§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Grant (Harrow, Central)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, who spoke on the previous Bill dealing with wild creatures and plants, said that he hoped that that measure would not lead to many prosecutions. By contrast, I hope that my Bill will lead to a great number of prosecutions and will stamp out a particularly disgraceful abuse.
When I was a Minister it was thanks to the vigilance and skill of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) that my attention was drawn to a racket of monumental proportions. That was as long ago as 30th March 1973 by way of an Adjournment debate. What was happening then, and is still taking place today, is that invoices—or what purport to be invoices—are sent out to firms throughout the country with the purpose of deceiving them into paying for unwanted and unordered entries in directories. The 1971 legislation on this subject, which was an excellent measure introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), had the support of all sides of the House but proved too rigid and cumbersome to control this scandal, since its extent was staggering.
All a person has to do to take advantage of this loophole, if he is dishonest enough so to do, is to acquire a fairly tatty accommodation address and flood firms and companies throughout the country with documents which look like invoices but which one needs a magnifying glass to discover are not a demand for payment. There are many examples I could put before the House. I have a document in my hand which describes itself as "Classified Telex Directory and Register, Turnrules Limited, 12 Archer Street, London, W/". In every respect, apart from some small wording, it purports to be a demand for £48. The BBC only this morning exposed Business Telephone Directories.
2152 My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) drew my attention to a doument which described itself as "Sellers Directory", published by Portman Publishing Company, 60 Neal Street, London, again demanding to all intents and purposes, unless one looks at the document with a magnifying glass, the sum of £60. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East recently drew attention to Area Trades Directories of Harrow. That concern had the impertinence to use the greater Harrow Chamber of Commerce crest on its documents without any authority. There are many other examples.
We know that companies and firms which make these payments are careless since they are payments which they have no obligation to make. There is no substitute whatever in commercial life for vigilance, proper management and accounting procedures. But life is short, people are very busy getting on with the proper activities of their companies, and these things get by.
Let me try to illustrate the size of the problem. If, for example, 100,000 bogus pieces of paper are sent out demanding, say, £50—and Scotland Yard tells me that that is a realistic figure—even if there is only a 1 per cent. error in the companies contacted as a result of that mail shot by the recipient firms, it will produce £50,000 of ill-gotten gains. I understand that one individual got away with as much as £250,000. The thought that goes through my mind and through the minds of others is that we are in the wrong business. It is an outrageous situation that such downright dishonesty should pay off in that way.
Section 6 of the 1971 Act provided that such a document should say prominently that it is not a claim for payment. But those words are a subjective test. It has been proved extremely difficult for the courts to interpret them and to bring prosecutions. Another major defect was that the maximum fine, even if one could secure a successful prosecution, could be only £400. When we consider some of the loot extracted from firms by these outrageous activities such a maximum fine is derisory.
I understand that since 1971 the Department of Trade or the Department of 2153 Prices—and I am grateful for the assistance I have received from everybody in that Department, including its Minister of State—has received about 850 complaints about this abuse, nearly 300 of them from Members of Parliament. The complainants included business organisations such as the CBI, chambers of commerce and reputable publishers which are very concerned that this practice will give them a bad name.
My Bill is intended to stop the scandal in three ways. First, it follows the successful United States pattern by enabling the Government to ensure that the disclaimers are so conspicuous that they cannot be overlooked. Only in that way can one move ahead or abreast of the fast-moving scoundrels in the business.
I believe that the regulations should deal with the situation as to the way in which the disclaimer should be printed, the size of that disclaimer and possibly its colour. I hope that when he replies to the debate the Minister of State will give some idea of what he believes the regulations should contain. I believe that the words should be prominently placed and should be to the effect "This is not a demand for payment. There is no obligation to pay the charge shown." In the United States the practice is to print the words "This is not an invoice" diagonally across the document, and perhaps that course could be adopted in this country. The regulations should prescribe that the disclaimer should be bolder and in larger type size than other print on the form to make it clear beyond peradventure that there is no obligation on the recipient. These are matters which the Government can examine if my Bill reaches Committee, as indeed I hope it will.
The second objective of the Bill is to tighten up notes of agreement and procedures under the 1971 Act. The provisions have been found to be defective in some respects, and in some cases have even been found to be unnecessary and even oppressive to honest dealers. For example, the Post Office finds some of the provisions of the 1971 Act oppressive in its activities. The Post Office publishes frequent editions of directories, but cannot give the particulars required by Section 3(3) in the note of agreement because it cannot foretell matters such as the date of future editions or the prices 2154 which it will charge. Therefore, the purpose of the Bill is to tighten the procedure for the wicked trader but make it more convenient for the honest person.
