§ Order for Second Reading read.9.35 am
§ Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is the second time in four or five years that I have had the good fortune to come relatively high up in the ballot for private Members' Bills. As every hon. Member who enjoys such a position experiences, many suggestions are put to us. We have our own ideas, but on this occasion I did not take much persuading to settle for timeshare.
Like all hon. Members, over the years I have received a steady trickle of tales of distress, concern and anguish from constituents as a result of their experiences with the timeshare industry. It is not disputed that the ultimate solution to the problems surrounding timeshare lies within the European Community. The timeshare industry crosses national frontiers. An EC-wide solution is desirable and is very much on the cards. The assembly has produced a draft directive, the Commission has deliberated and the Council of Ministers is shortly to begin its consultation period. It will probably be two or even three years, however, before the European Community regulation is adopted by the Parliaments of the member states. It is desirable, therefore, that, at least for the time being, each member state should put its own house in order as much as it possibly can.
The purpose of the Bill is very simple. It is to require all sellers of timeshare within the United Kingdom, and in some circumstances sellers of timeshare outside the United Kingdom, to allow the buyer a minimum 14-day cooling-off period in which to change his mind. This is a development in consumer protection which, in my judgment, is long overdue.
Before I describe the detailed provisions of the Bill, it may help if I outline the background to it and describe in a little detail the mischief that it seeks to correct. May I make one point abundantly clear at the outset: the Bill is not an anti-timeshare measure. That is far from the case. I do not criticise timeshare as a product. I wish to put firmly on record my thanks to the Timeshare Council, its chairman, Mr. Tom Critchley, and its legal adviser, Mr. Colin Jenkins, for their immense help to me in preparing for this Second Reading debate. I fear that I have tried their patience and taxed their tolerance, but I am most grateful to them for their encouragement and help.
Timeshare is a perfectly respectable arrangement. The way that timeshare sales around the world have rocketed since the invention of the concept in the 1960s and 1970s bears witness to its popularity. It is a logical progression from the package holidays that became so popular at that time. Without any doubt, timeshare has brought happiness to many individuals and families. Many thousands of people are perfectly happy with their timeshare properties. But others are not, and the Bill seeks to address the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Some timeshare owners wish that they had never bought timeshare and at the time of doing so certainly were not properly aware of what they were doing. I have not found it easy to obtain definitive statistics on the size 563 of the United Kingdom's timeshare industry. The best advice that I have obtained suggests that about a quarter of a million people have become timeshare owners in the past four or five years, and the approximate rate of timeshare purchase is between 20,000 and 30,000 a year. Approximately 10,000 a year are sold in the United Kingdom under United Kingdom law.
I am sure that all hon. Members will have received at least one circular to tell us that we have won some mouth-watering prize—a car or a holiday in Florida—and that all we have to do is to attend a friendly holiday presentation. By a strange coincidence, I received such a card only two days ago. It makes interesting reading. It is addressed to my wife and me at our home address and it congratulates me on having been selected to receive two major awards. Apparently, I have come through to the third and final stage—that is the first that I knew of it—and I must win one of the two awards below: a Ford Fiesta, a laser personal computer, free holiday accommodation or even £1,000.
That side makes attractive reading. The smaller print on the back is worth looking at. It informs me that the company failed to contact me by telephone this week—that is not surprising as my number is ex-directory—and congratulates me on having been selected as a major award winner and tells me to telephone a number, which I have done and parliamentary constituency duties permitting, next week I shall attend this presentation. I am assured that no purchase is necessary. All I have to do is to sit through a two-hour presentation at "our holiday exhibition centre."
I shall go with eyes wide open and a cynical mind to see what happens, but many people are taken in by the glamour and the promises of prizes offered to them. Anyone who is optimistic or naive enough to succumb to that invitation—evidence shows that a surprising number do—is likely to be subjected to many hours of high-pressure sales techniques, sometimes, I am told, for up to seven hours, during which time every trick in the book will be used to persuade people to sign a contract. A number of people sign, only to regret doing so the moment they are free from the hard-sell atmosphere of that so-called presentation. By then, all too often, it is too late. They may have been assured at the presentation that the contract includes a cooling-off period, only to find that it does not. At best, they may be released from the contract only if they agree to sacrifice the deposit that undoubtedly will have been demanded from them. At worst, they may be locked into a contract that they do not want and cannot afford. Needless to say, the free gifts that lure people to the presentation often turn out to be considerably less valuable than they were made to appear and are subject to such conditions that they are not worth having. That is the heart of the problem.
No fewer than 10,000 complaints a year about timeshare have been made to local trading standards departments. That remarkably high figure is the equivalent of one for each contract signed, which is not the same as saying that everyone who signs a contract complains, because many of the complaints will have been made by people who attended presentations and left angry and bitter. Of that total of 10,000, about a third related to the 564 absence of a cooling-off period. All the evidence suggests, therefore, that a substantial proportion of United Kingdom purchasers of timeshare regret their purchase.
It may be argued that such people have only themselves to blame. If they are foolish or greedy enough to be taken in by obviously bogus offers of valuable prizes and too weak-willed to resist sales pressure, why, it may be asked, should the law step in to help them? The argument runs that people must be prepared to take the consequences of their actions and that it is not the province of the law to save them from themselves.
Caveat emptor is a sound principle. As a general proposition, I have much sympathy with that line of argument, but in the context of timeshare it is wrong. In too many cases the behaviour of timeshare companies has been unethical almost to the point of being fraudulent. That is not a situation to which the law can or should remain indifferent. There is no equality of bargaining power between the gullible who are ensnared by timeshare advertising and the sophisticated techniques and sales methods employed by timeshare companies. The simple proposition underpinning the Bill is that if the unscrupulous take advantage of the vulnerable, the law should step in.
The principle of a cooling-off period is well established. It features in three specific areas of consumer protection —doorstep selling, life insurance and consumer credit. There is, therefore, nothing new in the principle of what is proposed in the Bill.
In concept, the Bill is simple. Basically, it contains one provision—a 14-day cooling-off period—for timeshare contracts and timeshare credit contracts. Although it is simple in concept, the Bill is lengthy. It contains 13 clauses and a schedule and seems to have grown almost week by week recently. There are a number of reasons for its being relatively lengthy. First, it is necessary to make its provisions watertight against evasion by the unscrupulous. Let us not be in any doubt that the Bill deals with some very unscrupulous people. Secondly, it is necessary to include provision for enforcement, which inevitably is lengthy because if one is creating a criminal offence one must spell out precisely what it is and what defences are available against it. Thirdly, many timeshare agreements are accompanied by credit agreements to finance them—credit that may be advanced by finance houses with close links with the timeshare company. It would be of little help to the disillusioned purchaser if he were able to cancel his timeshare agreement only to find that he could not cancel the associated financial agreement. Provision for cancelling associated finance agreements, therefore, must also be made and is to be found in the Bill.
Clause 1 consists of definitions. It defines the contracts to which the Bill would apply. Hon. Members may like to note that it would apply to any contract governed by United Kingdom law, whether or not it was made in the United Kingdom or abroad, and also to any contract where one of the parties was located in the United Kingdom, whether or not the law of the contract was that of the United Kingdom. The latter point is perhaps more important than it may seem at first because many timeshare contracts specify that they are to be governed by non-United Kingdom law-the Isle of Man law in particular and, to a slightly lesser extent, that of the Channel Islands. Timeshare companies will not be able to use that as a device to get around the provisions. 565 It has been suggested that the Bill should go further and should specify that, even if neither of the parties to a timeshare contract is located in the United Kingdom and the contract is not made under United Kingdom law, United Kingdom courts should nevertheless not enforce such a contract unless it contains a cooling-off period. I understand that point and the Bill provides two main ideas for debate. The first involves the length of the cooling-off period and the second involves the question of jurisdiction.
Hon. Members may wish to raise the question of jurisdiction and I am sure that if the Bill reaches its Committee stage we shall return to it. I stress that I have an open mind on that question. I understand those who seek the widest possible jurisdiction, but attempts to widen the Bill's jurisdiction raise a number of jurisdictional difficulties. I am prepared to consider suggestions, but I am advised to say now that it may not be possible for the Bill to deal with extra-United Kingdom contracts which have been entered into.
Clause 1 also defines what is meant by timeshare, be it timeshare accommodation, timeshare rights, a timeshare agreement or a timeshare credit arrangement. It is of course a complex and technical part of the Bill and is intended to ensure that the Bill does not inadvertently catch transactions such as leases, student lets or repeat holiday bookings which are not timeshares. I was especially mindful of the dangers of ensnaring student lets, hence the stress in the Bill of a period of not less than three years which should eliminate that difficulty.
Clauses 2 and 3 are the meat of the Bill. Clause 2 lays an obligation on anyone who sells timeshare by way of business—the offerer in the language of the Bill. He or she must give the purchaser—the offeree—notice of his right to cancel the agreement before the agreement is made. Clause 2 also makes it a criminal offence not to do so. The cooling-off period must be specified in the notice. It must be at least 14 days from the day the agreement is made.
Clause 3 parallels clause 2. It contains provisions for timeshare credit agreements with one important difference. Failure to provide notice of cancellation rights in this case will not be a criminal offence. The main reason for that difference in treatment is that no criminal offence is created under the cooling-off provisions of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. Therefore, it would be hard to justify adopting a stricter approach for the purchasers of timeshares alone.
It is fair to say that the need for a cooling-off period is now widely and generally acknowledged. The debate is about how long that period should be. The greater the reluctance to acknowledge the need for a cooling-off period, the shorter the period advocated. I certainly understand why some of the most reputable sellers of timeshare argue powerfully that a seven-day period would be adequate. Conversely, in the debate within the European Community some people have championed an upper end of 28 days and some favoured 21. The draft directive has both—a 14-day cooling-off period for "home" contracts and a 28-day period for "away" contracts.
I have not arbitrarily plumped for 14 days. The basis of that decision was a desire to follow the length of time recommended by the Director General of Fair Trading in his 1990 report on timeshare and 14 days is now consistent with EC thinking. No doubt the debate will be continued in Committee. I believe that the onus of proof lies with 566 those who believe that the Director General of Fair Trading's recommendation is wrong, but I have an open mind.
Clause 4 contains certain supplementary provisions to clauses 2 and 3. The offeree has no cancellation rights if he is acting in the course of business. A blank notice of cancellation must accompany a notice of cancellation rights. That notice must be in such form as may be prescribed. Agreements are not invalidated by contravention of clauses 2 and 3. The latter provision is to enable the purchaser to continue to enforce the agreement if he wishes to do so. It does not, of course, affect his cancellation rights.
Clauses 5 and 6 make provision for the purchaser's right to cancel a timeshare agreement or timeshare finance agreement respectively. The basic right is contained in subsection (1) of both clauses. The intention—the policy objective, as it were—of clause 5 is to ensure that all timeshare buyers have a right to a 14-day cooling-off period and that not being aware of that right should not deprive the consumer of the ability to exercise it. Thus, under subsections (2) and (3) a timeshare purchaser may cancel the agreement at any time if he was not informed of his right to cancel when the agreement was made unless he affirmed it and demonstrated in some way after 14 days had elapsed from the date of the agreement that he was happy with it and intended to stand by it. That basic right is contained in subsection (1) of both clauses.
