HC Deb 02 February 1971 vol 810 cc1631-40

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

12.1 a.m.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, Central)

I wish to raise a very human issue which is attracting much attention in Bristol. This is because of the efforts of the local newspaper, the Bristol Evening Post, the offices of which famous paper are in my constituency, in exposing what I can only describe as a heartless fraud or a cheat on a section of the public. This section is from time to time fairly numerous: those who are marrying, their relatives and their friends. I believe that the investigations of the Bristol Evening Post in this regard are in the best tradition of Bristol local journalism, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Mr. Michael Cocks) will agree.

I am grateful for the evidence freely placed at my disposal by the Bristol Evening Post. What I am about to describe occurs in Bristol, as I shall show, but from all reports, I do not think that it is unknown elsewhere in the country. In Bristol, as elsewhere, an increasing number of weddings—a social tendency, I think—take place in register offices and such weddings are possibly a little less formal than church weddings in their organisation and in their arrangements for photography. The latter are not always made far in advance of the date of the wedding, if at all.

Therefore, it is generally, but not exclusively, register office weddings which attract the attention of those photographers—I do not wish to use too strong a word, but I think this is fair in the circumstances—who tout for orders either in advance or on the day. If they are given permission to take photographs, it is always on the attractive understanding that no money will be paid until proofs are submitted.

As is well known, many people, under pressure of salesmanship enter arrangements with these available photographers in presumably the same way as at one time, before legislation was brought in to deal with abuse, unsuspecting housewives and others entered hire-purchase agreements which they bitterly regretted afterwards.

If the Minister quotes, as he quite fairly might, the old legal saying, "Let the buyer beware", I agree. But I should point out that the law, despite this old view that it is for the buyer to protect himself, has had to step in to protect purchasers of goods on the deferred payments system. Since then there has been a further growth of consumer protection legislation—particularly the Trade Descriptions Act, 1968, to which I shall return later.

The practice about which I am complaining, which has caused so much distress, is operated in the following way. After attending the wedding ceremony, the photographer rushes immediate proofs to the reception. The proofs are circulated among the guests, and, in the cordial atmosphere of the wedding reception, orders are easily obtained from the bride and groom, their parents, relatives and friends. As the prints at this stage look good, the would-be purchasers part with their money fairly easily, and the finished photographs are verbally promised for delivery usually, in the cases which I have studied, within two weeks to two months. It is from this time onwards that the troubles begin.

There is in existence of the offices of the Bristol Evening Post a large file of about 120 letters, to which I have had access, complaining of lack of delivery of photographs despite telephone calls, letters, visits, and every kind of pressure, including, at times, quite understandably, a great deal of abuse. But every kind of excuse is proffered for non-delivery. It is never said that the photographs will not arrive in the end; it is said to be due to staff illness, technical difficulties, loss of records—even burglary.

The mental distress caused, particularly to the bride and groom and their respective families, is intense. Photographs taken at the wedding and afterwards at the reception are in a special category, because they capture moments which cannot return. They portray a unique episode in the lives of the bride and groom and their families. Such a time cannot come again. I have heard stories of brides being dressed again in their wedding gowns and going through a photographed re-enactment of the wedding ceremony so that they may have some record, because the original photographs have not arrived.

What remedy is open to the victims of this fraud? The criminal law is of no help. Complaint in these cases to the Bristol police has brought the response that, though there may be some element of deceit—a moral fraud—fraud, in the legal sense, cannot be charged as there has been no refusal to deliver the photographs, only an outrageous delay. In short, there is no proof of intent to defraud, as the lawyers would say. That is the difficulty in the way of the police, or so I am told.

The police give an answer to those who come to the police station and complain similar to that which the Minister gave to me in a Written Answer on 14th December, which I shall now read. When I asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will introduce legislation to make it an offence for photographers of weddings and the associated bridal receptions not to deliver the photographs within a specified period of time unless fees are paid by the would-be purchaser in advance are returned in full", the hon. Gentleman gave the answer which I understand the police in different words give in these circumstances: No, such a case is best left to the civil law of contract."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th December, 1970; Vol. 808, c. 229.] I appreciate that on an Adjournment debate it is not for me to suggest new legislation, and I shall not do so, but the difficulty about a civil action is that it is no remedy in these circumstances, because the goods in question which have not been supplied are intensely personal, and my constituents who have complained about this—and others, too—tell me that they do not want revenge, they do not want damages, all they want are their pictures.