I have been in touch with various bodies and I hope that the Minister will confirm that he, too, will consult outside bodies so that we may get the regulations right. I have in mind the CBI, which takes a great interest in these matters. I also have in mind the Institute of Trading Standards, the Post Office, the Periodical Publishers Association, the Consumers Association and chambers of commerce. They are some of the authorities which should be consulted. The proposed regulations will be subject to annulment, and the negative procedure is appropriate in this respect.
The third effect of the Bill in Clause 3 is to provide that conviction can be undertaken by way of indictment. This means that the fine, instead of being the derisory maximum of £400, could be unlimited. I hope that the courts will take note and ensure that, in this case at least, the punishment really fits the crime. In one case recently the fine was a derisory £20 when the loot was probably thousands of pounds. The new penalties would come into force on enactment of the Bill. The courts would not have to wait until the regulations were framed, which would take a little longer.
I am afraid that the Bill cannot cover the question of documents sent from overseas. As I have said, I have had about 850 complaints about this practice, and only 26 concerned overseas malefactors. Nevertheless, as a result of tightening up our legislation, there may be increased activity from abroad. We cannot legislate for people outside our jurisdiction, but I hope that the Government will pursue the possibility of persuading other countries to adopt similar measures. I have in mind, of course, the EEC in particular. I understand that only Germany has anything really comparable to this Bill. It would be helpful for the Government to have discussions with France, Belgium, Holland and others to try to bottle this practice up on an international scale.
The reason why I would give the Secretary of State power to make regulations in order to tackle this abuse is that there should be a flexible means at the disposal of the authorities in order to 2155 control large-scale deceit of this kind, which the 1971 Act, alas, has failed to do. By adopting this order-making procedure, the Government would be able to bring into effect quickly the measures necessary to deal with a widespread mischief and catch new abuses.
I believe that the Bill commends itself to both sides of the House. The sponsors are drawn from both sides, and I believe that the Government are sympathetic. I am grateful for the help I have had from the Department. I commend the Bill with confidence.
§ 12.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)
It gives me great pleasure to support my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Grant) in this new piece of proposed legislation. Were it not for the fact that I was up nearly all night, because of the rail crash in his part of the country, on a cold and draughty platform, I should have been able to produce a rather wider sample of some of the literature which has been sent to me from all over the country by firms which have been inundated by these bogus trade directory firms. It will have to suffice that I have only a small sample of my collection, which fills several filing cabinets.
I am grateful to the large number of firms which have presented me with this catalogue of material over the past two years, material which has allowed me to get a far more comprehensive picture of what has been going on than perhaps even the Department has been able to obtain.
My hon. Friend said that there have been 850 complaints to the Department. I have had more complaints than that. I will give one example. One firm alone, Shipton Automation Limited, has sent me over the past few months all the literature it has received. I have counted well over 200 so-called invoices that it has sent on to me. If one begins to do a jigsaw puzzle on them, one finds that most of them can be traced to two or three identifiable sources of origin. But, of course, they are cloaked in a variety of different names. For example, there are publishers like Brandon Publications Limited, of Edgware Road, London, which has a variety of different so-called directories, each directed at a different section of the market. There 2156 is duplication in the case of a group like Shipton Automation, because every single registered subsidiary of Shipton Automation is flooded with this type of material. That gives some idea of the extent of the abuse.
I am grateful also to several newspapers which have conscientiously tried to draw attention to these problems. In particular, the Lancashire Evening Post has done a very good demolition job in its area. But, of course, that helps only in the Lancashire Evening Post's area. The BBC has tried to expose this deceit on occasion. Newspapers too numerous to mention have from time to time, perhaps when prompted by Members of Parliament, also done their best to draw attention to the abuse.
I want to rectify at once what I am sure is an understandable misconception. This misconception has done harm to what I believe is a genuine firm which is trying to do a genuine job. I raise this matter specifically because my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central referred to the firm in question. I cannot blame him for it, but the matter highlights the problem which exists.
The few firms that are genuinely trying to perform a service in trade directories have virtually been hounded out of business by the abuse conducted by the fly-by-night set-ups, to the extent that I have files full of evidence, letters from those who have been plagued by these invoices, and so on. They tell me, "We are now so confused as to which is a respectable organisation and which is not that we turn them all away."