Subsection (2) extends the right of cancellation indefinitely if the purchaser has not been notified of his rights, but that is subject to subsection (3) which states that if the purchaser affirms the agreement after 14 days he loses his cancellation rights even if he has been notified of them. What constitutes affirmation would, in the last resort, be for the courts to decide, but, basically it means that the purchaser loses his right to cancel if by a positive action he has made it perfectly clear that he is happy with the agreement.
The two clauses are similarly worded up to and including subsection (4) of each of them and then they diverge. For technical and legal reasons, there is no equivalent of clause 5(5) in clause 6. The remainder of each clause makes provision for what happens after the agreement is cancelled. Basically, the purchaser is entitled to the return of any deposit or other moneys that he may have paid, but in the case of a contract agreement the position is complicated by the fact that three parties may be involved—the timeshare company, the finance company and the purchaser.
The consequences of cancellation are, therefore, set out in more detail in clause 7. Except for necessary changes of wording, clause 7 is identical to subsections (1) to (3) of section 71 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. Clause 7(1) spells out the consequences of the exercise of cancellation rights under that Act. It is therefore clearly important that the provisions of the Bill should march in parallel with the broader legislation on consumer agreements.
Clause 7(1) ensures that the Bill covers the situation in which a credit agreement is part of a timeshare agreement and the situation in which such an agreement is free standing. Subsection (2) relieves the purchaser of any liability for interest if he repays the credit promptly. Subsection (3) relieves the offeree of his liability to repay the credit unless the offerer or creditor makes a request in writing. 567 The rest of the Bill contains standard and technical provisions. Clauses 8 to 11 are standard provisions regarding enforcement and are drawn more or less word for word from the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991. Clause 8 allows timeshare sellers a due diligence offence in the event of failure to provide the purchaser with a cooling-off notice and places certain conditions on the defendant if he wishes to claim that his omission was due to false information or the fault of another.
Clause 9 makes it possible to prosecute employees of timeshare companies in appropriate circumstances, and renders directors and managers of bodies corporate or members of partnerships in Scotland liable if an offence is committed.
Clause 10 draws up the enforcement schedule, clause 11 lays down time limits for prosecutions, and clause 12 contains a number of general provisions which are grouped together for convenience. Subsection (1) makes it clear that a cancellation notice does not have to be in a prescribed form to be effective. Subsections (2) and (5) are designed to ensure compatibility with the Consumer Credit Act 1974. Subsection (3) allows for notices of cancellation getting lost in the post, or for timeshare companies claiming that they have been. Subsection (4) is important as it ensures that the purchaser cannot sign away his right to cancel. Subsection (6) contains certain necessary definitions, and subsections (7) and (8) contain the necessary order-making powers. Clause 13 contains the short title and provides for entry into force and application in Northern Ireland.
The enforcement schedule contains standard provisions laying a duty of enforcement on local authority trading standards departments and on the Department of Economic Development in Northern Ireland. It also gives powers regarding the production and seizure of documents and of information stored in computers. It would be an offence to obstruct enforcement. There are the usual provisions regarding confidentiality and self-incrimination.
The Bill is targeted at a specific mischief which has gone too long unchecked. It is not intended to deal with all the problems that have arisen from the growth of the timeshare industry: that is beyond the scope of a private Member's Bill. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will touch on that point when he speaks later. However, the Bill will do much to stop the exploitation of vulnerable people.
§ Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Bill applies not only to those who sell a timeshare in the first instance, but to those who own a timeshare and who then wish to sell it on?
§ Mr. Hunter
I believe that such an application would move beyond the immediate specifications of the Bill. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point and it may be possible for my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on it.
§ Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)
I give an example on that very point. Under the Consumer Credit Act 1974, one buys a product and there is a cooling-off period. That is one thing. If one then wants to resell that product privately, that is a quite different thing. If the 568 point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) was included in the Bill, many of us would find it difficult to support it.
§ Mr. Hunter
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that contribution. He is far more expert on these matters than many of us are.
I stress that the Bill will, I hope, do much to stop the exploitation of vulnerable people by organisations whose sales methods have reached a level of unscrupulousness which renders them a proper target for the criminal law. It is time for Parliament to call a halt to these practices. I therefore ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 10.4 am
§ Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)
I fully support the Bill and I congratulate the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) on introducing it. As he outlined, there are timeshare companies that operate in this country and overseas which have brought great pleasure and happiness to many people. In our day-to-day involvement in our constituencies we all meet people who have such timeshares. One chats to people who say that they are going to their timeshare, perhaps in Europe. Such people enjoy their timeshares and wish to keep them. I am sure that no hon. Member wishes to restrict such companies. We often say in debates in the House, "If only all companies acted like the well-run companies do, there would be no need for legislation." As the hon. Member for Basingstoke has pointed out, that is sadly not the case.
From time to time cases come to our attention. I am sure that all of us sometimes try to think what our attitude would be if we were in the position of a constituent who comes to our advice service and says, "I am in hellish trouble. What do I now do?" In our everyday life, we think about something and we may enter a contract. One gets home and starts to think about it. One thinks, "Is it really a wise thing to do?"
What concerns me so much about many timeshare companies is that a person may in all sincerity enter an agreement. He may go home and, away from the heavy-handed pressure, sit down with his family and think, "Am I wise to carry on with this? No, before I get into deep financial trouble, I will cancel." When he seeks to cancel, even in a matter of days, he starts to realise just what the problems are.
A constituent came to see me and explained in detail that he had entered a timeshare with a company operating in the Isle of Man on 13 April. He wrote to the company on 17 April to say that, having sat down and thought matters through, he felt that he must cancel. He said that if the company was involved in expenses because he had cancelled, he fully realised that he might be liable to pay some of the expense.
On 20 April, the company concerned wrote back and said:We are in receipt of your letter dated 17 April 1991 and comment as follows. You have signed a legally binding agreement from which neither yourselves nor the company can withdraw. It is clearly stated in the disclosure statement duly signed by yourself. Therefore, we expect your balance prior to 13 April to be paid as quickly as possible.One can well understand a person's worry when he receives such a letter. One thinks, "What is going to happen to me?" I am sure that all of us have often heard people wonder what their chances would be against a big company which has good legal advice available to it. 569 People think of the possible court action and financial involvement and decide to continue with the contract, however difficult that may be.
Companies that apply pressure tactics ought to think, "This person is putting us to some inconvenience and expense—and we shall certainly seek to get the expense that we have incurred back from him—but it is to his credit that he has told us at a very early stage that he has had second thoughts and cannot continue with the agreement."
It was after my constituent received that letter in April that I became involved in the case. I wrote to the company on 5 July last year:Can I say to you I will await your reply, but if it is not a reply that accepts that Mr. and Mrs. Mathison no longer wish to pursue this Timeshare with your organisation, I will raise the matter on the floor of the British House of Commons and also circulate it to all the British Newspapers outlining the tactics that your Company follow.
We in the House have privileges and can raise on the Floor of the House any case in which we feel a constituent has been treated unfairly. In doing so, we are safeguarded against possible legal action by the company. Although we have that right—and rightly so—we can exercise it only if, as in the case of the gentleman to whom I referred, our constituents come to see us. There must be a lot of people who, for whatever reason, do not say to themselves, "I'll go and see my Member of Parliament and see what he can do." If people come and see us, we can not only write to the company but—let us not mince words here—place it under some kind of threat. We can say, "My constituent has rethought. He realises that you may have incurred some expense that he has an obligation to meet, but he is now asking to be released from the contract." But we all know what the final outcome can be if the company does not wish to release a person from the contract and if he does not see his Member of Parliament. That is why the Bill is so welcome.
The hon. Member for Basingstoke explained the clauses in detail. I realise that other hon. Members have a legal background and may rightly wish to refer to legal aspects of the Bill. I have dealt with other cases, but that to which I referred really annoyed me. My constituents had quickly said that they had had second thoughts, but that they would willingly pay any money that they owed, yet, within a day or two, the company adopted the heavy-handed tactic of threatening legal action if they did not keep to the contract that they had signed. Because of that, the provision in which I am most interested is that for a cooling-off period. I think that it would be fair to allow 21 days. If I were organising a timeshare company, I should certainly be prepared to allow people 21 days in which to have second thoughts. Like everything else, however, we can discuss that in Committee.
Timeshare organisations should welcome the Bill. Only the very dubious companies will raise any objections to it. I am sure that the Bill will receive widespread support not only in the House but throughout the country.
The hon. Member for Basingstoke referred to European Community legislation. We all know—whether we support the EC or not—that its procedures move very slowly. I am a member of our delegation to the Council of Europe, and have been for many years. The Council has not discussed this subject, but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the Council of Europe is a much larger organisation than the EC, with more than 20 members, and it might 570 help if the hon. Gentleman consulted the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe and asked whether one of the committees might discuss such action. I must say that I do not know offhand which committee would do that, but it might help to broaden the debate to other European countries with which we have close associations and so further the Bill's objectives.
§ Mr. Hunter
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that suggestion. I acknowledge that that possibility had not occurred to me, but it is certainly one which could properly be explored.
§ Mr. Cox
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I would certainly do all that I could to support such European action, as, I am sure, would other members of our delegation. It could also be pursued through the friendships that we build up with representatives of the other member states.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the Bill, which I am sure many people will wholeheartedly welcome. As always, there will be a certain amount of sadness, and people will wish that it had been in existence a year or two ago. Unfortunately, that is life. The Bill will be welcomed by good timeshare companies and will protect people from any bad companies which, whatever legislation is in place, will try to find avenues by which to exploit people. The hon. Gentleman is doing us a service in trying to protect those people and I hope that the Bill will proceed to Committee with Government support and will shortly become law.
§ Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)
I wish to make a short speech in enthusiastic support of my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) and his Bill. Experience of the constituency problem that lies behind the Bill must be common to every hon. Member, but I am wearing a second hat and I want to make it plain that my opening remarks do not apply to particular constituency cases with which I am dealing at the moment.
Both my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) have made it clear that many, if not most, people who go in for timesharing are entirely satisfied. But there are areas that are certainly grey and, in some cases, I think, actually black. In many cases, there is no first prize. In others, people who go to a timeshare presentation find that what they get at the end is of negligible value and may almost be rubbish.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke will take the opportunity—even if he has other pressing engagements—to go to the presentation. If I were he I would send a copy of today's Hansard before me. That might help him to get a good prize and would certainly ensure that he was properly looked after. My hon. Friend might also like to ask one or two questions— I would certainly like to ask them—such as, "How many people did you write to saying that they had won the first prize?" The companies cannot say that they do not know; they must have records of that. How many times was each of those persons telephoned? The organisations must keep a record or how would they know whom they had telephoned? I strongly suspect that one could more readily get an answer from Kevin Maxwell about what happened to the pension fund than an answer to either of those two questions. 571 Before my hon. Friend leaves that meeting, he should tell the company that the next time that it is about to send him a happy card saying that he has won, it should telephone the House of Commons. That might mean that my hon. Friend will not lose the chance of £1,000 or a motor car.
I am also aware that, sadly, legal proceedings abroad can be extremely difficult. I shall not make invidious remarks about which countries are involved, but we all read the newspapers and know perfectly well that it is often extremely difficult to enforce contracts abroad. I would be the first to accept that complaints could be made about the British courts, but, my goodness, the delays in some continental courts are excessive.
Constituency problems relating to timeshare are common to us all. I need say no more than that my hon. Friend's Bill seeks to remedy a grave grievance. The old, pensioners and the inexperienced are often pressurised into taking out timeshares which all sides recognise that often they cannot afford. My hon. Friend's 14-day provision is splendid and necessary.
