HC Deb 26 November 1980 vol 994 cc545-52

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

11.46 pm
Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, West)

I wish to bring to the attention of the House a subject that has certainly been near to my heart during the last few momths and near to the hearts of several thousand people. I ask the Office of Fair Trading, under its Director General, to make further investigation and inquiry into the business of marriage bureaux. This subject has been under inquiry for many years—certainly longer than my researches could find. It has been the subject of various surveys and it seems to have a renewable interest in the media. I wish to draw attention in particular to those institutions and marriage bureaux which are unashamedly exploiting the public and, therefore, making it essential that the public be protected.

This is a sensitive and emotive subject. It relates to the most senstive of human emotions—love—and to third parties trying to arrange marriages on earth rather than in Heaven. The very sensitivity of the subject has hampered my investigations and the investigations which have been made by officialdom over the past few years. It can be extremely embarrassing for those who seek the services of marriage bureaux. Therefore, people have been exploited by others who seem more anxious to obtain a quick financial reward than to help those who come to them for this service. Because of the misery, distress and anxiety that have been caused and the cheating that has gone on, I think that the time has come for a further public examination in the House and through the Office of Fair Trading of the whole business of marriage bureaux.

I seek some form of protection for those involved. After all, those involved are genuinely searching for another partner for life through these agencies. There is no doubt that there is a need for that service. But the service that I wish to highlight is that conducted by the cheats and bandits who are exploiting the general public.

There have been various surveys since 1966. The first was carried out by the Consumers' Association magazine Which? It sent out volunteers to various bureaux. They visited what they described as "sympathetic" bureaux—those sympathetic to the cause of people seeking the service of a marriage bureau. Of the 62 bureaux they visited, they found 17 that were co-operative and agreed with the general principles of what they were looking for. That is only 25 per cent., which is a relevant figure, as will become apparent as I continue.

Which? magazine made two definite recommendations. First, it said that any interviews that took place must be personal interviews, as part of the code of practice. Secondly, it said that the fees should be paid in proportion, after a marriage had taken place. Those were relevant facts. About 14 million people in this country are either single, divorced or widowed, so if we take the small figure of 1 per cent. of those who might seek to use the services of a marriage bureau, we could be talking about 140,000 people. I do not hesitate to mention the name of the Heather Jenner bureau, which is probably the best-known marriage bureau in the world and trades internationally. Mrs. Jenner has been successful over 40 years of trading, with 20,000 marriages having taken place, and is a fine example to the rest of the industry.

Since 1966, attention has been given to the subject by the media and by national newspapers. The Daily Mail carried out a thorough investigation of one particularly shady organisation, making its own recommendations. The Daily Mirror, if I may mention that newspaper in the same breath, also instituted a full inquiry, and found some disturbing results. That admirable, searching BBC programme "Checkpoint" recently carried out a similar survey but concentrated more on dating and computer agencies, about which I shall not speak. Since then, various stories have appeared on local radio and television. The Sunday newspapers, even as recently as last Sunday, always seem to be full of stories of dissatisfied customers of marriage bureaux. The whole tale over the years seems to be one of heartbreak and of manipulation of clients' funds by these shady organisations. I would not wish to give the impression that all bureaux are like that, and amongst all the failures—which are bound to catch the headlines—there have been successes. I mentioned Mrs Jenner's agency, and there are other successes. Obviously, human nature being what it is, several people will never be satisfied until they find either the man or the woman of their dreams.

In 1977, two significant surveys were carried out, one by Woman's Own magazine, a well-read paper, in which 500 people participated. Of the 500 people who had used the services of marriage bureaux, only 17 per cent. were satisfied with the service they received. Their main complaint was that they were paying out money over a short time and meeting entirely unsuitable clients. There was also complaint that no personal interview was given, while many of those who were dissatisfied took no further action in trying to recover their moneys but abandoned their efforts early on and "put it down to experience".

In the same year, what was probably the most significant survey was carried out by the Office of Fair Trading under its Director General, Gordon Borrie. Again, from all the information it collated—I congratulate it on an excellent survey—it found that about two-thirds of the people were dissatisfied with the service that the marriage bureau they had chosen had given. That year was notable because a case was brought in a Warwick court under the Trade Descriptions Act 1972 when four widows took a marriage bureau to court. The marriage bureau was fined £375 and the widows received £100 each in compensation.

That was a fairly rare case. I suggest that because of its rarity it does not bear much thinking about in terms of what we are discussing tonight. Obviously, the mere fact that one must take a marriage bureau to court—with all the embarrassment, publicity and personal cost that goes with it—means that people are fairly reluctant to do so. I am not surprised to read that in recent times that has been the only case.

The Borrie report recommended a code of conduct and advice to those who were searching for the services of a marriage bureau. It also recommended that the trade itself should form an association. That was tried some years ago, particularly by Katharine Allen and Heather Jenner, but unfortunately it failed. Certainly, the Director General at that time thought that it was a good idea. It is one that I certainly support.