One firm which has been particularly hard hit by this problem is Area Trades Directory, to which my hon. Friend referred. I am partly to blame for this. I wish that to be put on record, because in my previous attack in the adjournment debate, to which my hon. Friend referred, I included this firm as one of those which had been sending out invoices. I subsequently took a great deal of trouble to investigate that firm. It is fair to suggest that perhaps I might have done so before I mentioned it, but pressure of time and a general misconception about the situation precluded me from doing so.
I have now visited the firm, however, have gone through the organisation, have 2157 met the directors, and have seen the work the firm produces, and I am satisfied that it operates genuinely. Indeed, I believe that the firm started the so-called "yellow directory", which the Post Office subsequently virtually stole from it. The firm still performs a very good service, producing a regular and satisfactory directory which circulates around the country.
§ Mr. Anthony Grant
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making this clear. As far as I am concerned, if it be the case that this is a genuine firm I shall be delighted to give it any help I can.
§ Mr. Rost
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The firm does feel embittered, not just by the activities of the bogus firms, which have hit it hard, but also because the publicity which has arisen as a result has probably damaged genuine people.
This highlights one of the major problems. There is an important commercial field of activity here. Directories perform a useful function. It is, therefore, essential that we eliminate the bogus set-ups and allow those which are prepared to give a genuine service to flourish in peace and prosperity. Genuine people have been hit by the activities of these set-ups, and it is important that we make it clear that it is not the intention of this Bill or of any other legislation to stop their businesses.
One or two new patterns are evolving. One feature of the history of this business activity is the way in which the bogus firms seem to be able to adapt themselves to changing circumstances. They are remarkably resilient to attempts to eliminate them. They get round the law by devising new techniques. We thought that we had stopped them with the Unsolicited Goods and Services Act, but they started sending out invoices on which was printed, in not particularly bold type, "This is not a demand for money." That still goes on.
The new technique is far more subtle. They send out not an invoice but what they call a proof for a provisional entry in a forthcoming edition. In fact, some of them point out that if the address and classification is correct, and if the customer signs and returns the form as being a correct entry, his firm will be mentioned in the forthcoming edition, and there is 2158 no question of a fee. In fact, some of them provide the service free.
Such a practice is very alluring. When hon. Members receive their annual proof for the entry in "Who's Who" the same procedure is adopted. There is no question of a fee. We are simply asked to correct the proof if it needs correcting and to return it. Usually we hear nothing more unless we wish to subscribe to "Who's Who".
But there is a subtle distinction in the case of the bogus trade directory. Although the entry is included free if the publication comes out—some of them never do—it is stated at the bottom of many of the so-called proofs, "If you would like your advertisement under more than one heading, please state." In that way they manage to extract a fee. Provided the entry is normal, they claim that it is free, but if one wants a slightly bolder or two-line entry one subsequently receives an account. I do not know whether one is legally obliged to pay it.
One firm which adopts this practice on a wide scale is Town and City Directory of Nuneaton. It operates under various titles. One of the features of its advertising is that it claims to be a member of the Coventry Chamber of Commerce. I do not quarrel with that. It is probably correct; I have not checked it. But it is further evidence of the depths to which some of these organisations will sink to try to achieve respectability. I have had a great deal of correspondence from firms which have received these so-called proofs or invoices and have sent memorandums to different departments in the firms saying "Will you investigate this? Is it all right for us to subscribe"? This wastes a great deal of the firm's time. Many automatically slip through the accounting procedures, and when invoices are sent they are paid.
A firm which is not a trade directory firm but one of the recipients which have been flooded with literature and which has been particularly helpful to me in my campaign is Crewkerne Horticultural Engineering, of Somerset. It had to waste much time initially before it got wise to the game in trying to prevent these documents slipping through. This concern has sent me an extensive file on the subject.
2159 It is not only business firms and innocent traders who are caught out. Remarkably, the campaign extends to official bodies and organisations. For example, I have correspondence from the Inland Waterways Association, which has frequently been sent invoices from, for instance, Commercial and Trades Directories of Blackheath, London—incidentally, one of the worst offenders. The proposed entry for the Inland Waterways Association under the classification isAssociation—social, cultural and general".It all sounds very impressive. Other official bodies have been plagued. The nationalised industries and public bodies do their best not to squander public money, but there are many examples of these documents slipping through if management is not as tight as it should be. The Essex River Authority was nearly caught out.