I put my concluding remarks to both Front Benches equally and do not seek to make party points, because I shall not be here after the next election. We all recognise the low chance of this Bill reaching the statute book—not because of its merits, but because of time. I very much hope that whichever party forms the next Government, it will not leave the introduction of such a Bill to a Back Bencher, but will take the chance to make sure that this Bill—or something similar—is put on the statute book as quckly as possible.
§ Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) on introducing his Bill. He said that he has been fortunate in the ballot twice in the past four or five years. If I am as lucky as that in the 30 or so years that I expect to be a Member of the House, I shall count myself very lucky.
We are familiar with the concept of timeshare. After all, this place runs on chunks of time—each chunk lasting up to five years. However, far from having any cooling-off period, we tend to have hotting-up periods.
The concept of timeshare is useful and has been around for some years. The idea is basically that people would like the use of a "property", in broadly defined terms, only at certain times, for a particular length of time and for certain purposes, but cannot afford to buy the whole thing all at once. One type of timeshare involves a holiday property in a different place or a different country.
There are also fishing timeshares which cause considerable concern in some areas, especially Scotland. Particular lengths of river are offered for sale on a timeshare basis. The times of year when the fishing can be expected to be particularly good are offered at a much higher price, with other times of the year being offered at a lower price. However, allegations have been made about certain types of behaviour in timeshare areas that do not reflect well on the owners. The allegations include intensive fishing for a season or two before the timeshares are offered for sale—the idea being that if a bad fishing record can be disguised as a good one, the timeshare can be sold for a much higher amount. The fishing methods used 572 during those intensive periods are sometimes highly questionable. Moreover, local people sometimes find that they are denied rights that they and their families had been used to for perhaps several generations. It is almost traditional on some rivers for local people to be able to fish a river after the fishing proper has ended at 5.30 pm or 6 o'clock. However, they are often no longer permitted to do that on the beats where timeshares have been sold. I know that that causes a considerable feeling of grievance.
I suggest that my hon. Friend also considers business timeshares. Some people always come to this country at a particular time of year for business purposes. They might find it extremely useful to know for certain that they could have the use of a particular office in a certain part of London or elsewhere for a certain period.
Most people are rosy-eyed when buying a timeshare. They do not seem to realise that there is a sting in the tail, and that that sting is the management or service charge. Some people feel that having paid so much money for the timeshare itself, that is an end to their liability, but that is not the case. Places have to be run, managed, serviced and maintained—and that costs money. Sometimes people do not realise that they will be billed for the provision of those services from time to time—and that those bills can sometimes be very large and can come as an unpleasant surprise. People must realise that those charges will have to be paid.
It is not only those who buy the timeshares who sometimes feel that they are being stung by the management charges. Unscrupulous operators can use the pretext of the management charges to level inordinately high and extortionate service charges. The bills are often ill-defined, showing little or no detail. The demands are often rudely termed, with threats being made against those who own the timeshares.
Another type of timeshare shark will sell off as many timeshares as possible and then disappear, leaving the property to those who own the timeshares so that they will have to carry out the management themselves. That happens simply because the original offerer cannot be bothered to run the property himself.
I do not want to give the impression that all timeshare operators are sharks—far from it; they are not. However, it is unfortunate that sharks have entered the pool. Of course, there are sharks in every form of business or commercial endeavour, but this pool has rather a lot. They operate in very shady ways, dangling what appears to be enticing bait before the noses of those whom they wish to persuade to enter timeshare agreements. We have heard examples of that today. We have heard about people who have been told that they have won a wonderful first prize and that all they have to do is to collect it. When they arrive to collect it, the place may well be a tacky little den in a damp basement where they are subjected to hard-sell techniques. Once their signature is on the dotted line, they will have to conform to the contract and they then find that what they were told was a wonderful prize is just a mirage.
I raise the case of a constituent, Mr. Raymond Swingler, who recently wrote to me about a timeshare in which he is involved. With permission, I will go into the case in some detail because it illustrates a great deal of what has been said in the debate. He wrote:Dear Mr. Summerson,573I enclose for your consideration a breakdown of events surrounding the forfeiture towards the end of last year of a timeshare week owned by me.As at the time I was under the misapprehension I had paid my annual maintenance fee—the point upon which forfeiture was exercised—I was completely unaware of my loss of this £5000-odd week until I attempted to exchange it for another week with an international exchange company.My attempts to remedy the matter and reclaim my week were to no avail. Accordingly, as the resort had failed completely to even alert me my maintenance fee was in arrear for some six months after the date of invoice, and then failed equally completely to contact me when it began exercising its forfeiture procedures, in spite of having access to my address, I find its procedures to be totally defective in dealing with other people's property.I would welcome your assistance, as your constituent, and that of others, including the Office of Fair Trading, with concern over timeshare practices to help me recover, or be properly compensated for, the loss of my property.
The details are as follows:On 1 February 91 1 was invoiced for an annual maintenance fee of £169.12.In mid-December 91, while attempting to exchange my ownership of this particular week for another week I was advised by the exchange company I no longer owned the week in question. I checked"—
with the resort—to he told by its manager that in accordance with owners' club rules my week had been forfeited for non-payment of the maintenance fee and had reverted to the ownership of the club with no recompense due to me.Certain I had paid the maintenance fee I checked my invoices to see the invoice marked 'paid'. The resort said it had no record of receiving payment. Further checking with my accountant confirmed that I had not paid the sum due.When I pointed out to the resort I had never seen a copy of any club constitution giving members power to forfeit weeks, nor had I received any notification of non-payment, I was told that on the first count I should have received a copy of the club's constitution with my purchase, and on the second three reminders had been sent out, and none replied to.I replied I had received none of these: indeed the resort's last communication received by me was notice of the AGM on 21 May. This was received via a one year forwarding arrangement with the Post Office following my change of address in the middle of 1990. For this purpose I used my Press Council address at Salisbury Square, London, later to become the Press Complaints Commission. The resort's response was that it was my responsibility to keep it informed of any change of address; mine was that it had this, a continuing facsimile number on my personal letterheaded paper. The resort admitted it had this number on file.I told the resort that when I bought my week as a resale, no club constitution had come with the sale deed. Nor had I received any notification of non-payment of my maintenance fee.The resort said its final reminder had been sent by recorded delivery, although it had no record on file of doing this. Finally I was sent the copies of correspondence warning me of the penalties of non-payment of maintenance fee—the first on 4 August, some six months after the invoice was sent, the second on 4 September telling me forfeiture would take place on 20 September unless payment was made. A final letter, sent on 2 October, confirmed this had been done.Within weeks the owners' club committee had sold the timeshare week, although it would not tell me for how much, or to whom. That said, the buyer used it immediately to book with the exchange company.
My points are:
I have gone into the case in considerable detail because it raises several points about exactly why the timeshare industry needs to be regulated.
- (1) As the resort is run by an owners' club with draconian forfeiture rules (uncompensated repossession) adequate steps should be taken with each new owner to ensure he or she is aware of the club rules;
- (2) Six weeks to accomplish forfeiture with only two warning letters on a six month old invoice is improper;
- (3) Steps taken to find me as the registered owner were woefully inadequate;
- (4) My mail address was operative until 30 June 1991, my facsimile number remains operative today;
- (5) That to tell me that matter was closed, the timeshare week sold without recompense as I had failed to comply with club rules, but that the matter would be reported to the owners' committee, was a woefully inadequate way to deal with my complaint.
- (6) I have now lodged the outstanding maintenance fee with my solicitors. Now I want either my week returned to me, or compensation paid at the full retail price of the week taken from me, together with the additional £42 I had to pay the exchange company for my alternative week, and solicitors and general costs reimbursed."
I put those points to the resort in question and it replied:We would respectfully point out that"—the resorthas a constitution with which we expect all owners to abide.In so far as Management Fees are concerned there is a forfeiture clause in the event of non-payment of the management charge on the due date and we would refer to paragraph 9.11 and 9.12.Invoices were initially mailed in February 1991 and reminders were sent including two by recorded delivery, these were in fact returned marked gone away.We did not receive any communication from Mr. Swingler and as a result the forfeiture took place.We now understand that when Mr. Swingler purchased his timeshare from a third party, not direct from us, he did not receive a copy of the constitution from the seller.We have now been informed that Mr. Swingler had changed his address. There is a clause in the constitution paragraph 14.7 which gives owners an obligation to notify the committee and the management company forthwith of any change in the permanent address.Now that we are aware of the circumstances we have already advised Mr. Swingler and his solicitor that the matter will be discussed at the committee meeting on 13 February.In view of that letter, I have decided not to name the particular resort at present. I hope that it will come to the right conclusion and that my constituent will be compensated for what has happened. As I have said, his case shows the need for regulation of the industry.
I have one or two suggestions. First, to obviate this sort of difficulty, a timeshare register should be set up, showing the lengths of term, all the various conditions that must be complied with and so on, so that when people buy a timeshare they can refer to it for all the details. Secondly, as I suggested in an intervention in my hon. Friend's speech, the Bill should include all timeshares offered for resale. Otherwise, not only will what happened to my constituent continue to happen, but unscrupulous operators—sharks—may well find a way round the Bill's provisions by selling timeshares to their nominees in compliance with the Bill and those nominees will be able to sell the rights without having to comply with the Bill's provisions.
I again congratulate my hon. Friend on his wise choice of Bill. This matter is of concern to us all. The case that I have raised is not by any means the only one of which I am aware. People need to be protected from those who indulge in hard-sell techniques. They need time to be able to talk things over with friends and family. They should have the right to decide whether they are doing the right thing. They should also have the opportunity to seek further details.
People outlay considerable sums of money on timeshares. They should have the right to possess and 575 enjoy their property and it should be a considerable asset to them. It should be a source of enjoyment. It should not become something that causes distress, anxiety and worry.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) on introducing the Bill.
This problem has been kicking around for a long time and people have always said, "You really think someone would do something about this." The issue has been around a lot longer than the Government, though, even given the continuous term of office enjoyed by the Conservative Government, we are not yet into our first youth. I am sure that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) would agree that we have many more consecutive years of Conservative government to come.
It is difficult to identify precisely what one should do something about. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke had some difficulty when drafting the Bill, because it is extremely complex. Even the notes on clauses that I received are complex.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) made an interesting speech and brought to our attention a case which encapsulates one of the difficulties surrounding this issue. It is obvious that my hon. Friend's constituent has been robbed by a timeshare company, but that case is complicated and it would be difficult to deal with it, whatever the legislation.
While I was listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, I asked myself why on earth people would want to buy a timeshare in the first place. I accept that many people enjoy their timeshares. However, whenever I have got an invitation to take up a timeshare and whenever I have examined company stands at various exhibitions, which extol the virtues of timeshare, I have come to the conclusion that it is jolly expensive and a rotten deal. It always seems to me that those timeshares are sold by people who would make me count the fingers on my hand after I had shaken hands with them.
If one has a few thousand pounds, or several thousand pounds, to spend on one's holiday accommodation, timeshare is by far the worst option. I am a member of the council of the Caravan Club and if anyone is thinking of spending a few thousand pounds they could do no better than to buy a caravan. They could then tow it to the place that they wanted to holiday at, because, unlike timeshares, one can go from one place to another. One is not stuck with the same boring place year after year.
I am perplexed as to why anyone would want to buy a timeshare, but I accept that some people enjoy it and find the arrangements advantageous. It would be interesting to know, however, whether the majority of people who have bought such timeshares enjoy them. If people admitted their innermost thoughts, I wonder whether they would say, "Well, I am stuck with it now, so I'll grin and bear it." Such is the great English, and Scottish, stoicism.