The whole tone of the report was that some protection was needed for those who found themselves in this position. In recent months, my own research has been assisted by a journalist from my own constituency, Mrs. Jean Austin, who has been active with this campaign for many years. She brought to my attention in the summer that in and around my constituency—one sensed that it was so in the rest of the country—a great deal of illicit trading was going on, with cowboy outfits moving into the marriage bureau market and exploiting and cheating the people whom they were trying to serve.

As a journalist, Mrs. Austin was rightly concerned about the advertising in newspapers. Virtually every classified section in local, national and Sunday papers carries advertisements, which in some cases give only a postal box number as a contact. That is clearly an unsuitable standard for this service. It is plain that there is no intention on the part of such bureaux to keep in business and to provide any form of satisfactory service.

I realise that it is difficult for any advertising manager to turn down advertisements, but I feel that newspaper proprietors must take some responsibility for the authenticity of advertisements which they receive.

Since we have made our views known, Mrs. Austin and I have received letters of complaint from all over the country. It may be advantageous to the House if I give several examples. These are completely genuine letters of which I have copies. One lady wrote to me in these terms: One of the 'Principals' to whom I spoke by telephone can only be described as aggressive and pompous and the lady running another, although she sounded sweet and sympathetic, promised house parties and social events which never materialised. Every time I telephoned about these I was fobbed off".

I suggest that that is a typical example of the description of some of the people who run these bureaux. Another lady wrote: The first introduction which she"— that is, the proprietor— 'personally recomended' turned out to be a married man still living at home with his wife and teenage family. He tried to square things up by saying that his wife went her way and he went his and it was obvious that he was 'looking for a bit on the side'.

That was certainly a dubious character who had crept on to the books of that bureau.

Another letter stated: Another Bureau sent me quite a number of forms with addresses and telephone numbers but there was no information as to the kind of men these were—builders, dustmen, Civil Servants, dukes or professors and one I telephoned turned out to be a 19 stone coloured ticket collector who agreed that he was just as unsuitable for me as I was for him but when I challenged this bureau about this they just denied it all.

I can understand the mirth of my hon. Friends, but this lady was most upset by that contact that she was given. She continues: Several persons I contacted by phone were already married and had been for some time.

We have had examples of people having been dead for several months yet remaining on the lists of marriage bureaux. Another relevant example states: I did meet one very nice gentleman through a bureau and we met twice as we were not really attracted to one and other but he was genuine, very lonely and he had lost a beloved wife tragically. This poor soul had had the same terrible experiences and had parted with a considerable sum of money. He too had met some real drop-outs whom the bureau had considered suitable companions for him. He decided he could not go through the whole nauseating business again and that's exactly how I feel about it. It really is high time these dubious agencies were thoroughly investigated. They must be making a fortune and it doesn't take long at £25 a time to get rich quick and get out.

I leave hon. Members to draw their own conclusions.

As regards the bureaux and some of the literature that I, and many intending clients have received, hon. Members will understand if I do not name one agency that has been advertising in the North of England. In the sweetest and most glib of tongues, it has conned several people. I understand that it has now been banned. It promised Social events on a non-profit-making basis

However, I am told that no events took place. It claims to be registered, but there is no registration of marriage bureaux. It also claims to have sent out a free monthly newsletter, but from the correspondence that I have received it appears that that has not materialised. The agency wishes to attract men in particular. It offers free membership to any man of exceptional ability—men of fame, men of great, wealth, or"— here we go— men of exceptional intellect. We spare no effort to attract highly presentable men.

That might appeal to some of my hon. Friends. If any of them want the telephone number of that organisation, I shall give it to them later.

That type of advertisement appears in newspapers and manifestos which are sent to lonely people of different ages, who are easily taken in by such organisations. One example is particularly sad. A threatening letter was sent to one of my constituents for the paltry sum of £15. Two letters were sent and they upset my constituent, who did not know that he owed any money. It typifies the aggressive attitude of some of these bandits and also typifies the amount of heartache caused.

I am indebted to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck), who has drawn my attention to certain events in his area. One lady is running a very respectable agency but is having trouble with some of her rivals. The obvious question to be asked is "What can be done?" I hope that the Office of Fair Trading will undertake to investigate this matter thoroughly. There is a genuine need for such an investigation. Many thousands of people might be in need of protection. We might be, literally, on the tip of an iceberg. It has proved very difficult to gain any evidence, because people find themselves in such an embarrassing situation.

As guidance to the Office of Fair Trading in its investigations, I suggest that it renews its code of conduct and advice to clients on the following lines. First, no client should be accepted without a personal interview. That was the basis of a general complaint that I found throughout my research.

Secondly, each person should agree that the business of any marriage bureau in which he is interested should be conducted in such a manner that each of its clients shall be fully informed in advance as to the service to be rendered to him or her by the bureau and the total fee payable in respect of such service, and the bulk of the fee should not be paid until a marriage has been completed.

Each bureau should agree to accept applications for registration only from those who are free to marry, namely, spinsters, bachelors, widows, widowers and legally divorced persons. No bureau that offers a list of clients should be eligible for membership of any association. No bureau that publishes descriptions of clients in newspapers—that seems to be a common fault—should be eligible for membership of the association. Lastly, the bureau of each member of such an association should be required to be properly registered with the Registrar of Companies or in the Registry of Business Names.