I have said that these organisations are extremely resilient to attempts to stop their activities. I mentioned one of the latest techniques being adopted. Another way in which they are displaying their strength and determination to survive is by adopting new "with it" types of directory. One of the latest styles is the Telex system. I have a large number of these for different types of Telex directory. I have checked and have found that, quite apart from the fact that they are irrelevant because they do not use anything which the Post Office does not already provide quite satisfactorily, they give the impression that this is a vital service for an up-and-coming firm involved in export business. This is one example of the way in which they are proving their ability to evolve new business practices.
I apologised at the beginning of my remarks that I was not able to produce my entire collection of material on this subject. That is probably as well, otherwise I should have spoken at much greater length. Suffice it to say that I wholly support any measures taken to eliminate undesirable business practices in this area. I wish it could have been done earlier. The fines imposed in one or two cases have been ludicrously inadequate and have not been widely enough publicised, so that the firms have paid up and carried on or moved their addresses.
2160 I am, therefore, pleased to see the proposal for a more effective form of prosecution and the imposition of fines which will hurt. I hope that it will be highlighted during the progress of the Bill that the aim is to give protection to people who are attempting to provide a genuine, worthwhile service. It gives me great pleasure to support the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central, whom I congratulate on his initiative in introducing it.
§ 1.0 p.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
I am extremely sorry that I missed the opportunity to hear the hon. Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Grant), who introduced the Bill. I am certain that I would have learned a great deal from his remarks. I am happy to compliment him on seizing the opportunity to introduce what I am sure is a very necessary Bill.
I am particularly interested in this subject, having had an opportunity to participate in our earlier debates on the matter. I remember that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson) who originally brought in a Bill, and this was followed subsequently by another Bill which became law. We were very worried about the state of affairs involving these directories and the frauds which were perpetrated on many people. There was a very serious situation, and it was necessary that something should be done.
It is extraordinary how when a measure of this kind is introduced to deal with these evils, although we provide a very worthy measure, there are people who are able to drive a horse and coach right through it, involving a great deal of trouble for our constituents. As I was on my way to do other work today I turned on the radio and heard of the large number of complaints. I also heard the hon. Member for Harrow, Central speak of the different methods which had been adopted to combat this state of affairs. I am very happy that he has drawn the Bill in very wide terms, and I am particularly interested in Clause 1. I believe that by drafting the clause as he has done, very wide powers are given to the Secretary of State.
2161 By Clause 1 the Secretary of State is empowered to make regulations requiring specified information to be included in invoices and similar documents, and prescribing the manner in which specified information is to be included. The Secretary of State is thus given power to deal with the evils as they arise. It may be that some of these sharks can adopt methods which defeat the purpose of this Bill, but certainly these very wide powers will enable the Secretary of State to act expeditiously.
I support the Bill, and I wish it a speedy passage to the statute book.
§ 1.4 p.m.
§ Mrs. Sally Oppenheim (Gloucester)
I join those hon. Members who have already congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Grant) on his good fortune and his good sense in presenting this measure. He has done so with skill and with the benefit of the expertise that he gained as a Minister in the Department which was responsible for the implementation of the Unsolicited Goods and Services Act, and which was made conscious of the need for this amending legislation as a result of its investigations into the numerous complaints which were made.
To those of us who are interested in consumer affairs, the speed with which those who wish to mislead and defraud consumers can expose loopholes and exploit them is a matter of continuing concern. That is why, when we draft consumer protection legislation, we do so as tightly as possible, although in doing so we are often criticised by business interests for imposing too onerous sanctions upon them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) has said, because the overwhelming majority of traders are honest and provide a valuable service a very fine balance has to be kept. We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East for the modest way in which he pointed out how a company had been unfairly affected as a result of publicity.
It is because we have to achieve a fine balance that this measure represents no less than a third attempt to deal with the matter. The original provision in the Inertia Selling Bill, introduced by the 2162 hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson), was strengthened and redrafted on departmental advice when it reappeared in the Unsolicited Goods and Services Act which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), to whom we are deeply grateful. Like the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman), I was a member of the Standing Committee on that Bill, and I vividly remember our debates. Above all, I remember the unanimity of support for the Bill on both sides of the Committee and of the House, and the constructive nature of the debates. I am happy to find that today's debate has been similarly characterised, and we are grateful to the Minister and to the Government for their implied support of this measure.