The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) revealed a lot about this problem when he said. "If I were running a timeshare company". One of the problems is that people such as the hon. Gentleman are most unlikely to run such a company. What makes some people go into that business? Is it a wish to provide wonderful holidays for 576 people? Do they want to improve people's quality of life and to widen their experience? On balance, probably not. Are they the sort of people who run local charities or make big donations to local good causes? On balance, probably not. In general, I believe that those who run such companies—no doubt I shall receive many letters of complaint from those in the business—are from the grubbier end of the business community. I believe that they want to make a big buck and that they do not give a damn about the service they give.
Every week when we discuss private Member's Bills we receive many letters that explain what a particular Bill means. We have all had many letters about the Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill, which we are to discuss next week, but then we always get a lot of letters about subjects relating to animals. Whatever the Bill, we always receive letters of serious intent from those involved in a business who believe that it could constrain their business by accident. Such people set out their objections in a logical manner. They explain why a certain Bill should not be passed or why, after further consideration, it should be amended.
I do not know about other hon. Members, but I have not received a single letter from anyone in the timeshare business to explain why they believe that the Bill is wrong. Do they all agree with it. or are they keeping their heads down? I suspect that the latter is the case. As they say, "If you are in a hole, you should stop digging." I suspect that those who run the timeshare companies have decided that, with a short parliamentary Session, they hope to goodness that the Bill does not reach the statute book. I believe that they have decided on a policy of, "Let's keep our names out of it, thank you very much."
I am sure that there are legitimate operators in the business, but it is beholden on them to contact hon. Members to explain their views on the Bill. Those legitimate operators and developers presumably have some ideas that could be included in the Bill to toughen it so that it has the desired effect. With their experience I am sure that we could make the Bill much better. People who work in an industry are able to tell us about its foibles. They can help us to make that industry work better, because they know who the crooks are and where the bodies are buried.
I was fascinated by what my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke said about the invitation to a presentation that he received from a timeshare company. My wife and I decided to go along to a presentation one evening, but she was heavily pregnant and had the baby on the day that we were due to go to the presentation.
§ Mr. Hughes
Yes, it was first prize—a magnificent baby.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke bravely went to such a presentation, but he is not the first hon. Member to do so. As hon. Members will be aware, I had the honour to be Parliamentary Private Secretary for two years to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), the former Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend received such an invitation—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South, who keeps up with such issues as shadow spokesman on consumer affairs, will remember this incident. 577 My right hon. Friend received a letter to say that he had won a new car. He thought that that was "jolly good" and "marvellous". He went along to claim it and a startled receptionist found—I was about to describe my right hon. Friend as curmudgeonly, but that would be a disgraceful description and I ask for that to be deleted from Hansard—a stoical former Prime Minister of this country demanding his Ford Fiesta.
"I have a letter saying that I have won a car. I want it. When shall I get it? I need not drive it away now, but I want to be sure that I shall get it," demanded my right hon. Friend. I do not know whether he ended up with the customary plastic imitation set of Florence Nightingale teeth.
I am no lawyer and I try not to be a barrack room lawyer, but when I read the documents I am almost convinced that a specific offer is being made. The letter says, "You have won a car" or a television set, a marvellous holiday or something else. But I do not know one person who has ever received such an article.
Perhaps the timeshare industry will provide us with the names and addresses of people who have won cars. Let us see the bills of sale for the purchase of the cars and other objects. Let us be told who got the television sets, video recorders and the rest. The whole thing is a complete scam and the timeshare industry knows it. It is about time people were made aware of what is going on.
The cooling-off period is the most important part of the Bill. Salesmen can be extremely persuasive. I can claim a bit of a record in the matter. Whenever I go to buy a car —indeed, when I buy virtually anything—the article always seems to be in short supply. "No guv, you won't get a discount on that. It's in very short supply just now," I am told. When I come to sell it I am then told, "Can't give you a lot for that. Nobody wants it now." I am a sucker when it comes to such matters. I never get a discount and I always seem to sell whatever it is for half of what it is worth.
§ Mr. Hughes
I do not have one, but I have always wanted a Trabant. I am told that they are very good cars.
When people come under heavy sales pressure, many of them will give way to it. Having been browbeaten or killed with cream—soft soaped for several hours—some people will sign documents and only later reflect, "What have I done?" So a cooling-off period is vital, and I was appalled by the case that was brought to our attention by the hon. Member for Tooting. The attitude of the sharks is incredible when they simply say, "You have signed this legal agreement. You are bound by it."
Many other areas of consumer protection revolve around a cooling-off period. I understand that it is impossible for a salesperson to come to one's door, make one sign an agreement and make it stick, without there being a cooling-off period. That is true of credit agreements and financial transactions, certainly those involving the banks.
§ Mr. Hughes
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for drawing that to my attention. I recall reading such details when filling in forms for loans to purchase articles. That 578 being so, why should it not apply to timeshares? As we know that browbeating goes on, we must ensure that there is a cooling-off period.
I have made my views known about the quality of the product that the timeshare industry is offering, but I repeat what others have said about the measure not being an attack on the product. If it is good and people want it, they are entitled to buy it. I suppose that 1 am a Conservative rather than a socialist because I do not believe that I know better than people know what they want, and if people want to buy a timeshare product, it is a matter for them.
§ Mr. Hughes
I am sorry if the Opposition Whip thinks I was making a cheap shot. It was not intended as such. What I said is accepted by many people as being the difference between the philosophies of the two parties. I have no right to say what people should or should not buy or what they will or will not enjoy. If people want to buy this—or any other product—let us protect those who go to examine it, some of whom get caught in the net.
Clause 11(1)(a) givesthe end of the period of three years beginning with the date of the commission of the offence
as the cut-off point. But it goes on:(b) the end of the period of one year beginning with the date of the discovery of the offence by the prosecutor, whichever is the earlier.That is confusing, though I appreciate that it can be looked into in Committee. One year is not necessarily a long period in this context, and I suspect that it might have been too short a time scale in the case to which my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow referred.
I hope that clause 12 will operate as broadly as the wording indicates, particularly in relation to cancellation, when it says;a notice of cancellation of an agreement is a notice (however expressed) showing that the offeree wishes unconditionally to cancel the agreement.The important point about that provision is that the form of the notice will not affect its validity. I take that to mean that if one writes to the company in an unambiguous way stating, "I wish to cancel the agreement. I do not wish to be bound by it any longer," that will be sufficient to stop the process in its tracks.
§ Mr. Summerson
I may be anticipating what my hon. Friend is about to say, but if he examines clause 12(3) he will see that it says:For the purposes of this Act, if the offeree sends a notice by post in a properly addressed and pre-paid letter the notice is to be treated as given at the time of posting.While the object of that is to confer almost a privilege on the offeree, how is the offeree to prove that the letter was actually posted? The subsection should state that there must be proof of posting, remembering that such proof is easy to obtain.
§ Mr. Hughes
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. We need to say precisely what must be done to ensure that the agreement has been cancelled, and that action must be within the reach of an ordinary person. Hon. Members become used to reading quite complicated documents, but legal agreements can be extremely complicated. I have read some of them several times before understanding what they mean. Anyone who has filled out a claim for child benefit will know how immensely complicated the 579 process is. I believe that I should not be criticising that. It is a wonderful form, possibly the best form I have ever seen. That is another change that I wish I could make to the Official Report.
If somebody knows what should be done and sends a letter saying, "I cancel the agreement", and there is proof of the letter having been sent, that person should be satisfied in his or her mind—more especially, everybody else should be satisfied—that any claim to the contrary would be thrown out by the courts. People must be sure that they are achieving what they intended and that the agreement exists no longer.
I hope that the Bill reaches the statute book, and I am sure that it will receive the support of the Opposition. I hope that we are able to enact the legislation in this necessarily short Session of Parliament. There may be legal complications or changes that the parliamentary draftsmen and officials in the Department of Trade and Industry wish to make. However, that should not take terribly long and I hope that within a short time, the Bill will be discussed in Committee, pass to the House of Lords, return here and be placed on the statute book before the general election, whenever that may be.
§ Mr. Hughes
The Opposition Whip appears to know the date of the general election. He obviously has inside information. I know that the Prime Minister is friendly and willing to reveal his innermost thoughts, but I did not realise that he did so to the Opposition Whips Office.
Everyone who listens to or reads about the debate—I hope that many people will do so—should realise that any law that we pass cannot prevent a fool and his or her money from being parted. People should keep that fact in the forefront of their minds when thinking about purchasing a timeshare. Prospective purchasers are putting up a lot of their money, and other people want to deprive them of it—we have heard of such cases today.
The value of Friday debates such as this is that they are widely reported. We are discussing an important matter which is not normally reported on the front pages of newspapers or chosen as the lead item in television and radio bulletins. But it gains substantial coverage on radio and television, which is reflected in newspaper reports, when debated here. I hope that many people will hear or read about what has been said today and take note of the constituency cases that have been raised in the House. I want everyone outside the House to realise that the people involved in those cases could have been them. The people who have been mentioned in the House today are probably at least as intelligent as anybody else thinking of buying a timeshare; if those people were fooled and conned, anyone else could be.
I appeal to radio and television authorities, and newspapers to give wide coverage to what my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke has said and to the other constituency cases mentioned. When considering whether to take out a timeshare, people should make the worst possible assumptions about the sales people until they have conclusive evidence that it is unfair to do so. If they follow that advice, they will not be conned out of their money.
580 When the Bill becomes law, as I am sure it will, many thousands of people up and down the country will owe an enormous debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke for choosing to bring the legislation before the House.
§ 11.2 am
§ Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)
I should like to endorse the spirit behind the Bill, and particularly the provision for lengthening the cooling-off period in which people are allowed to withdraw from an agreement into which they have been pressured. I would be the last hon. Member to call for additional regulations in business, but the problem is that timeshare sales people sometimes place the most appalling and undue pressure on individuals, almost trapping them into a position from which they cannot escape without signing up for something that they do not really want and cannot really afford.
It is easy for my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) and me to laugh off such offers as the one that I have in my hand. I do not know whether he was offered the same Ford Fiesta as me—mine appears to be worth £11,320. It is offered to me by a firm in Sheffield called Global Marketing, which operates out of a building called Reliance house—an unfortunate name for a company that is obviously unreliable as it applies such ridiculous pressure. It offers £1,000, two flights to Florida, and a 14 in remote control television; and if I reply within 72 hours, I will receive an extra gift that will not be made known to me until I turn upon the appointed day. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke has received the same offer.
§ Mrs. Gorman
Mine is obviously an automatic.
I do not think that people should be forced into taking such action. I am concerned about the matter as I have an unfortunate constituency case involving Mr. and Mrs. King who went for a holiday in Spain, expecting to enjoy themselves on a pleasant spring holiday. However, they found themselves in miserable circumstances that completely ruined their holiday.
They told me that they went shopping one day to a shopping complex at Benalmedina where they were staying. Their way was barred by young people asking them to come and see a complex where flats were for sale. They were told not only that they would be offered a free coach ride to see the apartments, but that they and their children would be given the opportunity to spend the rest of the day at a water slide park. Such places are normally expensive for a family to visit, but the Kings were told that they would be able to enter free of charge. All they had to do was to take a short ride on a coach to the complex where they could look at the nice accommodation.
