their supply, however interesting and useful they may be? I make no criticism of the material which we are alleged to have bought, but I am certainly criticising the means which are adopted to dispose of it.
I am glad to have heard my hon. Friend's introduction of his Bill. I hope that it will meet with general support from the House and that it will help not only Members inside this place, but the multitude of people outside who may be affected, and affected deleteriously, by these methods of selling. I hope that the Bill will go through, subject, perhaps, to sensible Amendment; and my hon. Friend has shown by his speech that he is open to such guidance. I am certain that in that attitude of mind, if we have the support, as I hope we will, of the Opposition, on this matter, we will render a service to a great mass of people in Britain today.
§ 1.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)
I think that everybody in the House would congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) on his initiative in choosing this subject for his Private Member's Bill. As we all know, it is one which causes tremendous concern to many people throughout the country. It is something which, I have felt, should be dealt with by the Government.
The Government have done a tremendous amount to protect the consumer and to produce a shoppers' charter to help the housewife in so many different ways. I think, for example, of the Trade Descriptions Act. I felt that under that Act there should have been a provision to deal with this type of inertia trading. I know that the Government's legislative programme is very full, but I still regard it as remiss that this type of legislation had to come from a back bencher.
That in no way derogates from the splendid achievement of my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington, who has been concerned with this matter for many years and has shown by his tenacity in pursuing it that it is possible for a back-bench Member who is concerned with an issue eventually to get it to the point where it is debated in Bill form, and reach the Statute Book.
There are, however, certain points on the Bill which I should like my hon. Friend to consider and which, perhaps, deserve the attention of my hon. Friend the Parliament Secretary when she speaks for the Government. The point which has underlain the whole debate has been the position more than anything else of the harassed housewife who is suddenly presented with goods of one sort or another which are delivered to her and she does not know quite what to do with them.
As I understand the point, if goods are delivered and the housewife accepts them, provided that nothing happens to them she does not have to pay for them, but as the law is at present she is liable to conversion if, while the goods are at home, they are damaged by not being put away properly or by children, animals, or even third parties. Her liability becomes paramount for the safety and security of those goods. This 1924 probably more than anything worries housewives with small children in regard to goods which are delivered which they have never asked for and which somehow or other become damaged.
I often think that architects should design a child-proof room in every house. Short of that there should be provided in modern houses a shelf about 6 ft. up on the wall on which parents could hide everything they wished to keep safe and secure out of the way of children. Those of us with young children will know the difficulties just before Christmas when Father Christmas has to make his deliveries a little earlier than usual and such goods have to be hidden from the sight of children.
Inquisitive and adventurous children, of whom I have five, search round and want to know what is in the various packets, brown paper parcels which are to be found in wardrobes, chests and the various drawers in every house. Their curiosity extends even to things hidden in the garage. This creates a problem for the housewife who is concerned not only to protect her own goods, but also those which have been sent to her home.
This factor more than any is one of the major problems when people suddenly find themselves responsible for goods which they have never ordered and for which they become responsible. This is a most monstrous intrusion upon them. It is also an intrusion on the whole concept of privacy that a person should have to receive into his home things that he does not really want. If a housewife accepts something from a postman and then realises that she does not want it, she cannot return it to the postman. In law, once the postman has delivered goods he has no responsibility to accept them back. All these things militate against the harassed housewife.
These situations particularly arise in growing family, or among old people, who tend to be a little forgetful. Sometimes they cannot remember whether they have perhaps read an advertisement in a newspaper and have thought to themselves "That is something I should do something about". Then when goods suddenly arrive, they wonder whether they have ordered them and worry about it because they are not quite sure whether or not they have asked for them. All the 1925 time people are being forced on the defensive by those who trade in this way, and this is absolutely wrong.
The Bill aims to cover the aspects of goods which are damaged and the liability of the person who receives them for conversion and, indeed, the whole idea of conversion. Clause 2 sets out the particular requirement in regard to documentation. This is a most important matter. These days many documents come through the post. When these documents arrive and begin to accumulate, an ordinary person, who is untrained in the law and who does not appreciate the niceties of the usages of words, may suddenly find that he does not know where he stands.
What are the implications of all this documentation? We should seek to ensure that when the Board of Trade issues regulations after this Bill becomes law, as I am sure will happen, the terms should be printed boldly and in short, simple, stark sentences so that the document is not liable to ambiguity or possible misinterpretation. These are extremely important provisions which should be looked at carefully.