Those are not my recommendations. They were the recommendations of Heather Jenner and Katharine Allen made many years ago in a suggested code of conduct and byelaws. The Office of Fair Trading would do well to take notice of them.

The OFT could certainly encourage bureaux to form themselves into a trading association that would have its own respectability and responsibility and would give immediate identification to members of the public that the bureau that they wished to use was registered with a sound organisation.

I should like to see the provision of registration and licensing, but I realise that my brief in an Adjournment debate is not to seek further legislation. After all, I ask the Minister to consider that the highest priority is to seek to help the poor unfortunates who have fallen foul of the cowboy operators, who do no more than exploit and cheat them and take their money by false pretences. The House has a duty to offer those people some sort of protection.

12.6 am

The Minister for Consumer Affairs (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim)

I thank my hon Friend the Member for Luton, West (Mr. Carlisle) for raising an important subject. I am sure that the House and the country owe him a considerable debt of gratitude for raising a matter of concern and for doing so in such a sensitive way.

My hon. Friend retold some of the heartbreaking cases very movingly. I share his sympathy with those who have had such unsatisfactory, to say the least, experiences. I should like to do whatever is possible to protect others from suffering similar cruel disappointments and anxiety.

It is a sad fact that many people, particularly those in middle age or older people, lack friends and are lonely. Anyone who doubts whether loneliness is a major problem has only to read the classified advertisement columns of magazines. Such people will obviously be attracted by the claims of marriage bureaux and the introduction agencies. Unfortunately, the unscrupulous will always seek to take advantage and exploit the vulnerability of such people. There are reputable, long-established marriage and introduction bureaux. They charge reasonable fees for their services and take great pains to identify those who are likely to get on well. I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to them.

Easy as it is to castigate the malpractices of some marriage bureaux—and I shall do—before doing so one should take account of the difficulties that some face. Inevitably, most of their clients are shy people who find it difficult to make friends. Some have unrealistically high expectations. Many women will expect to find a Robert Redford and many men will expect to find a Raquel Welch. In my diligent researches before the debate, I attempted to fill in a computer data form. I had got only half-way through describing myself when I discovered that I was very much in breach of the Trade Descriptions Act.

However, a bureau should be criticised harshly if it accepts money from a client and makes promises when there is no reasonable expectation that it can satisfy those promises and often when it has no intention of doing so, or when it fails to honour its obligations to a client by providing an appropriate number of introductions. It is all too clear that some bureaux, as my hon. Friend has said, fail to honour those commitments and, quite shamefully and cruelly, exploit the vulnerable people who come to them.

It is difficult to tell how widespread the abuse is. Many people, as my hon. Friend says, are naturally too embarrassed or shy to admit that they have been to a bureau. The Director General tells me that, from the information he gathers and from information provided by local citizens' advice bureaux and local trading standards officers, only about 150 complaints are received. Many thousands are received about other consumer products, more of which, it is true, are consumed. I do not believe for one moment that the figures available reveal the extent of the problem.

The unsatisfactory marriage bureau is a problem that we should face. I do not believe, however—I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend—that it would be practicable or desirable at present to license them. I hope that the industry itself will follow up the suggestion of the Director General of Fair Trading that responsible agencies in the business should form a strong trade association. I am sure that the Director General would be glad to publish a satisfactory code.

Until a satisfactory code can be drawn up, those who are thinking of patronising a marriage bureau should follow the advice, to which my hon. Friend referred, given by Gordon Borne three years ago. First, consumers should obtain information about as many bureaux and agencies as possible and carefully compare what they promise. They should not sign anything until they are satisfied. They should study the small type and bear in mind that an offer of "up to six introductions" means what it says and does not mean that the consumer will receive at least six introductions. The consumer should be clear about what he is entitled to before he decides to spend his money.

Secondly, tempting though it may be to a lonely and often desperate person, the consumer should avoid letting his expectations rise too high. I realise that this is easier said than done. Thirdly, anyone who feels that he or she has had a bad deal should complain to the bureau. If it will not put things right, the consumer should go to the citizens' advice bureaux, a solicitor or a trading standards officer. In some cases, they are able to obtain redress without any publicity. I shall inquire of my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor to see whether secrecy of any subsequent proceedings might be considered.

Sometimes complaints, resolutely but confidentially pursued, will persuade the bureau to adopt different attitudes and avoid disappointments in the future. Above all, the existence of the complaints themselves will enable the Director General to assess the scale of the problem. I hope that the newspapers will publicise my hon. Friend's speech and also the advice that I have given to those considering using a bureau. The publicity will be justified if it persuades a few lonely people to think before they spend and a few dissatisfied clients to complain rather than to brood over the injustices they have suffered.

For my part, I can assure my hon. Friend that I propose to write to the Director General of Fair Trading drawing his attention to what has been said during this debate, so that he can take full account of the cases to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention, and to ask him whether it would be appropriate—I hope that it will be—for him to take any action in respect of them and, indeed, to reconsider the whole problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.