The Kings did not think that there was anything wrong in taking up the offer, especially as it was on the way to where they were going and it would be an outing. They thought that it would be something for nothing—everyone is tempted by getting something for nothing at some time in their lives. The Kings got on the coach and set off.
For the rest of the day the Kings faced pressure to try to force them to sign up for one of the apartments. They were taken into a reception area and shown a wall covered with excuses made by other people as a way of getting out 581 of buying one of the flats. The Kings were treated to the services of a comedian, who poked fun at the excuses and lies people had used for not wanting one of the company's wonderful flats. It was suggested that anyone who did not take up the offer must be stupid, weak and silly, and did not know what they were missing. Everyone began laughing in an embarrassed way at the alleged stupidity of all those who had previously forgone the chance of getting a wonderful apartment.
The story is almost impossible to believe. The Kings were nice and ordinary people—a small family on holiday. They went to see the apartments, which they said were quite nice. They were told that all they had to do was to put up £400 and they could then have one of the apartments to use for one or two weeks of the year. The total purchase price was to be about £4,000, and all they had to do initially was to part with £400.
The Kings were made to feel that they should obviously be willing to part with that amount of money as they would have to be paupers if they were unable to do so. They were generally made to feel that if they could not afford such a price there must be something wrong with them, and they should be ashamed of themselves in front of the other people present who were out for a happy, jolly day with the intention of buying.
The Kings did not want to sign. The young man dealing with their case turned nasty. They were literally sitting in a corner of a room with a young man in front of them, poking his finger at them and demanding to know their salaries. He was saying that it was absurd to be on holiday in Spain if the Kings could not find £400 for something that would be wonderful for them for the rest of their lives.
The Kings said that they felt terrorised. It is difficult for us to believe that, but the Kings were in a block of buildings in a foreign country, and did not know exactly where they were. Their two small children were unhappy and were becoming more irritable as time passed. The family were being barked at by a young fellow who was clearly on commission and did not want to let them go. The Kings described their position as that of mice in a trap. A piece of cheese was being dangled in front of their noses; if they took the cheese they could get out, and there was a great temptation to sign up.
They were unable to get away from the place as they could not leave until the coach left, which was to be when everyone who had taken the trip was prepared to return.
When they asked for refreshments they were told that they could buy them elsewhere on the complex, and they turned out to be extremely expensive. By this time they felt as if they were almost in prison. The same young man came and found them while they were having something to eat in the restaurant. He chatted to them nicely and instead of giving them the third degree he became very friendly. They relaxed, he bought the children a Coke and suggested that he walk around with them. In fact, they said that they could not get rid of him—he was stuck to them like a fly to flypaper.
Eventually they said that they had not brought their cheque books or cash, but the man asked them whether they had credit cards: "Let's look in your pockets then." The people felt so intimidated that they finally signed a piece of paper saying that they would pay £400 as a deposit on the apartment.
They were relieved to be able to get on with their holiday, but when they returned to England they immediately tried to stop their cheque. Then their troubles 582 began all over again. The company started writing threatening letters; I have one of them with me today, from a company called LSI, based apparently in Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire. The company wrote to threaten these people with legal action.to recover the moneys contractually agreed under the above purchase agreement. We therefore inform you that unless a replacement deposit in the sum of £400 is received, or satisfactory arrangements made within the next 7 days … your file will be passed for action to our Legal Department.
So this simple couple who went on holiday to Spain have had their lives ruined. I have taken up their case and have written to the organisation, known as the Royal Oasis Club at La Quinta. I have also taken the trouble to unearth some other background material.
For instance, I have found a report produced by Lord Denning on a similar case in which he makes it clear that it is a principle of British law that there should not he unequal bargaining power between individuals which can be used to pressurise them into making a purchase that they do not want to make. The tactics used in my constituents' case bordered on the criminal. People have been forced to part with £400 to buy something that they did not want and could not afford, tinder terrifying pressure. Then they were threatened with being taken to court if they could not find the money.
Lord Denning says:By virtue of it, the English law gives relief to one who, without independent advice, enters into a contract on terms which are very unfair or transfers property for a consideration which is grossly inadequate, when his bargaining power is grievously impaired by reason ofthe circumstances in which the bargain is made. So the law clearly offers protection to the likes of my constituents who found themselves in such unfortunate circumstances. I hope and trust that this Bill will reinforce Lord Denning's decision.
It is essential that there he adequate escape routes for such people. My constituents were faced with the prospect of paying for a solicitor to argue their case for them—that would mean paying out more money. This is wholly unacceptable to me—and I believe in the free market—and to the people in the industry who operate a fair and decent policy. I should like an assurance from the Minister that the Bill will increase the cooling-off period, as many people sign up while away from home and do not return to their homes to think about what they have done for several weeks thereafter.
When people are pressured they must be given a document that states clearly that they have more than the two weeks on the face of the Bill in which to change their minds. They should have a minimum of a month. And unless such conditions are met the Bill must penalise these unscrupulous people with a hefty fine. I hope that the Minister can thus reassure me so that I in turn can reassure my constituents that the Government are well aware of the plight of people in these circumstances and will take action to prevent it from recurring in future.
§ Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)
The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) seems to be mellowing with her service in the House. I cannot believe that this is the hon. Lady who advised people to deal with ticket touts and pay them £70 for a Wimbledon ticket if 583 that was the going rate. If legislation is introduced to provide for a cooling-off period for deals with tickets touts, I wonder whether she will support it.
Coming as I do from an engineering background, I know the importance of good salesmanship. Salesmen feel, however, that this country does not take them seriously. One reason for that is that unscrupulous salesmen bring the profession into disrepute. In America salesmen are highly regarded, and if we have to sell our products abroad we certainly need professional sales people with high ethics. Unfortunately, the people involved in timeshare often do not have high ethics.
The vast majority of people in this country are brought up to feel that it would be impolite to suggest that the person selling them something is involved in sharp practices, so bad salesmen play on people's good upbringing and high standards. They rely on the fact that potential buyers are polite and decent people.
I hope that as a result of our debate people will be more prepared to scratch the surface and find out what type of salesman is selling them timeshare or anything else. I congratulate the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) and I am pleased that the legislation will tighten up on sharp practice.
I hope that one day we will legislate to control selling over the telephone. British Telecom is turning a blind eye to how our telephones are being used. Among other things. they are being used in the sale of timeshares. I received a call telling me to come along and pick up my prize of a gold watch, provided that my salary reached a certain level. When I turned up to pick up my prize it turned out that the company was using rented office accommodation in Glasgow—it did not even have a permanent address. And I am sure that I would not have been given a gold watch, just a lot of pressure.
British Telecom should realise that some of these high-pressure telephone salesmen contact homes in which there has been a bereavement or some other serious problem. They ring up such people and tell them that they have won a prize, or a chance of a holiday in Spain or, if they will only come and see a timeshare, they will be introduced to a lovely range of fitted kitchens. I have complained to British Telecom, but this activity represents business for it, so it does not want to act.
A constituent of mine was able to solve the problem of high-pressure salesmanship on the phone. She received a call to say that a salesman wanted to come and see her about a holiday in Spain. It was obviously to do with a timeshare. She said. "Certainly, come along at seven in the morning." Sure enough, the salesman turned up at seven in the morning and she said, "I'm glad you've called, because I want to tell you and your company that I want nothing to do with your high-pressure salesmanship." She got a mouthful of abuse, but she has never had a telephone call from that company again.
Timeshare organisations get names and addresses from computer disks that are sold by all sorts of companies. For example, when one is asked for a name and address for a survey in the street, that information sometimes goes on to disk and can be sold. That is particularly so when the surveys ask about salary scales. These sales people do not want to wast their time with someone who has been 584 unemployed for a long time or is on social security. They want to target those with an income that can cope with timeshare.
Some companies deal entirely with selling names and addresses. There is another disturbing feature. A democratic society must have a voters roll and I understand that there is a sideline, although not a big one, for local authorities that sell information to commercial organisations from the voters roll. I hope that a local authority approached by such a timeshare organisation —obviously it will look for information on a ward in the stockbroker belt or a similarly affluent area—would reject such an approach. It is a pity that when information goes on to computer disks for genuine reasons, people run the risk of their names and addresses being handed over to these unscrupulous characters.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Basingstoke on doing something to prevent these malpractices, about which every hon. Gentleman has been concerned.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
You will understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am not normally here on a Friday. Given the political scene in Scotland, which can only be described as interesting, I should rather be there. However, there is a Scottish Bill on the Order Paper, and I have remained for the debate on that.
The practices used in timeshare selling have caused considerable concern and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) on introducing the Bill, because it is essential that the matter be dealt with. He will understand what I mean when I say that I feel that I have been down this road before. This is not the first attempt to deal with what has become an ever-increasing annoyance to many people. For some, it is more than an annoyance. They can and have been conned into imagining that if they visit a timeshare office, they will be given gifts and perhaps even end up wealthy because there is a magic pot of gold that will produce rewards for everyone just because the timeshare scheme exists.
I have been on the receiving end of this sort of literature. Like the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin), I find that, as my name has appeared on lists showing that I am a Member of Parliament, people have thought that I have lots of cash to throw around. Such people have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman and me. We have never been noted for the fact that we want to throw around our cash unnecessarily or ostentatiously. He and I must have viewed these invitations with cynicism and scepticism. When these invitations first started arriving. my wife thought that there was something marvellous about them. One only had to go and see something and one was bound to win a Metro. I said, "Hold on a minute, the world is not full of people wanting to give away Metros. What's the snag?" We examined the invitations in some detail and discovered that things were not quite as they were presented. This is the kind of rapid con by which so many people have been fooled.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) said, under the law of this country, we expect equality between those selling and purchasing. Before coming to this place, I ran department stores and I know something about vending. One was always conscious that one had to present and advertise one's goods in a manner that would not mislead. One had to ensure that the sales 585 staff did not state more than they could deliver or present something in a manner that suggested that one was less than honourable and honest in the way that one conducted one's business.
In the modern and relatively affluent society in which we live, one should not have to indulge in these practices to make a living. If someone is selling the right goods at the right price in the right place, there will be a market for them because people will buy what they want. However, some are not honest or honourable and the way that they conduct their business is highly suspect. People who do not have experience of looking at the fine print and understanding what is involved may find themselves talked into believing that here is a magic formula that will give them, free, a lovely place in the sun and a gift, or that one pays for this place with very small sums over a very long period. The reality is very different.
The Bill extends to Scotland because it is a United Kingdom measure. Scots law is different from that south of the border and one of the advantages that we enjoy is that contracts must be approved in a manner that produces corroboration. That is an important basic fundamental of Scots law. Despite the various sale of goods Acts and all the other legislative measures, there is a weakness in the system that must be looked at in detail. However, I understand the difficulties in phrasing the words in any Bill that attempts to deal effectively with this problem. I seem to have spent a lifetime serving on Committees examining Scottish Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bills. The House will be aware that my private Member's Bill, which reforms Scots law, has just completed its stages in this House and gone to the other place.
Often, once one gets an Act on to the statute book, particularly when it deals with these tricky matters, one has to go back to it afterwards. The legislation, as submitted, does not always deal with the problem that one set out to deal with in the first instance. I am not a lawyer: I am not competent to comment on the wording of the clauses. I recognise, however, that there are difficulties and I shall not be at all surprised if the Minister, who is a lawyer, tells us that certain aspects of the clauses are technically defective. That seems to be the lot of hon. Members who introduce similar legislation. Nevertheless, I think that my hon. Friend will accept that it is because of public concern about the activities of these unscrupulous people that we are faced with this problem.
