HC Deb 12 January 1976 vol 903 cc163-70

9.59 p.m.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Roland Moyle)

I beg to move, That the Unsolicited Goods and Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 2nd December, be approved. There is, of course, an Unsolicited Goods and Services Act 1971, as amended by the Unsolicited Goods and Services (Amendment) Act 1975, in force in Great Britain. However, at present there is no current Northern Ireland legislation relating to unsolicited goods and services. The object of the Order is to extend the Great Britain legislation to Northern Ireland. I assume, therefore, that the broad principles of the Order are generally acceptable.

The other advantage of the Order will be to ensure that those who are now unable to conduct their nefarious activities in Great Britain will not be able to move to a base in Northern Ireland and conduct those activities from there.

The Order provides three forms of protection. First, it will provide protection for people who receive goods—usually through the post—which they do not want and have not ordered, by making it an offence for the sender to demand payment for such goods. Second, it will be an offence to demand payment for unordered advertisements in a trade directory. Very often, indeed, such advertisements are not only unordered but are not inserted in the appropriate directory.

Other provisions of the Order will make it an offence to send to people who have not asked for it advertising material, or even advertisements about that advertising material, which describes or illustrates human sexual techniques.

Articles 1 and 2 of the Order are the usual formalities about Title, interpretation, and so forth. Article 3 provides that a recipient of unsolicited goods may treat them as an unconditional gift. If the sender does not recover the goods within six months from the receipt of the goods or 30 days of receiving a notice from the recipient, the goods may be treated as an unconditional gift. Under the existing law, persons receiving unsolicited goods have either to return them at their own expense or retain them, taking reasonable care of them, until the sender sees fit to have them taken away.

The Order provides that the sender of goods who demands payment for such goods will be liable to a fine of up to £200. Moreover, if the sender threatens to bring legal proceedings to obtain payment for the goods or to place the recipients' name on a debtors' list, he will be liable to a fine of up to £400.

Articles 5 and 6 deal with entries in trade directories. It has been the practice for dishonest persons to invoice firms for advertisements in trade directories which have never in fact been inserted in those directories. Sometimes these invoices have been paid, possibly by junior staff, without proper check, and sometimes substantial sums of money have been obtained by dishonest persons in this way.

In future, only persons placing an order in writing in a form prescribed by the Order will be liable for payment, and any person pursuing payment where these conditions have not been fulfilled will be liable, on summary conviction, to a fine of up to £400 or, on indictment, to an unlimited fine. Some organisations have made up to about £250,000 by devices of this sort, and that is the reason for the introduction of the idea of an unlimited fine.

Article 6 permits the Department of Commerce to make Regulations specifying the form and content of invoices and other documents used in trade directory transactions. It is expected that the Regulations will require such documents to display disclaimers so prominent that they cannot be overlooked.

Article 7 makes it an offence to send through the post unsolicited books and magazines illustrating human sexual techniques or even advertising material relating to such publications—a practice that can cause considerable embarrassment to certain people. Because of their sensitive nature, prosecutions for this type of offence will be undertaken only by the Director of Public Prosecutions or Northern Ireland, or with his consent, and will be punishable by a fine of up to £100, and up to £400 for subsequent offences.

As I have said, the Order really does no more than apply to Northern Ireland legislation that has been accepted for the rest of the United Kingdom, and it closes a gap in the general provisions of the law.

10.5 p.m.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

I thank the Minister of State for a characteristically lucid exposition of the Order. Hon. Members from Northern Ireland may have points of view to express. For our part, we agree that, as a general principle, and in the case of this Order, Northern Ireland legislation should follow that of Great Britain. In a sense, the Order is some what belated, bearing in mind that the original legislation was passed in 1971 It is right that Northern Ireland should not offer a safe base for the kind of miscreants with which these provisions are intended to deal, and we therefore support the Order.

10.6 p.m.

Mr. Robert J. Bradford (Belfast, South)

We welcome the Order because it brings Northern Ireland legislation into line with that which exists on the mainland. The achievement of this parity with the rest of the United Kingdom is welcomed by the United Ulster Unionists and by the people of Northern Ireland as a whole.

My second reason for welcoming the Order is that it will ensure that Northern Ireland does not become a dumping ground for those who carried out their despicable practices with impunity on the mainland but because of the 1975 Act had to move to other pastures. The 1975 Act provides that fines may be unlimited on indictment, but no such reference appears in the Order. Will that part of the legislation apply to Northern Ireland?

Will the Regulations about disclaimers be the same in Northern Ireland as they are on the mainland? Many people who receive books and gramophone records about sexual techniques, or who receive demands for payment for bogus entries in business directories of one kind or another, do not challenge the dis- reputable companies who engage in these practices because they are not sure whether they have received an invoice. Will the disclaimer as outlined in the 1975 Act apply in that form in Northern Ireland?

I conclude by repeating that we welcome the Order, though we have reservations about whether the fines proposed are large enough, bearing in mind the huge sums of money that these despicable firms extort from innocent persons.

10.8 p.m.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) is in the Chamber and hopes to take part in the debate, because I was present when, with the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House, he introduced the Unsolicited Goods and Services Bill.

It is because that measure is failing to fulfil the purpose for which it was brought before the House that I wish to ask the Minister to introduce an amendment to what he is proposing in this Order. I know that he cannot do it tonight; that is the weakness of a draft Order of this kind. I ask him to bring forward another draft Order amending this one. Perhaps we may even see an amendment to the Act in due course.