I am sure that the hon. and learned Member will agree that it would have been unfortunate if all our deliberations on the Unsolicited Goods and Services Act, and particularly on Section 3, had come to naught, for in that section we tried to stamp out the activities of these bogus directory sharks. During those proceedings the former hon. Member for Oxford, Mr. Monty Woodhouse, pointed out frequently and forcibly that enabling powers would have to be provided, and I am delighted to pay a tribute to his foresight.
As the House will be aware, it was in Section 3 of that Act that we tried to stamp out the activities of these bogus directory sharks whose victims were misled, defrauded and subjeced to harassing demands for payment, very often in respect of services which they had not solicited and in many cases in respect of a directory which did not exist.
Although Section 3 makes it an offence to demand payment if certain conditions laid down in the section are not complied with, unfortunately, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, this has been widely evaded and many abuses have come to light. I received a letter from a constituent about such an abuse as recently as this morning. A number of these firms are hit-and-run firms which operate for a certain time and then disappear, only to reappear under a different name elsewhere in the country. The problem is one not only of detection but of deterring such 2163 firms. As my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow, Central and for Derbyshire, South-East have pointed out, it is very hard to deter somebody by imposing a penalty of £400 when he is making tens of thousands of pounds out of his fraudulent activities.
In the Adjournment debate which was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East, for which we were very grateful because it gave a useful public airing to the subject, a number of examples were given of how, while complying with the provisions of Section 3, firms were nevertheless issuing documents which certainly looked like invoices and were deliberately meant to look like invoices and were mistaken as such by many recipients. Although these forms were not marked as invoices but were described as pro forma applications, it was clear that there was an intent to mislead. As my hon. Friend said, these forms carried a printed statement to the effect that no demand would be made for payment, and as long as the forms carried that wording, the firms could do almost what they wanted because of the defects in Section 3 of the Act. In one such case, if I remember aright what was said in the Adjournment debate to which I have referred, the top copy was marked that it was not a demand for payment whereas the carbon copy made just such a demand but was not, as I understand it, caught by the Act.
Given, then, the deficiencies and the inadequacy of the penalties in the Act, together with the unfamiliarity with the legislation of the vast majority of people, not only of the victims themselves, it is not hard to see how the abuses became widespread. Since the people affected were not the simple or inarticulate consumers whom we usually seek to protect but were business men, it may be thought that no further legislation is necessary. However, the businesses hit are often small concerns the owners of which, amid the many pressures facing all business today, are certainly not equipped to deal with the cunning nature of these documents or with the resultant loss.
§ Mr. Rost
My hon. Friend is making an important point here by emphasising that many of them are small firms, and, as we know, there are very many such firms—many more than there are large 2164 firms—in this country. Perhaps she will agree that it is often small firms which are more likely to want publicity to help them in their business promotion, and when they see these bogus directories and the relatively small charge which is asked they think that they will get good value for money through advertising in them.
§ Mrs. Oppenheim
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise the vulnerability of the smaller firm in relation to these documents. As I have said, smaller firms are vulnerable in a good many ways nowadays, and these practices merely add to their burden.
In the larger firms, as we know, it has often been the young inexperienced employee who has been responsible for making the mistake, thinking that he could save his firm money, or having been led to imagine that he could do so by these phoney documents. It is right that we should try to protect these people in the same way as we should try to protect all consumers, by ensuring that the information which has to be provided is provided in unmistakable form.
By giving the Secretary of State power to make regulations as to the precise form and content of the information required by statute to be disclosed by the producers of the directories and, more particularly, as to the style and manner of the disclosure, the Bill is reminiscent of similar provisions in the Consumer Credit Act. Indeed, by requiring standard and consistent formulae for the information which must be given in notes of agreement, on invoices and in other documents we are at the same time both creating a safeguard for consumers and following well-established good consumer protection practice. Clause 2(2) seems to me to be a valuable reinforcement in that respect and should succeed in closing any further loopholes which may be found. However, time alone will tell whether the ingenuity of those who wish to mislead and defraud will get the better of it.
By giving the Secretary of State the flexible order-making power, o which the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington so rightly drew attention, we shall make it possible for quick action to be taken to protect consumers if, or when, any new malpractices arise. Again, that principle is 2165 enshrined in other contemporary consumer protection legislation, notably in the Fair Trading Act itself.
It crossed my mind—perhaps the Minister will comment on it—that we have here just the sort of case which the Director General of Fair Trading might have investigated and on which he might have made recommendations had the abuses not arisen between two businesses. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman might look at that in other contexts.