It is not just a question of pressure selling. People understand high-powered pressure selling. I recollect my first experience of it when, as a young Royal Air Force officer, a chap came to my door who was convinced that he could sell the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" to me. He thought that every young RAF officer would want to understand everything in the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" because one day he hoped to become an air chief marshal. There were two things wrong with his reasoning. First, I had no aspirations to become an air chief marshal. All that I ever wanted to do was to fly. When an RAF officer achieves a certain rank he is not allowed to do that, so I had no intention of going beyond the point where I could fly.
The salesman's second mistake was that, in any case, I could not possibly pay for the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" on the very poor wages that I received at that time. I should point out that that was during the period of a Labour Government. [Interruption.] I speak with 586 experience, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have vivid memories of how badly we were paid. I could not have afforded the monthly payments out of my meagre salary.
Once the salesman had got his foot in the door, however, he tried to convince me and my wife that what we really wanted was the beautiful bookcase that went with the books. That is partly what this is all about: the alleged, hidden unreal benefits that one is supposed to enjoy if one invests in such activities. In the real world, however, one gets what one pays for. If anything that seems to be a good bargain is on offer, one might well ask why queues have not formed all the way round the building. We have seen evidence at sales of things being given away. People often camp out in front of department stores because the bargains that are on offer to the first purchasers are real bargains. The objective is to get people into the store so that the sale is a success. The atmosphere of a sale makes people purchase goods.
When people dream up these great timeshare offers, I wonder whether they have done a service to the rest of the service sector. They expose the fraudulence of their activities. The more we talk about it and the more we look at it the more the public—I have great confidence in the public—will realise that they cannot get such bargains. That is one of the great advantages of talking about timeshare in the House. The Bill provides us with the opportunity to put on record the weaknesses of the offers made by those who offer timeshares.
What is so sad about Friday debates is that they are seldom reported. The media are much more interested in our private lives than in what happens to the victims of timeshare organisations. The mind boggles at what the media might dream up if an hon. Member were thinking of going off to a timeshare somewhere with what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn) described as the birds that hang around Westminster. Only he could describe the other sex in that way. I shall leave my hon. and learned Friend to explain what he meant by that, because I am not quite sure. As far as I am aware, timeshare operators have not yet got round to suggesting that if we buy a timeshare it will give us the Valhalla that we can nip off to with the birds that hang around Westminster.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and his supporters have done the House a service in introducing a Bill to deal with this dreadful practice. I hope that the publicity that is generated by debates of this kind will alert people to the dangers and that they will not fall victim to these ghastly practices.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Edward Leigh)
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) for introducing the Bill. I am also very grateful to all those who have spoken in the debate: my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell), the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) and for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). They all made the point that I intend to make both at the beginning of my remarks and at the 587 end: that anyone who is contemplating a timeshare holiday must think very carefully indeed before they go to a presentation. The Department of Trade and Industry has issued more than 1 million copies of "Your Place in the Sun." Later I shall refer to a few examples in the report of the Office of Fair Trading.
As has already been said, it is important to use the opportunity that this debate provides to publicise the high pressure sales techniques at these presentations. I hope that the debate will result in the Bill being given a Second Reading and that it will eventually become an Act of Parliament. The debate will also do a lot of good, in that it can bring home to people the importance of looking with extreme care at direct mail shots. I advise people to beware of going to these presentations.
The debate has thrown some interesting light on one of the shadier corners of United Kingdom commercial practice. It may help the House if I outline the Government's position on the Bill and say a little about the wider background to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke graphically described the mischief that his Bill is intended to correct. I congratulate him on the clear way in which he has described the contents of the Bill which, despite its simplicity of purpose, is not without its complexities. They relate particularly to the importance of dealing with consumer credit. Many timeshare transactions are based on consumer credit.
I do not think that there is anything that I can usefully add to what my hon. Friend has said today, because he went through all the clauses. However, a number of hon. Members have raised wider issues in the context of the timeshare industry. Before I turn to the specific points that have been raised, I should like to deal with the wider context in order to set the scene.
Timeshare is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first timeshare resort in the United Kingdom was opened as recently as 1976, yet by 1990 there were more than 500,000 timeshare owners in Europe, of whom approximately two fifths were British. The European total is expected to have risen to one and a half million by the end of the century. Whatever problems there may be with timeshare, it seems clear that any industry that can expand at this rate is responding to a genuine consumer need. Indeed, timeshare has many thousands of satisfied customers all over the world. It is significant that of the letters written to the Director General of Fair Trading in response to his request for views for and against timeshare, about two thirds were broadly favourable.
But some customers are not satisfied and a few feel that they have been deceived and defrauded. The Department of Trade and Industry receives more complaints about timeshare than about any other industry. I know that one must be wary of government by reference to the size of ministerial post bags, but in this instance we were persuaded that a prima facie case for action had been made.
In July 1989, my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), accordingly asked the Director General of Fair Trading to carry out a review of timeshare problems and agreed on the following terms of reference: to consider complaints made by United Kingdom consumers about marketing and other problems relating to timeshare and to report on significant problems 588 revealed by the complaints; in respect of those problems, to consider relevant statutory or voluntary controls which protect United Kingdom consumers and to assess their effectiveness; and, having regard to existing and proposed controls on timeshare, to recommend any further steps that may be necessary or desirable to safeguard the economic interests of United Kingdom consumers in respect of timeshare.
That was a tallish order for the director general, but he worked well and duly submitted his report. I am glad to have this opportunity to pay tribute to the care and thoroughness with which he discharged his task.
The report is a mine of valuable information. I hope that the House will forgive me if I use this opportunity to give a few examples from it. If members of the press are watching our proceedings, some of the examples are very telling and need to be relayed to a wider audience. It is instructive to quote an extract from a timeshare training manual. It reads:You are about to begin a career in the most exciting industry to come along in the last 50 years… And you? You the reader are the lucky one. Why so lucky? Because you are in on the ground floor. If you work at it, you can become successful early in the history of timesharing and that success will lead you to more success. The industry of timesharing is so new that anyone with a year or two of successful experience can move rapidly into management, marketing or developing. And here you are (the reader) beginning the pages of this training manual at a time when all things are possible. If you are a good timeshare salesperson, meaning you know your business and you make the effort, you can make more than 1 million pounds in the next 15 years.That is a fairly tempting enticement to anybody considering entering the industry, but, as I shall show later, one must use very persuasive tactics on one's unlucky customers to make anything like £1 million over 15 years.
Not all timeshare presentations are wrong. There is no harm in seeking to persuade somebody to buy a product. For instance, one person said:No pressure was put on me to purchase the apartment when I visited the showroom. Naturally, the salesman knew his subject in detail and was able to answer all questions with ease and enthusiasm but this should be expected from any salesperson who is employed to sell a product. All the financial details were clearly presented at my interview and it was stated very clearly that a potential purchaser would be unwise to consider the purchase as a means of financial investment. It should be thought of as a holiday investment. This, I felt, was a very fair comment.That is from a Mrs. C.
What could be fairer than that? That is the normal way of trying to sell an apartment and there could be no argument about that. However, as the report makes clear, other sales methods are very different indeed. At their worst, they seek to entrap people into attending a sales presentation by offering incentives that are made to seem to be the object of the visit and whose value to the recipient is conveyed in a misleading manner. Information given during the discussion is incomplete and deceptively presented. Sales persons are trained using a manual such as the one that I quoted a few moments ago, and they follow a set procedure which allows prospective purchasers little opportunity to respond except in a way pre-determined by the marketer.
The operation starts with direct mail. The sheer scale of it is quite extraordinary. One timeshare marketing company said that between April and August 1989 it had dispatched no fewer than 2,150,000 mail shots. The Direct Mail Services Standards Board told the Office of Fair 589 Trading that one of its recognised agencies estimated that it handled on average 100,000 items a week for timeshare clients, and the most prolific dispatched 30,000 a week. That shows the scale of the problem.
A typical example of what is included in a direct mail shot reads:All we ask is that you and your partner spend approximately two hours of your time attending a sales presentation at … There you will discover the benefits of timeshare.That makes it clear that the purpose of the mail shot is to sell timeshare, but most mail shots give the impression that their purpose is to invite the recipient to collect a free gift at a presentation. Typically, the envelope is marked, "Personal and Confidential" and contains a mail shot that says:Your name has been personally selected. Do read this letter very carefully. It contains important instructions and information.An impression of urgency is conveyed, but all these mail shots are sent by second-class post. Another example reads:Previous notices remain unanswered. We must assume that you do not want to claim your award … This notice serves as your last opportunity to claim your gift before the expiry date shown above.
Often, the free gift is very enticing. We listened with much amusement to the alleged free gift of a Ford Fiesta to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), but typically gifts are Vauxhall Astras or diamond chip watches.
Direct mail shots always try to convey the impression of urgency. I urge people following the debate not to be misled by sales talk about urgency; it is only sales talk. The object of direct mail shots is to make people think not only that the offer is genuine but that some awards have been made and that their chance of receiving one will vanish unless they act quickly. A recent mail shot about which the Office of Fair Trading received an unusually large number of letters and telephone calls referred toa previous offer whereby you were to receive one of four items … We have completed our selection. Mr. and Mrs. Jones claimed their holiday for two and Mr. and Mrs. Smith claimed their cash.There were many complaints because nobody believed in the mythical characters of Mr. and Mrs. Jones and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Later amended versions awarded the holiday to Mr. and Mrs. Jenks to make it more realistic.
The findings of the omnibus survey show that marketers of timeshare, taken as a whole, make some attempt to concentrate mailings on middle-aged employed people. That point was made by the hon. Member for Springburn. That is a justifiable direct mail tool to try to market a product in a way that attracts people who might be interested in it, but often mail shots contain so-called details of eligibility and several young single people, thinking that they were going to receive a prize, where duped into attending a presentation and were told that they failed the so-called rules of eligibility, such as previous experience or income. I shall quote from such a person who was disappointed:I had so called 'won' two airline tickets to Orlando … I was overjoyed at the thought of winning two tickets to Florida, as I've never been abroad before … There was a number to phone which I did, only to find out that you only got the two airline tickets if you signed an agreement for a timeshare flat in Florida. You can imagine how I felt, hurt and very, very disappointed.Some people might say that that lady was gullible, but she had never been abroad and was sent a letter offering her a 590 flight. In good faith she assumed that she would get one. She did not realise that to get to Orlando she had to buy a timeshare flat in Florida.
§ Mr. Michael J. Martin
Mail shots are now becoming so widespread that organisations are running around looking for people to put on mailing lists. Surveys are being carried out in Sauchiehall street—the main street —in Glasgow and people who take part are being offered a chance to win a holiday in Orlando. They are being asked questions such as, "Do you have double glazing? Do you have central heating? Do you have a timeshare?" It is clear that the organisations are trying to build a picture of the people participating in the survey and they then sell that information to timeshare companies or to any other company involved in mail shots. Such organisations have been created to find people to put on mailing lists. So-called reputable organisations such as Readers Digest do not help matters because its technique is to write to people saying, "You had better hurry up. If you don't reply and take out a subscription next week you will lose your chance of winning a fortune or a free cruise around the world."
§ Mr. Leigh
I can only share the hon. Gentleman's sentiments. People should be very careful about direct mail shots, and I think that I have quoted enough from the report to show just how careful.