The law is not adequately framed. The sharp practice which the Unsolicited Goods and Services Act was meant to prevent still goes on. I have heard of people who have received magazines and gramophone records through the post without having asked for them. I received, from a firm called Mitchell, Beazley Marketing Limited, a book dealing with the kitchen garden. I had not asked the firm to send it to my London flat. I wrote in protest to the firm and demanded a photostat copy of the order that it alleged I had given.

I should like the Government to make it a requirement that, before sending the goods which it alleges have been ordered, every firm should send to the person who is alleged to have ordered them a photostat copy of the order form. That would not cost the firm very much. It would give notice to the citizen that the book or article would be sent to him, and if he had not ordered it he could repudiate the order. I hope that the Minister will seriously consider this suggestion.

Many people are afraid of legal proceedings. It is no use saying "If you do not want the book you can return it." A recipient may have kept it for some time and it may have been damaged or defaced, and he may not wish to return it for that reason. Such people may think that it is too late to return the article when they receive a letter stating that they must pay up and that the account is overdue. If that letter is left unanswered, the next letter threatens legal proceedings. I hope the Government can do something about this.

I am glad that in Northern Ireland the practice of advertising and sending books relating to human sexual techniques has stopped. So far as I am aware, no more books or advertisements have gone to the homes of citizens in Northern Ireland, who were distressed by this nuisance. I support the Government in doing what they have to stop these tradesmen making money in this way.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

As the Member who introduced the original Bill, I am delighted that at long last an Order has been introduced to extend the protection of this measure to citizens residing in Northern Ireland. I do not share the view that this Act has failed. One of the merits of this piece of legislation is that to some extent it is self-enforcing. If one now receives a book that one has not ordered, one does not have to send it back. Any publisher who tries to sell many volumes in this way is certain to go into bankruptcy very quickly indeed.

I would not think it right to require a firm to send a photostat copy of the order, because not all firms own photostat machines and I think it would place a great deal of extra work on many small firms. At this time in particular we do not want to add to their burdens.

In the earlier debate there was reference to the "all-Ireland dimension". I have heard that the bogus directory racketeers have moved south of the border and that Dublin is now one of the cities from which they operate. Will the Minister of State tell us whether there have been any negotiations or discussions with the Government in Dublin to see whether they can take effective action to stamp out this obnoxious racket? It is difficult—indeed, impossible—for us unilaterally to stop the bogus directory men when they operate from overseas.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

This little debate is a kind of minuscule but not uninteresting footnote to the debate that occupied the House during today's sitting. Here is a piece of legislation that was passed by the House for Great Britain several years ago. There is no earthly reason why that legislation should not have been made at the same time for the whole United Kingdom. I suppose that it falls within one of the transferred subjects under the 1920 Act, but it is indefensible that whatever be the system of Government of Northern Ireland—whether it be the system under which we are operating now, or any other—we should simply have to duplicate in this way legislation that is passed in the Parliament of the United Kingdom with the assent and agreement of the parliamentary representatives of Northern Ireland.

It also has the result, which this brief debate has brought out, that we tend to get out of step. We tend to get out of step in penalties if there is a different time at which the same principles of law are introduced. Again, improvements are suggested and debated in the Northern Ireland context which surely should be debated and decided, for or against, in the context of the United Kingdom.

So this is a little reminder that as long as we are a United Kingdom a great deal of our law—as much of our law as is possible—should be common to the whole of the United Kingdom, and that in future that should be given effect to by the fact that we legislate once for all in those matters—and they are very comprehensive—in this House for the whole of the United Kingdom.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Moyle

We have had a brief but interesting debate. I am happy to note that both Opposition parties welcome the Order.

It must give the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) some small additional pleasure to see his Great Britain measure extended to Northern Ireland at last, although I shall have to mar that pleasure somewhat by saying that if he is right, and the racketeers have moved to Dublin, probably in anticipation of the passage of the Order, we have not so far had any discussions with the Republic of Ireland about the way in which the loopholes may be closed.

The unlimited fine on indictment is included in respect of the offence about trade directories in Article 5, so the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) can be happy about that. It is intended that all the provisions of the Order should be identical with the Great Britain legislation.

With regard to the subject raised by the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder), there was a certain amount of disagreement on the question whether there was a loophole, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing the Government's attention to the possible evasion of this legislation. We shall certainly bear in mind the points that he made to see whether an amendment is needed.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) made an interesting and valid point, but it is not one upon which we base our legislation. It is argued that the parties in the Northern Ireland Convention all wanted, for Northern Ireland, a system of government that was to a large degree separate from that obtaining in the United Kingdom generally. Therefore, the argument always is that we should, so far as we can, maintain the integrity of the Northern Ireland statute book, so that a future Government for the Province will be able to administer that legislation without constant reference to United Kingdom Acts of Parliament.

Sometimes, of course, that procedure is not possible. We sometimes have to legislate for Northern Ireland in the form of an addition at the end of United Kingdom statutes because of the pressure of time under which we labour under the present system of direct rule and in legislating in this House. That is the attitude we adopt and the comment I make on the right hon. Gentleman's argument. It is not refutation of the argument; it is a question of paying your money and taking your choice.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Unsolicited Goods and Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 2nd December, be approved.

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