I am only sorry that the Bill does not call for an affirmative Resolution from the House. We should then have an opportunity to go through regulations when they are printed in considerable detail, and if they are found to be unsatisfactory perhaps we could persuade the President of the Board of Trade to withdraw them and introduce other regulations.
The sorts of goods covered by the Bill are books, gramophone records and things which are not basic essentials. They are goods which people think they might like, which are attractive, and people may put them on one side and think that they will deal with them later. But "later" never comes. We all know this with correspondence when we say to ourselves "I will answer that one tomorrow", but we know that tomorrow never comes and the matter gets left until the following week, or even a fortnight later. Therefore, it is necessary to have the sort of protection which the Bill provides in such cases.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his initiative in introducing the Bill. I repeat my regret that the Government have not 1926 thought it possible to introduce such a Bill. I hope that with the good will of the House, the enterprise of my hon. Friend and tolerance of the Government, the Bill will quickly be placed on the Statute Book.
§ 1.36 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody)
It might be convenient if I intervene at this stage in what has been a most interesting debate. I join with other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) not only for the interesting way in which he introduced his Bill, but for the helpful and erudite answers he has given to some of the questions that arise. It is already clear from the debate that the Bill has provided us with an invaluable opportunity to consider in detail certain problems which I personally have been concerned about for some time. For this reason I very much welcome this opportunity to speak.
Hon. Members will know from my Answers to Questions in the House and from correspondence which I have conducted with a number of hon. Members that I have been giving a good deal of thought to the matters which are sought to be tackled by the Bill, including the possibility of legislation to deal with them. My hon. Friend the Member for Accrington has presented us with a ready-made draft Bill on the subject which will enable us to focus our thoughts on this subject far more effectively than hitherto. I congratulate him on his initiative.
The first matter on which I should like to focus attention is an elementary one on the nature of inertia selling. We have made some attempts this morning to define exactly what inertia selling means, but it is difficult to find a better basic definition than that used by the Advertising Standards Authority Limited. That body defines inertia selling as the sending 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.
Strictly, therefore, to talk of inertia selling implies a deliberate act of policy on the part of the sender. But for the 1927 recipient it does not really matter whether the goods which unexpectedly arrive at the front door are the subject of a deliberate policy of inertia selling or just a mistake on the part of the sender who may somehow have got his internal wires crossed. Whatever may be the reason for the arrival of the goods, the recipient is faced with the same problem: what should he do with them?
Should he pay for the goods, send them back, write a rude letter, or do nothing at all? Where they have arrived through a genuine mistake by the retailer, there is generally no problem. They are taken back on the next visit to the shop or are returned the next time the van comes round with profuse apologies and that is the end of the matter.
But it is not always as easy as that, particularly if the sender is remote. Sometimes what to do with the goods is only the first of the consumer's problems, because whatever he does or does not do with them, the sender may well follow up the goods with demands for payment— which may issue as a computerised matter of course, once the act of despatching the goods has been fed into the sender's system of records—and each demand for payment will face the recipient with a further problem. And all this anxiety can be roused irrespective of whether the original despatch was a deliberate act of inertia selling or just an unfortunate mistake.
It will be useful to look at the various situations which result in this anxiety, first, from the consumer's point of view and, secondly, from the sender's point of view. This is one of those subjects in which the problems can be properly understood only if one gets down to detailed cases.
Complaints by consumers about inertia selling fall into two groups: one group concerns the problems caused by the arrival of the unsolicited goods themselves, and the other concerns the problems caused by the arrival of demands for payment. Perhaps not surprisingly, the two groups tend to overlap. The first group of complaints—those about the arrival of the unsolicited goods themselves—contains a fair proportion which allege that the goods appeared completely 1928 out of the blue without there having been any previous contact whatsoever with the sender, but it is probably true to say that the majority of the complaints in this group involve situations in which some previous contact between sender and recipient has, in fact, taken place.
This previous contact may have been in the form of an envelope full of sales blurb, in response to which the consumer is asked to say "yes" or "no" to whether he wants to buy certain goods or to receive them on approval; or to say "yes", he would like the offered free gifts together with—in much smaller print—something else on approval or for purchase, or "no" he wants only the free gift. I leave hon. Members to work out quietly in their own time which answer they would give to which question.