The circumstances which have led to this amending Bill have highlighted the need for us to inform consumers of their rights, to make easily accessible advice and education available to them, and, above all, to see that new consumer protection legislation is publicised as widely as possible. In this connection, the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East were of particular value.
In conclusion, I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central and wish him every success with his Bill. I hope that it will have a speedy passage through Parliament and reach the statute book at an early date. It is a necessary and useful measure which will strengthen and supplement the consumer protection powers in the Unsolicited Goods and Services Act, and I accord it a warm welcome.
§ 1.16 p.m.
The Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection (Mr. Alan Williams)
First, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I congratulate you on having survived the long night and on looking so fresh at this stage. I confess that I did not follow the proceedings with the close attention which you had to give to them.
I join hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Grant) on introducing the Bill. We on this side support it and will give it every co-operation. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Government have already given full co-operation in advance of its arrival in the House.
We all agree about the basic situation here. We are dealing with crooks, and we want to ensure that they cannot find it profitable to carry on operations of this kind. I agree entirely with the hon.
2166 Member for Harrow, Central on the inadequacy of the present fines. As he said, a fairly unsuccessful operation may bring in £50,000, and the fines are in the circumstances derisory.
The great advantage of the Bill is that as soon as it reaches the statute book there will be no limitation, so that it will be possible for the fines to match the level of gain which the crooks involved hope to obtain.
We realise that there has been widespread abuse. I was interested in the sheer size of the dossier which the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) had managed to build up. I am sure that some of the examples which he will be able to give in Committee, should he volunteer to serve, will be of value to us in deciding whether the Bill is appropriately drawn. We have had over 800 complaints in the Department, and 280 of these have come from Members of Parliament.
The hon. Member for Harrow, Central was wise to warn that the Bill cannot deal with the problem of the overseas "phoney" directory. The difficulty here is that as long as the operator chooses to stay abroad we cannot bring our law to bear upon him and impose a sanction. The only way one can deal with that aspect of the matter is the rather painstaking business of trying to come to agreement with the countries from which the posted matter originates that they will introduce similar legislation, thus catching the crook at the other end. But that is a slow and rather cumbersome approach.
All hon. Members accept the need for order-making powers. Flexibility is essential. Everyone has testified to the capacity of the people conducting these activities to adjust and adapt their methods according to circumstances at any given time. The granting of order-making powers is, therefore, the most important element in the Bill.
The hon. Member asked whether we had been having consultations. We have already started the preliminary consultations—and not only started them—with exactly the list of bodies he mentioned, and I will not bother to go through them all over again. However, what may be helpful is for me to explain the way in which we envisage progressing 2167 when we have the regulatory powers. I apologise for taking a few minutes on this subject, but it may help in Committee if hon. Members have had a chance to study exactly what the Government intend and assist them to undertake their own consultations in their constituencies and elsewhere with those who are interested, so that in Committee we can consider the nuts and bolts of detail.
The present thinking is that in the top left-hand corner of the face of the "invoice" there shall appear the following words:This is not a demand for payment. There is no obligation to pay the charge shown.That would be the first precaution. The second would be that the words:This is not an invoiceshould be printed diagonally across the face of the "invoice".
We shall make requirements about size and colour and so on and it would be our intention that the disclaimer should be bolder than any other large print appearing on the form. These examples that we intend to follow are from the American experience. The Americans have been quite successful in stamping out this practice. For technical reasons relating to the powers of their postal authorities, they do not have the difficulties that we have about overseas postings.
I understand the point. It is inevitable that the publicity given to this practice should have hit genuine as well as spurious directory organisations.
§ Mrs. Sally Oppenheim
If it is a genuine operation, there is no reason whatever why a genuine invoice cannot be sent out marked as an invoice and as a demand for payment.
The hon. Lady has such a good idea that it is exactly what I intended to say myself. I thank her for saving me the necessity.
The more clearly we spell out what is involved and the more clearly we identify the false statement, the greater the protection we shall give to the genuine firm 2168 sending out genuine invoices. It is in the interests of such firms that we should follow through the type of action that I have outlined and the sort of disclaimer that we shall require. In the meantime, unless we are absolutely sure—and I understand the predicament—that a firm is an offender, it is essential to avoid mentioning names.
I shall say no more in order to allow following business to come on. This is a worthwhile Bill that will bring tremendous benefits to firms, particularly small firms, and we give it our full support.
§ 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).