In addition to outlining a comprehensive set of recommendations for action, the director general summarised them as follows: the introduction of a requirement that before they sign a timeshare contract consumers should be provided with a written prospectus giving in clear and understandable language comprehensive information about the timeshare under a number of specified headings; a right to withdraw from the contract, without penalty, during a 14-day cooling-off period; a duty to ensure that advance payments for timeshare purchases are paid into an account maintained by an independent stakeholder of suitable standing or repute; the independent holding of title on behalf of owners; the protection of management fees and money received on resale or through rental; suitable amendments to the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 aimed in part at extending the Act to cover the contents of mail shots; long-stop powers for enforcement authorities to take action to prevent repetition of business practices which are misleading, deceptive or unconscionable.
In addition, and crucially, the director general recommended that, in view of the international nature of timeshare, it was desirable that other member states of the European Community and the EC Commission should consider similar measures to control abuses in the industry.
For the most part, the Government accepted these recommendations. In particular, we agree that there should be a requirement for a brochure and a cooling-off period and that there should be security for advance payments. We agree also that some amendment to the Trade Descriptions Act was desirable, and I shall return to that in a moment. We did not go along with the director general on protection of management fees or the independent holding of titles, as we felt on balance that this would be an unnecessary restriction on the commercial freedom of timeshare developers and was not justified by the indentified scale of the problem in these 591 areas. The recommendation regarding long-stop power of enforcement went a good deal wider than timeshare, and raises interesting and important issues which must be the subject of a separate debate.
It is important to note that the director general's recommendations were not directed solely at Government. On the contrary, he felt—I am sure rightly—that there was a good deal the industry could do to set its own house in order. He made detailed recommendations covering such matters as improving compliance with the various self-regulatory mechanisms which relate to advertising, sales promotion and direct mail; improving rights available to owners and their associations; making organisations which provide services to the timeshare industry monitor more closely the way in which their connection to the resort is described; improving the management of resorts and the controls over management charges; and enhancing the prospects for lively rental and resale markets.
Of course, self-regulation, if it can be made to work, is often preferable to regulation by Government, and I am glad to say that the industry has responded positively to the director general's recommendations. Although the original Timeshare Developers Association disbanded in the autumn of 1990, it has been replaced by the Timeshare Council which has the advantage of a wider membership including all those involved in the industry—trustees, selling companies, exchange companies, management companies and timeshare owners, as well as the timeshare developers themselves. I personally welcomed the formation of the Timeshare Council when it was formally launched last April.
I attended the launch and am glad to pay tribute to its efforts to introduce a comprehensive code of self-regulation into the industry. Indeed, I understand that the Timeshare Council welcomes the Bill and has co-operated with my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke.
Let me revert to the Director General of Fair Trading's report. One point which stood out was the director general's reference to the European dimension to the problem. It seemed to us then, and still seems to us now, that, although the purely United Kingdom aspect of the problems connected with timeshare should not be ignored, to provide a comprehensive solution required legislation at Community level. It was for this reason that I announced last February that we would be asking the Commission to bring forward a directive which addressed the problems that had been identified by the director general. I am glad to be able to report that the Commission has taken a favourable view of our suggestion and has drafted a directive which it is currently knocking into shape before submitting it to the Council of Ministers. The directive will include a cooling-off period, and this might be thought to render the Bill we are now discussing redundant. However, I do not believe that it does so, for reasons to which I shall now turn.
The Government have been criticised for not legislating domestically to implement the recommendations of the director general's report. As I have made clear, we believe that for the greater part of these recommendations the way forward lies with an EC rather than with a purely United Kingdom solution, but this does not mean there are not specific United Kingdom problems which we cannot tackle 592 directly. One such is, as the director general recommended, to amend the Trade Descriptions Act to make it easier to deal with misleading descriptions of services and, in particular, to bring so-called timeshare award schemes within the scope of the Act.
In fact, we believe that for the most part award schemes are within the scope of the Act, and it is encouraging that there have been some successful prosecutions under it. I hope that trading standards departments that have hitherto held back from taking action on timeshare will study these cases and will be encouraged to adopt a more proactive approach to the complaints that have been made. But there is one significant gap in our current powers in that the Act cannot be brought to bear on misleading indications of the likelihood that a person has won this or that "award". We propose to plug this gap as part of our general review of the Trade Descriptions Act which is now in progress, and will be introducing the necesary legislation as soon as parliamentary time is available.
The other area in which we can usefully take action domestically is the area which is the subject of the Bill before us: the introduction of a cooling-off period. I need not go into detail here, since the ground has already been thoroughly covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. Suffice it to say that nearly half of those in a survey conducted by the Office of Fair Trading who had attended timeshare presentations felt they had been put under pressure to buy, and the number of complaints received by trading standards departments suggests that a significant proportion of timeshare purchasers have cause to regret their purchase. There is also a wealth of anecdotal evidence of distress caused by hard-sell methods to which I referred, of which the cases that have come to me personally repressent only a tiny fraction.
It is perhaps somewhat idle to speculate why it should be timeshare rather than any other industry that is disfigured by sales tactics which lead to such results. The fact remains that a substantial minority of sellers of timeshare have used sales methods which by any standards are unethical and unacceptable, and threaten to bring the whole industry into disrepute. In these circumstances, it is right that Parliament should step in to call a halt. This, I believe, the Bill will do, and for this reason the Government are offering their full support. If in the fullness of time we have an EC directive which extends the cooling-off period to the other member states of the Community, so much the better.
At best, it will be some little time before such a directive can be agreed and implemented in the law of other member states. The mischief that the Bill addresses is with us here and now. The Government therefore welcome the Bill and we are aiding my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke in every way that we can. We very much hope that the Bill will become law and that the public will take to heart the warnings given to them this morning.
§ Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)
We very much welcome the Bill and I pay tribute to the efforts of the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) in introducing it and in pursuing a matter which has been a source of grievance to the public since timeshare began in this country in 1976. 593 The sad fact is that it has taken a Back-Bench Member to introduce the Bill after years of Government inaction on the matter. The Minister condemned himself out of his own mouth today by cataloguing abuses in the timeshare industry, many of them, dating from 1989 to 1990, outlined in the June 1990 publication from the Office of Fair Trading. As can be seen from the illustrations given by many hon. Members today, many of the complaints have not been addressed and are being repeated.
We know what the Minister and his predecessors have done to help people who have suffered from timeshare abuse. They have issued a string of press releases not only this year or last year, but for several years. In 1988, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Coventry, South-West (Mr. Butcher), produced a press release which said:half-price timeshares, discounts and prizes may be nothing more than a sales ploy.The hon. Gentleman's reaction was to do nothing legislatively, but to make a leaflet entitled "Your Place in the Sun" available to the public.
A year later, when several thousand more complaints had been received, at the rate then, as now, of about 10,000 a year, a number of Conservative Back Benchers told the Government that their constituents were being duped and swindled by unscrupulous timeshare developers. The then Minister, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), put out another Department of Trade and Industry press notice in June 1989. It said:Consumer Minister acts to curb dubious promotions.The hon. Gentleman had to face Back-Bench criticism when he did not produce legislation that would have enabled people to have their grievances properly addressed. Instead, he wanted the Office of Fair Trading to consider what could be done to curb dubious timeshare promotions.
A year later, the Office of Fair Trading produced its report and the same Minister welcomed it. That was more than a decade after the complaints had first been raised in the massive volume about which we have heard today. The then Minister said of the director-general's report:I shall now be looking very carefully at his recommendations and hope to give my response as soon as possible … The DTI's leaflet 'Your Place in the Sun' also offers … practical advice to prospective buyers.
Thousands more complaints were brought forward and a year later, the present Minister was in his post. He conceded that United Kingdom measures would be necessary at that stage, which is a very different tale from the one we have heard today when the Minister has said that Europe should be taking action on the matter. In praising the work of the Timeshare Council as he has done today, the Minister said:The Council plan to develop a code of practice … This is very much a step in the right direction. But these efforts need to be backed up by legislative measures".We are entitled to ask the Minister where those legislative measures are. They were hinted at and promised four years ago, three years ago, two years ago and last year. The Minister has condemned himself by his own inaction. Even as recently as 4 December 1991, another Department press release was put out. The Minister concedes:I get far too many complaints about the high pressure sales techniques used to sell timeshare. People are frequently lured into 'presentations' by the promise of free gifts which do not materialise and find themselves subjected to several hours of highly pressurised selling. Many are persuaded to sign contracts they afterwards regret".594 That was said by the Minister who has done nothing, although he knows from complaints from his own constituents that something must be done.
The number of examples of abuses in the industry is legion. One document was sent to me at my London residence. On the back, it raises a point mentioned by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) about the way in which credit card transactions are encouraged. It is put very subtly here. The document says:Award conditions. Identification must be by Bankers or Credit Card or UK Drivers Licence.There is an immediate stipulation that people must bring their credit card or, failing that, their driving licences. They can then be signed up to the scheme and pay by credit card. The prizes offered to me were a Ford Escort, a £1,000 holiday bonus, a hi-fi system, £300 in cash or a portable colour television. They are remarkably similar to those mentioned in a leaflet handed to me by a Conservative Member after it had been sent to one of his constituents. It mentioned the car first, then the holiday accommodation, the hi-fl, a video camera accessory outfit and the television.
The first example was a leaflet from Leisure Club International. The leaflet does not say where the company is based, but it says that the presentation is in Surrey. The second leaflet came from a company operating at the HOE Award Centre at 48 Leicester square. My third example is a leaflet from Whitesands Despatch at 10 Great Marlborough street, London. It offers four of the prizes that we have mentioned and then says clearly to the recipient:Our records confirm that nobody is ahead of you for the car"—except, perhaps, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). The company is pretending—the only word to use, although there may be worse—that the resident in London will, by turning up, get the car, because there is no one ahead of her, or £1,000 in cash, a holiday for two in Disneyworld or a cellular pocket telephone. All hon. Members know that the chance of the prizes being awarded, even though one is advised in the letter that one is almost certain to get a prize, is non-existent.
There have been many complaints which are well known to the Minister and to the Government. That makes the Minister's failure to act even more inexplicable. A front-page editorial in a publication from the Advertising Standards Authority says:Dark corner of the industry … Why … is there so much resentment against timeshare operators?Timeshare mailshots as we have repeatedly had to point out on this page tend to be less than frank. Typically, they are coy about the product they are actually trying to sell at the end of the day—some merely invite recipients to come along to an exhibition or presentation with the offer of apparently lavish free gifts. Typically they are also less than completely frank about how the gifts are awarded or how they are valued.The Advertising Standards Authority catalogues the complaints of abuses which it has received, at a peak rate last year of 25 a month. Club Riviera, based in Deansgate, Manchester misleadingly advertised its timeshare development, referring to a sea view which was in fact obscured by neighbouring high-rise apartments and to a sports complex and swimming pool which we understand had had to be abandoned. Complaints came from both Spain and Yorkshire and were upheld. The Minister did nothing.
I shall have a little more to say later about the Holiday Ownership Exchange at 361 Barking road, London. The 595 Advertising Standards Authority had drawn to its attention three cases of mailings appearing to suggest that recipients had been awarded a car. That complaint, against a company which has offended repeatedly, was also upheld. The complaints came from Hampshire, Kent and Buckinghamshire.