Previous contact may also have taken the form of a previous purchase, now completed and paid for or, indeed, the form of an agreement for a string of purchases which the consumer has brought to an end in conformity with the terms of the agreement between him and the sender. Very often have I heard the complaint that the cancellation of such an agreement meets with no response whatever by the other party. The goods continue to arrive—more and more horrifyingly like the story of the "Sorcerer's Apprentice." Naturally, the consumer feels that, even if the original agreement did not amount to inertia selling, it has led on to something suspiciously like it.
But whatever the previous contact may have been, the consumer is faced with what for him are unsolicited goods, and he has to make up his mind what he is to do with them—whether, for example, he ought to go to trouble and expense to get rid of them, or buy them, or do nothing at all.
The second group of complaints relate to demands for payment. A demand for payment in the form of an invoice may arrive with the goods, but I prefer to treat this as part of the goods and place it in my first group. This is because I believe that what is likely to cause the consumer most anxiety is not the initial arrival of goods and invoice, which may seem to him to be just a mistake, but the subsequent separate arrival of a definite demand for money. To the consumer this is proof that he has been 1929 booked for the supply of the unsolicited goods and is expected to pay up. If he doubts this, he may soon find himself faced with repeat demands, each one more forcefully worded than the last.
The cases which I have seen show that the situations in which consumers are prompted with demands for payment which they consider unjustified exhibit far greater variety than those in which they receive the unsolicited goods themselves. For example, the recipient of unsolicited goods, so to speak, out of the blue, may react, for example, by sitting tight or by sending the goods back. But, whatever he does or does not do, he may still receive demands for payment.
If he has sent the goods back, he will no doubt feel enraged at first, but then, as demand follows demand, increasingly worried, as he realises that he has no proof whatsoever that he really did send the goods back. He will find it increasingly difficult. He may have had the goods on approval—in which case they would not have been unsolicited goods —and have sent them back within the period allowed, but now he finds himself faced with a demand to pay.
Or he may have decided to pay for the goods, yet in spite of his having sent his cheque or postal order, he is plagued with further demands. He may have cancelled a standing order to receive goods every month for a year, only to find not only that the goods continue to arrive followed by demands to pay, but that he is also billed for the goods which he asked for and paid for three months ago.
In other words, complaints about unjustified demands for payment may relate to unsolicited goods or they may relate to solicited goods; for payments which have never been due, or for payments which fell due and were duly made. This may be obvious but, as it happens, because of the manner of operating of some of the firms which are accused of inertia selling, there has been, I think, a tendency to link all complaints about unjustified demands for payment with the complaints about the sending of unsolicited goods, with the result that the problem of unsolicited goods has, perhaps, seemed rather wider than it necessarily is.
1930 So far, I have looked at the situations which present themselves to the consumer. Now I want to move on to some of the situations which present themselves to the senders. We at the Board of Trade have recognised the volume and nature of complaint for some time, but it seemed to us important to do what we could to find out just how the events leading up to them came to happen. We have therefore made inquiries in some of the quarters to which complaints have particularly been directed. I myself, because I thought it most important, have visited the sort of firms about which we have received complaints. As my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington and other hon. Members have said, an excuse was offered that there had been some difficulty in the internal organisation in individual cases.
I must say that the firms visited by the Board of Trade are adamant that they do not engage in a deliberate policy of intertia selling or of sending out unwarranted demands for payment, and that, given the success of their legitimate operations, it would not make good commercial sense for them to do so. They themselves would describe their methods as being aggressive marketing. I do not know whether that is quite the view which will be held by some other people.
They do not deny that situations can arise in which it looks in individual cases as if they were inertia selling. They admit, naturally that they make mistakes; send books to the wrong people, fail to take notice of a cancellation and dun people for payments which are not due. But they say that these cases are exceptions due either to administrative shortcomings on their own part or to a failure on the part of their customers to make clear what they want or what they are doing.
Once again, it is useful to get down to details. Exactly how can things go wrong?
§ Mr. Arthur Davidson
I accept that genuine mistakes are sometimes made by the sort of firm to which my hon. Friend refers, but does she not agree that if firms indulge in the mail order business on a large scale, whether in respect of books, record clubs, or whatever it may be, they should be able to match their ambitions with proper efficiency; and 1931 that if they are not efficient they should not be in business.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
My hon. Friend has most unkindly forestalled me, as that is exactly what I was about to say. In many instances, if we examine the way in which the firms work, we can get a better indication of how problems arise.