The public who have been injured in this respect naturally turn to the consumer protection legislation which is now getting very well known in the country, and in particular to the Trade Descriptions Act, 1968. I am therefore glad that the hon. Gentleman is to reply on behalf of the Department of Trade and Industry, because he may be able to tell me what guidance is given to local inspectors about the application of Section 14 of that Act, which is the relevant Section, if any Section at all can apply to a case of this kind.

That Section relates to false or misleading statements as to services, and so on, as distinct from goods, and I think that it might have application in this instance, but I am not sure. The local weights and measures inspector regretted his inability to use Section 14 of the Act, and therefore I should be glad of an opinion from the hon. Gentleman.

There is a further remedy which is open to the public, and that is to deal with photographers of repute and here I think the trade itself could assist. The great majority of commercial photographers—I want no misunderstanding about this—are undoubtedly highly respectable people and do an excellent job. This is the case in Bristol, as elsewhere. In order to protect reputable people, particularly those in Bristol as I am dealing with Bristol cases, I propose to name the firms about whom complaints have been made in the correspondence that I have seen.

I would not normally do this, because I think that the protection which we have in this House because of Parliamentary privilege has to be used with moderation, but in order not to cast any slur on the good name of respectable firms, and also because the names were given in the Bristol Evening Post on 3rd November last year, so that if those who have been criticised in this respect want a remedy in the courts it is clearly available to them there, and I tell the House that the firms in question are Shannon Studios, Modern Brides, and West of England Studios. These names cropped up continually in the correspondence I have seen.

I think that the commercial photography trade could help to organise against the small minority of cheats within its ranks, and I have today had delivered to me—by hand, because of the postal strike—a letter from a body which, though I might have heard of it before, I confess that I have not had any dealings with, and that is the Institute of Incorporated Photographers. This body was apparently founded in 1901, and it has more than 4,000 members.

In the course of its letter it says: Members of the public using the services of Incorporated Photographers are assured of a professional service within that code of conduct and have the right of complaint to this Institute in any case of dispute between client and photographer, as this Institute has powers of arbitration. I am glad to know that, but what is required in addition is, perhaps, a published register of photographers of repute, established under the supervision of the trade itself.

If this were given wide publicity in addition to the protection, up to a point, which legislation might give, the public —which nowadays depends so much on the good photographer as part of its life —would be tremendously assisted.

12.15 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

The hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) has performed a useful service in airing this matter tonight. The presence of five hon. Members representing Bristol constituencies shows the interest that the House has in the rather unusual and unfortunate practice to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention. As I understand it, what happens is that a photographer turns up uninvited at a wedding, takes some photographs, brings the proofs fairly quickly to the reception, and takes money against orders for the delivery of the finished prints—after which very little is heard of him; indeed, his speed in producing the proofs is matched only by his dilatoriness in producing the prints.

It is not for me to say whether these cases fall within the law or outside it; I have not the evidence, and it would be wrong for me to try to anticipate what the courts might say. The most useful thing that I can do is to try to indicate the exact state of the law in relation to this matter and form an opinion whether the law is adequate for dealing with this sort of abuse. The House would probably agree—translating the hon. Member's words into Latin—that the caveat emptor principle still stands, because these people were not asked to the wedding to take photographs.

Mr. Palmer

In some cases the bride and bridegroom, or the relatives or parents, are approached in advance, so that the photographer comes under an arrangement.

Mr. Ridley

I am glad to have that from the hon. Member. But it would clearly be wiser not to accept photographs from uninvited photographers, especially at such an important occasion as one's wedding.

Section 14 of the Trade Descriptions Act deals, among other things, with false statements as to the provision of a service or facility, or the time at which a service or facility is provided. To be caught by this Section such a statement must be false to a material degree, and the person must have made it recklessly, or knowing it to be false. Local weights and measures authorities are under a duty to enforce the Trade Descriptions Act, and have all the powers necessary to investigate suspected offences that are brought to their notice.