I shall also be referring in more detail to Global Marketing Europe UK Ltd, based at West Court, Mappin street, Sheffield. It operated a postal telegram scam, using the words "reply immediate". That was held by the ASA to be misleading, giving a false impression of the speed and urgency of reply. Those promoters sought to mislead the ASA, saying that the mailing waspart of a small test batch.The promoters are the only people who would claim that.
In the 22 January edition of the ASA publication, another two complaints appear. The first is another complaint against Holiday Ownership Exchange. One would think that it would have learnt its lesson. The verdict on that complaint referred toThe promoters' persistent flouting of the self-regulatory system of control brought timeshare and sales promotion into disrepute.Yet self-regulation is the watchword of the Minister and the Government. The second complaint in the latest edition of the ASA report was against Holiday Promotions Ltd, 22 Manchester street, London. Complaints had been received from Lincolnshire, Lancashire, Kent, London and Surrey. Again, the complaint was upheld and the offer of vouchers held to be highly misleading.
The problem continues to be massive but remains unaddressed. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Basingstoke for recognising that and for criticising the Government. In his excellent article in The House Magazine recently, he wrote of the Government's excuse that EC regulation and legislation were in the pipeline:Meanwhile, it is right and proper that each member state does what it can to introduce domestic regulation. I regret that the Government have not done this".
The Bill is important and its provisions were outlined in the report of the Director General of Fair Trading who also specified a series of important legislative measures. The package that was proposed in 1990 to curb more than a decade of abuse by the timeshare industry was comprehensive and it was comprehensively ignored by the Minister. It included the requirement on those selling timeshare to provide, before any contract is signed, a written prospectus giving clear and comprehensive information under specified headings.
The Government's response? Nothing; no action. The package also included the right to withdraw from a contract without penalty during a 14-day cooling-off period. Again, there was no legislative response from the Government, who left the matter to be dealt with by a private Member.
Thirdly, the package specified the right to protection of advance payments by a system of bonding or some such system. The Government's action? Nothing.
The report also referred to the independent holding of title on behalf of timeshare owners. Again, there was no Government action. It referred to the need to protect management fees and funds from resale or rental. Again, there was no action from the Government. It referred to amendments to the Trade Descriptions Act, including its extension to the content of mail shots. Action had been 596 promised by the Government last year. the year before and the year before that, and action has again been promised by the Minister today, but we know that the Minister and the Government cannot keep their word on this issue. There was no action on the director general's report. The Government have had one of the longest discussions ever of the Trade Descriptions Act, but there is still nothing ready for consultation—let alone a Green Paper, White Paper or legislation.
The final recommendation of the director general referred to the need for long-stop powers for the enforcement authorities to enable them to prevent repeated abuses. The Minister has urged the enforcement authorities to take action, even though he knows that his own Director General of Fair Trading has said that the enforcement officers—the trading standards officers—who are hard pressed cannot take sufficient action to curb the abuses.
I have a report from Barnsley trading standards officer and, Councillor Bill Neuman, the chairman of the consumer and environmental services committee, asking the Minister to accept the recommendations from the Office of Fair Trading and referring specifically to that final recommendation, which refers to the hamstringing of trading standards officers, who cannot at present take the necessary action to protect the public. The Minister responded to Bill Neuman in his characteristic way. He did absolutely nothing.
The Consumers Association has urged the Minister to take action and to lobby the EC on a number of issues. The association wants enshrined the right to title and provisions regarding the representation of management committees, many of which are bogus and do not represent those who have bought timeshare developments. It wants provision for cooling-off periods, the amendment of the Trade Descriptions Act, in respect of which we have had promises but no action, and regulation.
The Consumers Association—the largest private consumer organisation in Europe and the second largest in the world—makes another damning condemnation of the Minister:We do not share the Minister's confidence that the industry will adequately police its own activities.I wonder why that is, given that the industry has a history of self-regulation. Before the Timeshare Council came into being we had the Timeshare Development Association. I understand that the staff are the same. The Timeshare Developers Association was founded in 1987. From 1987 until it was reformed as the Timeshare Council last year, it disciplined only one member, in spite of receiving hundreds of written complaints. The member who was disciplined was not even fined but was charged £7,500 for the administrative costs incurred by the TDA in resolving the matter. Barratt—the biggest timeshare operator—and Wimpey quit the TDA because it was so ineffective. I am sorry to say that there is little evidence that the Timeshare Council is more effective, but at least its deputy chairman has not broken three of its rules—unlike the deputy chairman of the TDA, who refused to refund money, despite a five-day cooling-off period operated by the TDA, and placed misleading advertisements in the newspapers and not all of whose resorts belonged to the TDA.
The chairman was also accused of breaking the TDA codes of practice, although codes of practice are the mast to which the Minister has nailed his colours. They have been the biggest failure. Voluntary regulation has not 597 worked, yet still the Minister hopes to rely on the good will of an industry riddled with malpractice to police itself and protect the consumer. That is the most disgraceful wishful thinking and, worse, leaves the public at the mercy of some of the worst elements of the industry.
I have outlined the abuses by the TDA. An interesting Department of Trade and Industry press notice, dated 10 August 1988 asked:What organisation, do you imagine, insists that its members conduct themselves with 'integrity, dignity and the utmost courtesy"? The Advanced Motorists Association? The Society of Head Waiters? The Boiler-makers Union? Wrong. It is the Timeshare Developers Association.Although the chairman and deputy chairman acted in breach of their own rules, that was, in practice, endorsed by a DTI press release in 1988. The trouble with the Government's whole approach to timeshare is that it has been conducted through press release and statement, not action—but action is coming.
The Minister did not seem to know that the EC is now considering providing a 28-day cooling-off period, which 1 welcome. I do not mean to criticise the Bill, because I know the intentions behind it, which is why we are giving it fair weather today, but if people are on holiday for three weeks and make the mistake of signing the contract during the first week, perhaps a 14-day cooling-off period will be a little short. I know, however, that the 14-day provision is all that the hon. Member for Basingstoke could get past the Minister and it must be recognised that a 14-day period, enforceable by law, is much better than anything that has been produced by the Government, the TDA or the Timeshare Council.
The Minister claims that he cannot introduce laws in this country because they would not be enforceable in the EC. How wrong can one get? If only he had asked the Library to do some basic homework he would have found that Portugal has had laws to regulate the timeshare market since 1981, which is more than 10 years ago. Timeshare laws are also enforced in France. The Minister has used the excuse of EC regulations to ensure that this market remains as free as he demands for all parts of the market. It is free market ideology that stops the Government and the Minister from legislating—nothing else; otherwise how could Portugal and France have legislated on this matter?
With the exception of Wyoming, all the states of the United States have had laws to regulate timeshare for some time. Thirty-five states have enacted specific timeshare legislation and 14 have managed to incorporate such legislation into their existing laws. That is powerful evidence that the Minister is simply making the same old excuses now for the timeshare industry as he has made throughout his period in office, thus continuing the disreputable practice of his predecessors.
Other countries are fighting for improvements for timeshares arrangements but, sadly, we are not one. Our voice is not heard loudly on this issue—
§ Mr. Griffiths
Demand for that was pronounced, not only from Great Britain but from other European countries also. The Portuguese have had laws on this matter for over 10 years and did not want to see unscrupulous timeshare practices —
§ Mr. Griffiths
Let me finish.
Portugual did not want other countries' unscrupulous timeshare practices to extend to Portuguese soil. The directive was given fair weather by everyone at the European Commission. The question is, "How long did it take the Minister to make that request?" The Minister does not seem to want to intervene too quickly now, which is no wonder. Anyone who has visited resorts in Spain, Malta, other Mediterannean countries or the Canaries will have experienced people with clipboards and so-called "questionnaires" accosting them in the street. It is clear that British holidaymakers are used to shooing timeshare agents away from them on Spanish beaches or in Maltese bars.
What happened in Spain in the 1980s is now happening in Surrey in the 1990s. A company has been pretending to conduct market research in British high streets, asking people half a dozen questions about their holidays and entering them in a spot-the-beachball competition. A week later, that person receives a telephone call from Holiday Promotions Ltd. in Milton Keynes. People such as Mr. and Mrs. Chris Greet are told that they have won a free holiday in Florida and have to pay only for the flight. Holiday Promotions Ltd. instructs its staff to say specifically that they are not selling timeshare or double glazing. However, Mr. Keith Moore of Holiday Promotions then wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Greet inviting the family to a holiday exhibition. The letter states:This is not a timeshare".Mr. Moore was lying. The family went to the exhibition at the offices of Globelink Marketing, which is based in New Malden. There was no exhibition, only a timeshare promotion. Globelink and its managers, Anton Tardif and Alasdair McKinnon, have deliberately set out to deceive people.
After 13 years, thousands of duped customers, millions of disgracefully misleading promotions promising bogus prizes, and a damning Office of Fair Trading report, the Government's tough action amounts to half a dozen press releases, all of them signifying nothing.
At least three companies in the United Kingdom, which are now operating under the Minister's nose, are bringing the most disreputable practices from Spain to our high streets. But the Minister does what he and his predecessors have always done—precisely nothing. Soon, however, in a few weeks or months, there will be a Labour Minister for Consumer Affairs, and DTI inspectors will pay a visit to Holiday Promotions UK Limited and to Globelink Marketing and to FCH Promotions. The latter organisation has been operating with the timeshare company, Golden Portfolio Holidays, luring people to timeshare presentations in this country with prizes which are then always out of stock. Clients have to apply for their prizes in writing after the promotion to FCG Promotions in Hayes, Middlesex, which charges £39.95 for sending the prize. There is no listed telephone number for FCH. Among its disappointed and duped customers is a Mr. Lilley, who was promised a video recorder if he attended the promotion. But Mr. Lilley did not get the video recorder, and is very annoyed. His annoyance will be behind him when the Government take proper action to ensure that that practice is legislated out of existence.
Action can be taken in this country to control the abuses that have been highlighted this morning. Why has not the European Community legislation deterred the Portuguese or the French from producing their own 599 legislation? How can those countries overcome the obstacles that the Minister says lie in the way of his legislating to protect our citizens? How can the citizens of those countries be offered protection from misleading promotions, unbuilt facilities and unsatisfactory management agreements when ours cannot? The answer is because consumer legislation is given a low priority in this country. The Labour party, however, has a plan to tackle that. It involves taking on board the report of the Director General of Fair Trading and legislating to ensure that proper laws are implemented to give full protection and to prevent the abuses that were highlighted in the report. Action must be taken to enforce the recommendations. Our plan includes the cooling-off period of 14 days, for which the hon. Member for Basingstoke has provided. It includes providing tight controls over service charges and introducing penalties for those who make misleading statements about services and facilities, especially where the facilities have not been built and the services not provided. It includes stiff fines if bogus prizes are used to lure people to sales talks; the sales prospectus being provided, giving the contract in plain English and specific information laid down by the Director General of Fair Trading; and a bonding scheme to protect deposits and other moneys that are handed over. We will give power to trading standards officers to enforce the legislation.
I repeat to the Minister an offer that we made earlier today in consultation with the hon. Member for Basingstoke. We offered to let the Bill go through all its stages today on the Floor of the House and be in place before the general election to provide people with protection. Sadly. I understand that the Bill requires a money resolution which cannot be made available in time. I am sorry about that. I tell the Minister now that we will not wait over the next few weeks and months for the general election and see the Bill's enactment delayed in Committee or any other way. We will back the hon. Member for Basingstoke. I am sure that there is support from both sides of the House to ensure that the legislation is passed and the abuses are stopped once and for all. The foot-dragging must stop. It will not stop under this Government.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).