Typically, the custom of these firms is derived either from newspaper advertisements or from advertising material sent uninvited through the post. The newspaper advertisements usually contain a cut-out coupon, by which the reader can place an order or ask for goods on approval; and the postal advertising is often accompanied by a reply paid card on which the recipient is invited to indicate his answers to the sort of questions I mentioned earlier.
I was very interested in the remarks of the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers). I must tell her, rather sadly, that she is not the only person who has been offered a cruise and mystery prizes, although I may say that if she does come up with this fantastic opportunity I have no doubt that there are various hon. Members on both sides who will be delighted to join her—
Mr. Peter Maker (Blackpool, South)
And on the Front Benches, too.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
These are legitimate enough methods of attracting customers, but, of course, they can provide endless opportunities for certain misunderstandings that would not usually arise in purchasing goods over the counter.
Probably the greatest sources of misunderstanding lies in the reply-paid cards. First, the consumer may misunderstand the questions and place an order by mistake—by saying "Yes" when he means "No". Frankly, that is not as impossible as it may sound, given the rather complicated wording on the cards. Having posted back the card, he may well have kept no reliable note of what he has said.
Secondly, the cards can be missorted by the firm. Once a "No" card is put in the "Yes" pile—this is essentially a manual operation—it may go through the computer without being spotted and 1932 result in the despatch of unsolicited goods.
Newspaper advertisements may avoid these particular misunderstandings, but, of course, can and do attract hoax orders. The firms are, I believe, adept at spotting hoax orders made out in the names of well-known public figures—for which some of us in this House may be duly grateful—but they cannot be expected to spot them all. I was amused to hear how one of the firms which has been accused by some people of inertia selling itself received a stream of unsolicited books from other firms in the trade, who had clearly been presented with hoax orders made out by one of its accusers.
These are said to be some of the main reasons for what to the consumer will be the appearance of unsolicited books out of the blue. Failure to cancel regular deliveries or to demand payment where books have been returned or paid for are said to be due to rather different reasons, which may be summed up as a failure of communications.
At this point, I find myself wholly in agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington. If we accept that the firms are being accurate and truthful when they say that they do not indulge in inertia selling there is an onus on them to be extremely efficient in dealing with any correspondence, not simply the receipt of the card in the first instance, but the careful planning of their system of cancellations so that once people have written with some clear indication of the position they will at least examine that case before simply allowing the whole cycle to grind into operation.
Some of the failures in communication are the fault of the firms. The speed with which they deal with accounts running into hundreds of thousands or can react to a cancellation or a returned book or a postal order or cheque depends upon the speed with which they can reinstruct their computer.
Some of the firms admit that due to administrative failings and or inadequate computer capacity in relation to a rapidly expanding trade, the speed of their reaction has been too slow. They say that they have taken steps to remedy this; so that when a cancellation or payment is received it will be dealt with 1933 so as to put a reasonably prompt stop on further deliveries or demands.
Whether the firms will succeed in eliminating this source of misunderstanding remains to be seen; some timelag will always be unavoidable.
§ Mr. Gardner
Whatever my hon. Friend may decide about the difficulties that arise because of the speed with which these orders are coming in and being dealt with, would she not agree that this does not exclude the fact that when one writes to a managing director of a company one gets no response?
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I hope that I have made it clear that what I am suggesting is that firms who use this particular form of trading should really, in their own interests, take extreme care to see that their internal methods of dealing with cancellations are so efficient that, although there obviously must be some errors from time to time, they are dealing with human beings, this number will be as small as is humanly possible. All sensible managing directors would reply to correspondence.
I did notice, going round one of the firms, that there is a tendency for people who are not as young as they once were to write not only in the wrong section, but to write odd things on the card. One lady wrote very firmly, where it said "Yes" or "No", "Not interested". The girl who was looking at this when it came in obviously did not read what it said, saw that it had some writing in the space left for a signature and fed it in as a positive order. This produces extreme difficulties for the consumer.
On the other hand, the consumer plays his part in some failures of communication. It is surprising how often he returns goods, cancels his order, or even sends in a remittance, in such a way that it is very difficult indeed for the company to know who the sender is, or which of several transactions he is talking about. He may express himself in the most confusing terms; his address and his signature may sometimes be illegible—sometimes even omitted altogether.