Although the powers under Section 14 have not been tested in the higher courts, there has been a case in which a photographer has been brought before a magistrates' court and convicted because he indicated that his pictures would be mailed in 7-21 days and they were not so mailed. He failed to send them within the time limit.

The hon. Gentleman asked me for guidance about the relevance of Section 14 and what I have said shows that one crucial point is whether a time was offered within which the photographs would be delivered; if that time were not met, the photographer might be liable—although it is not for me to interpret the application of the Act in any particular case, but for the court. The hon. Gentleman was a little pessimistic in his interpretation of the extent to which the criminal law applies to cases like this. There are provisions which may in certain circumstances bite on this sort of problem.

Section 15 of the Theft Act, 1967, makes it an offence for a person by any deception dishonestly to obtain property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving him of it. If someone took money with no intention of providing whatever it was paid for—photographs, for example—that person might fall foul of this provision, and it would be for the police to prosecute.

Further, the criminal law can properly deal with a case in which someone tries to attract custom by offering what he knows he cannot provide or by offering something without having taken reasonable steps to ensure that it can be provided when the due time comes. But very properly, it does not imperil the man who offers something, reasonably expecting to be able to provide it but eventually finding that he cannot do so because something beyond his control has intervened.

For instance, suppose that someone contracts to mow my lawn on Saturday morning, but his lawnmower breaks down on a Friday night or he has appendicitis or it pours with rain on Saturday morning; he cannot fulfil his contract for perfectly understandable reasons and it would be wrong to make a criminal out of him.

That describes the possible application of the criminal law—

Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

Where, as my hon. Friend said, there is a great deal of evidence touching on a number of firms over a longer period, suggesting that this is not an accident for which the man, the photographer, is not responsible, can this collection of events be brought to bear to influence the police in drawing their own conclusions about the intent of the photographer not to supply prints?

Mr. Ridley

The proof of the pudding would be if, after a certain period, the prints continue not to be supplied. The postponement of delivery indefinitely creates an offence, but as no time limit was offered, apparently, according to the hon. Member, it is difficult to pin it under the Trade Descriptions Act, and the criminal proceedings which I have discussed would be applicable if delivery were delayed for a very long time.

But these are not matters to which I can give an answer directly, because they obviously depend on whether the police, the prosecuting authority in such a matter, feel that the law has been broken. All that I can do is try to describe the law in the hope that it will be of some help to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.

Therefore, in some cases, the breach of an undertaking may have been so deliberate and foreseeable that the criminal law can properly be brought to bear. I think that the criminal law is already adequately framed for such cases. In other cases, what is involved is no more than a simple breach of contract, for which only the remedies of the civil law are appropriate.

From what the hon. Gentleman said, this may well be the case in many of the instances which he has quoted. If a letter is sent from a Solicitor it has been known to evoke a response. There is this further channel of redress of using the civil law to get the photographs or the money back. I cannot judge, in the fashion of a court, on which side of the line the difficulties which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned lie. If there were reason to suspect a breach of the Theft Act or the Trade Descriptions Act, I am sure that the police or the local weights and measures authority would go into this very carefully and do their best. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman said that they had been consulted. It is up to them to decide what they should do in this case.

I doubt, however, whether there is any meaningful way in which the law can be changed. The law is comprehensive, both the civil and criminal law, as it is under the Trade Descripton Act. I do not quite see how this issue could be dealt with by fresh legislation. Nor do I think it necessary.

On the other hand, if the people of Bristol know that those who have ordered photographs from a speculative photographer have often had a good deal of difficulty in getting them delivered within a reasonable time, then if Bristolians have anything like the native wit and caution for which I give them credit, they will be very hesitant about placing such orders in future.

The hon. Gentleman having aired the matter tonight, I am sure that the local Press will take up what he said. This in itself will do a great deal to warn people of the dangers of this practice. Perhaps this will allow competition from the reputable—and I am sure that many of them in Bristol are reputable—photographers to take the business which has so far been provided unsatisfactorily by the people the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I hope that this will be so, and it may be that publicity of that sort, which the hon. Gentleman is seeking to achieve tonight, will do more good than trying to bend the law to fit into every sort of situation, including that which he described tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.