Where he is responding to a bill or a letter from the company, something can be done—perhaps more than has already been done—to mitigate this problem, by providing a tear-off portion 1934 for reply on which the necessary identifying particulars have already been inserted by the company. There is an onus on these companies to provide that sort of check. But that cannot, of course, entirely eliminate this problem of incomprehensible or unidentifiable letters from the customer, for which only he can provide a suitable remedy.
What I have tried to do so far is to describe in some detail the typical situations in which consumer complaints about inertia selling arise, and the various factors which, as far as we can make out, bring these situations about. As I have said, firms are adamant that they do not use inertia selling as an instrument of policy. If we accept that this is so, we are, of course, still left with the fact that a considerable volume of consumer anxiety and distress has arisen in connection with their operations—in quite a lot of cases—though to be fair, in by no means every case—from delays or mistakes arising from the way in which the business is organised.
This is not a matter of a fundamentally unsound selling method or of peddling unattractive goods. As one of my hon. Friends has pointed out, in some cases these firms provide a cheaper product and yet the sort of product which people are really interested in obtaining.
Where that is a correct diagnosis of the problem—and if it is not universally correct, I think it is true as regards a great deal of complaint—it seems to me that the problem which will have to be kept in our minds as we examine the Bill in detail can be put something like this: given that some degree of delay or error is almost inevitable in a large-scale business, given that in some circumstances the consequences of such delays or errors can be extremely painful for the public, can we see a point at which, and some circumstances in which, it is reasonable to impose a civil or criminal penalty on the trader for his delays or errors? And, if so, what should that point be?
In doing so, we shall, of course, also have to bear in mind the many and varied circumstances in which people may receive goods which they have not ordered, and be billed for them. For example, the greengrocer may mishear 1935 the customer's telephoned order, or misread the note he made of it, and so, when the orders are sent out, Mrs. Brown, who ordered peas, gets pears, Mrs. Jones, who ordered 2 lb. of apples gets 3 lb., and so on.
In all those cases the customer has been supplied with goods which he had not ordered, and I suppose that if a garage which had been instructed simply to carry out a routine oil-change noticed something dangerously adrift in the steering linkage, and put it right without the owner's instruction to do so, this could be described as the provision of an unsolicited service.
§ Mr. Montgomery
When the hon. Lady talks about the greengrocer she must remember that this would concern a regular customer and that if there was a mistake it could easily be put right, because of this background of regular business.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
Yes. The difficulty is that which was expressed by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden). Although we assume that the majority of customers, just as we assume that the majority of shopkeepers, are completely honest, there will be occasions when a misinterpretation of circumstances could result in a minor fraud being perpetrated on a shopkeeper. This aspect of the Bill will need to be watched.
This Bill contains many useful things, but I want to comment on some points which have been raised by hon. Members.
My hon. Friends the Members for Rugby (Mr. William Price) and Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) rather took the Government to task on the ground that we were not bringing in the Bill. More than one hon. Member has asked exactly what the legal situation is in relation to protection for the consumer. As I have said in the House many times, it must be accepted that the situation with unsolicited gods at the moment is a protection. The difficulty does not in a sense arise when people know the law and know that they do not have to pay for something which they have not ordered.
It arises, as more than one hon. Member has said, when people are unsure of the situation and are for various 1936 reasons unable to discuss it with anyone who will give them the right advice, although I always hope that they will go either to a Citizens Advice Bureau or to their Member of Parliament in such circumstances, and, consequently, become extremely worried and in many cases take on a payment which they did not want to take on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Accrington mentioned the problem of directories. I have tried to point out in the House on more than one occasion that if someone is faced with a bogus directory problem, in the sense that he is sure that he has not ordered any insertions he must say so plainly and clearly to those concerned. I know that this appears to be negative advice, but it is surprising how often many firms do not appear to have a routine way in which they can check whether they or anyone in their office has placed an order of the kind on which these firms rely to obtain their business. The carbon paper story related this morning was an interesting example of the difficulties arising. The law is clear, and we hope that people are well aware of the situation.
However, it is obvious that most of those who are most in need of protection are not aware of the situation. One of the complaints levelled against my Department this morning has been that we have not endeavoured to tell the consumer enought about his rights. From time to time we have produced leaflets on consumer protection, including things like the hire purchase law. The Consumer Council and the consumer associations produce leaflets which not only give sensible advice on consumer rights, but also put it in a form which can be easily assimilated as a point of reference. That form of consumer education will deal with many of the difficulties.
The hon. Member for Southend, East pointed out that reputable mail order business is one of the fastest growing forms of trading in the country and that it is essential not to make things too difficult for the genuine trader. People living in rural areas who want to order clothes for children, or who find it very difficult to get to large stores, except for a limited time, are increasingly taking advantage of straightforward mail order trading. It is essential not to produce too many difficulties for legitimate firms, 1937 even though we should be very vigilant about the problems.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby is not here, because the love-hate relationship which he carries on with the Board of Trade is one of the most stimulating in my life. I am sorry to have to tell him that I do not, given the size of the Board of Trade and of most of my civil servants, resort to physical violence to beat into their heads some understanding of consumer problems. Apart from anything else, most of them are taller and, if hon. Members can believe it, heavier than I am.
My hon. Friend raised some very valid points. The picture of his acting as a sleuth in some basement in London and putting the fear of God into traders by mentioning the name of the Board of Trade rather heartened me. I felt that we could not be as ineffectual as he occasionally claims if we had this effect on those with whom he was dealing.
My hon. Friend also drew to the attention of the House in no uncertain terms the difficulties that arise from the sending of unsolicited leaflets and books on sexual technique. We have had considerable difficulties here. It is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. He has explained to the House more than once that to attempt to define obscenity, certainly in relation to such leaflets, is to get into a dangerous and difficult field of definition. Although the matter is carefully examined, we are not anxious to do that at the moment.
The hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Montgomery) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) genuinely welcomed the Bill as being a step in the right direction. My hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Gardner), who has a wide and detailed knowledge of consumer affairs, said that he thought that it was the type of protection that was needed to widen the field of consumer affairs.
The case related to the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Latham) seemed to be exactly the sort of trading method with which we must concern ourselves. My hon. Friend asked specific questions 1938 about the whole problem of debt collectors. I am happy to tell him that urgent action is being taken. Evidence on the whole problem of debt collection has been taken by the Law Commission. Although this has not yet been fully decided, it is obvious that when the results are fully available we shall have some very useful means of taking decisions. The strengthening of this Private Member's Bill would not be the right way to deal with debt collection or debt collectors, or with the suggestions which it has been said were made in the leaflets concerned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin), in a very interesting speech, asked whether legislation such as this would apply to foreign countries. He obviously did not realise that the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport had dealt with this point by saying that she believed that the Netherlands had very efficient legislation which would be suitable to deal with the parent company should a difficulty of this kind arise.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington has taken this occasion to bring before the House a matter of some importance. For some time the Board of Trade has been worried because, although legal safeguards exist, it occasionally seems that consumers are not aware of the protection they have, even though my Department makes strenuous efforts to point out what protection they have. He will not be altogether surprised if, should the House accept the Bill today, I find certain points of detail, and in some cases quite important detail, that I would want to discuss with him, and which I might even find it necessary to ask him to consider very firmly before we go ahead with the Committee stage.
We have had talks along these lines and my hon. Friend realises that in a difficult field like this we are looking for an effective form of legislation. Taking the legislation already in being and considering, as we are, whether it should be altered, improved or strengthened, there will obviously be areas where, for very good legal reasons, Government Departments must consider the effect of the Clauses and decide whether they represent the correct way to deal with the problem that has been raised today.
1939 Nevertheless, my hon. Friend's action is extremely useful as, indeed, has been the debate as a whole. If there is one way in which we can protect the consumer, it is by publicising the difficulties which arise and pointing out that there are steps that can be taken to assist consumers if they get into these difficulties. I frequently feel that the Press plays an excellent rôle in this respect; and the television companies have from time to time discussed in the widest possible sense the trading practices of companies and the ways in which the consumer can be protected if he should get into difficulty. I feel that a clear understanding of the exact legal position is what is needed in many cases.
I welcome the Bill and the debate that we have had on it. That certainly is not a total and wholehearted acceptance of the Bill. I can foresee considerable difficulties. There are aspects of the Bill as drafted that we would have to discuss in far greater detail before we could feel that it was all that we desired. Nevertheless, this debate on the whole problem of inertia selling and all its related aggressive means of marketing has been not only constructive and helpful but has been a means of pointing out to the ordinary man in the street, and even more to the ordinary woman, how modern trading practices, although they may from time to time cause difficulties, engage the interest of this House.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington for being so courteous in introducing the Bill and to other hon. Friends of mine who have raised so many interesting points. I look forward to hearing the rest of the debate.
§ 2.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)
I am becoming increasingly alarmed at the number of times that I find myself in agreement with the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade. This is one of those occasions. I cannot promise that this agreement will continue, but it will certainly run through most of what I have to say today.
I should like to make a point which I do not think has been made so far, and it relates to the date of the publication of the Bill. I believe that the Bill was published on Monday last. With a Bill of this kind that is rather unfortu- 1940 nate, because hon. Members have had only five days in which to digest it and consider the many problems which it raises.
I do not know what the explanation is for the late publication of the Bill. It may well be no fault on the part of the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson), who introduced it, but I think that it ought to be put on record that many hon. Members will not feel that five days is a long enough time before the Second Reading of a Bill of considerable substance.
This is, indeed, a Bill of considerable substance. I was interested to observe that after the tour around the Chamber by the Government Chief Whip at about half-past twelve, hon. Members opposite found that it was even more important than they had previously decided it was, and I had the impression that their anecdotes got rather longer and that their questions to the hon. Member for Accrington became rather more numerous. It would perhaps be wrong to speculate on the reasons for this; they may not be entirely connected with this Bill.
Everybody who has spoken in the debate has supported the Second Reading, and I do likewise. If I go on to make some criticisms it is because they are intended to be constructive and because I wish to direct attention to points which we ought to consider should the Bill go to Committee. I welcome very much what the hon. Member for Accrington said about most mail order firms. It is right to record that most of them are reputable and that the mischief at which the Bill is aimed is confined to a relatively small number of them. Subscribers to book and record clubs, which I think are the sort of organisations which cause most of the problem, number over 1 million, and that is not a situation which one would expect to find if most of the firms in the business were operating in an unsatisfactory way.
Some of the trade associations involved argue that a code of practice should be sufficient without this sort of legislation. I have considered that proposiiton, but I am not able to accept it. I think that the key reason is this. The legal position is unsatisfactory. The hon. Member for Accrington explained the legal position in terms to which I take no exception, 1941 and the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Gardner) made the perfectly valid point that the legal position has resulted from our past history and that it grew up in a situation in which mass mail order practice did not exist.
When we have a situation in which the recipient or unsolicited goods has certain obligations, that he must retain the goods and that he is liable to return them or their value, then I think that with the growth of these modern business practices which hon. Members have described, it is time that the law was changed. As hon. Members have pointed out in their examples, the problem for people who know the law is not all that serious. Nor is it for really tough-minded people. I know a doctor who has accumulated a large and very good medical library simply by retaining the very fine books which have been sent to him unsolicited. He does not seem to find any problem.
However, when we have this legal position which has its obscurities, I think that for the sort of person whom many of us see in our constituency "surgeries" this creates a really unsatisfactory situation. The widow who has not been accustomed to managing her business affairs during the life of her husband, and who suddenly finds herself having to do so, the sort of person who believes in honesty and in paying bills which are properly due, finds this a very bewildering and anxiety-creating situation, and I am satisfied that in many cases demands for payment are met which should not properly be met.
The second reason why a code of practice alone without legislation is not enough is that such a code would not bind those who are not members of the relevant trade association. Therefore, there are powerful reasons for an alteration in the law.
The next question is: what alteration? One is tempted to say that the law ought to be altered merely to say that the recipient of unsolicited goods has no obligation towards the sender. But I am told by experts that this raises all sorts of legal problems, and that if the law were changed in this way and the recipient simply put the goods into the wastepaper basket there would be difficulties and there might be obligations on the recipient. I am told that that is why the 1942 solution in Clause 1 has been adopted, that is, to enact that the recipient may deal with the goodsas if they were an unconditional gift".I note that the Consumers Association, which has been so active in this matter, has changed its ideas since it produced its document last June suggesting that, in its view, the recipient should have the right to dispose of the goods as he wished, after giving reasonable notice. I understand that the Association is now satisfied that the solution in the Bill, which does not require reasonable notice is the better.
We are faced, therefore, with the solution in Clause 1 of the Bill, and hon. Members have pointed out some of the difficulties which will arise. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) was the first to give some examples—very powerful I thought them—which will have to be carefully considered in Committee. My hon. Friend was talking mostly about cases of error, and the more one thinks about it the easier it is to find examples of error which might occur.
I think there is another case which I am not sure that anyone has mentioned, namely, collusion between A and B. By arrangement, Mr. A orders in the name of Mr. B goods to be sent to Mr. B. So far as Mr. B is concerned, those goods are unsolicited. This is an elementary ploy which I have been able to think up in half a day or so, and there are much more ingenious people than I in thinking up such devices.
§ Mr. Arthur Davidson
I did deal with that point during my speech. At least, I thought I did and I intended to. Collusion could well be conspiracy to defraud. There is collusion today already, and I do not accept that it would necessarily increase. But the hon. Gentleman is right to make the point. It is something which I have considered.
§ Mr. Blaker
Even if it may be conspiracy to defraud, if, as a result of the Bill, activities of that kind increase it would be regrettable.
I do not think that these problems are conclusive against Clause 1 as now framed; they are just some of the problems which will have to be considered in Committee. There is the problem of the error by the postman who delivers 1943 the goods to No. 13 instead of No. 15 What would happen in that case? This sort of thing is the reason I take the view that Clause 1 will have to be very carefully considered.
Clause 2 also may need a good deal of amendment. It seems to cover the sort of newspaper advertisement one sees almost every day. I have one here. It offers for sale "golden retriever pups. Champion and working strain", and gives a telephone number. That seems to be an offer in writing which is received by a person at his home; the paper comes into his home. It seems to me that, as Clause 2 is worded now, one would have to go through the great paraphernalia of the Clause before getting one's golden retriever pups or, at least, before the supplier was paid for them. I am sure that that is not the hon. Members intention.
We must look also at the case of advertisements sent round by local department stores advertising their sales and listing the goods available. They are offers in writing which are received by a person in his home. It seems to me that the same sort of paraphernalia would have to be gone through in such cases as would have to be gone through in the type of case at which the hon. Member is aiming, which seems to me to be of a different nature.
Clause 3 imposes the penalties. My first reaction to it was negative. I hoped that my consideration of the Bill would persuade me that Clause 1, or something like it, with the addition of the publicity to which the hon. Lady so rightly attached importance, would be enough without the penalties. They are very heavy—up to £400 and a term of imprisonment.
When she answered a Question on 19th March, the hon. Lady was right to attach importance to the difficulty in framing legal safeguards in a Bill of this kind. When one has severe penalties, and the problems of error, collusion and hoaxing to which we referred earlier, one needs to be particularly careful to ensure that it is necessary to impose such penalties rather than simply say that the supplier of unsolicited goods will face the probability that he will not be able to recover them, which is altogether different.
1944 Another danger in imposing penalties is that it may so scare firms who are supplying mail order goods that they will need totally to revise their methods and, therefore, put up the costs of goods to the consumer. That is not in the consumer's interest. I think, therefore, that the Committee will have to look very closely at this Clause as well.
Clause 4 concerns the bogus directories. That is not really a case of inertia selling. It has perhaps been added to the Bill as an afterthought. The Clause is distinct from the rest of the Bill—distinct from Clause 1, at any rate—in that it deals not with old ladies who do not understand business and may be easily frightened, but with firms. It is firms whose names are put into the directories.
I am not condoning the practices to which hon. Members have referred. They are deplorable. But we should be careful that we are clear in our own minds that in Clause 4 we are dealing with a quite different subject matter. If we are right in saying—and we are—that supplying firms in the mail order business should be careful in their business practices to ensure that errors are not made, we must also say that firms which receive unjustified demands for payment in the bogus directory racket have an obligation to make sure that their clerks —to take the example given by the hon. Member for Accrington—do not too readily send out cheques for bills which are not really due.
I take the matter no further now. Here again, we shall have to look at that Clause with a critical eye in Committee. Having said the same thing about each Clause so far, I begin to feel that the Committee stage will be an interesting and not, perhaps, a short one.
The hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary rightly drew attention to the danger that, in trying to protect some people we might indirectly cause damage to many others or that we might kill or harm legitimate business. One hon. Member said that the only people to be hurt by the Bill would be the spivs and the crooks. That is not so, as it stands. I hope that it will be possible to make sure that that result is achieved, but the hon. Member for Accrington will be only 1945 too well aware of the danger of scattering one's fire so wide, in an attempt to deal with a certain mischief, that one wound:, many innocent passers-by.
To employ a gardening metaphor, we should use the hoe and not the sickle; we should confine our activities to the weeds and not cut down healthy growing plants.
The hon. Gentleman was right to introduce his Bill. We have had a useful debate. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading, and that we shall hereafter examine it closely in Committee.
§ 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).