HC Deb 18 May 2004 vol 421 cc826-8 12.36 pm
Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit unsolicited household visits to sill property repairs, maintenance and improvements; to provide penalties and powers of arrest in connection with this prohibition; to require all doorstep vendors of property repairs, maintenance and improvements to give seven days' notice in writing of an intended visit to a home; and to extend property owners' rights to cancel any contract entered into for the provision of property repairs, maintenance or improvement; and for connected purposes The abuses that the Bill seeks to control are serious and widespread. A Trading Standards Institute survey in November 2002 revealed that, in the previous two years, nearly 10 per cent. of householders reported problems with or following cold calling for property repairs, maintenance and improvements. Translated nationwide, that would equate to 2.5 million householders being affected. An Office of Fair Trading "snapshot" survey in March 2002 found that 45 per cent. of doorstep selling complaints made to trading standards officers related to home maintenance repairs and improvements. The sums involved are not trivial. The average value of services for which people have been billed when they complain about property repairs was £2,264.

A ban on cold calling for property repairs and maintenance would be popular. The Trading Standards Institute report that I mentioned found that nearly 96 per cent. of householders do not want doorstep sellers cold calling. It is not just the amount of money involved or the number of people affected that make the Bill so necessary. Cold calling for property repairs is not just a way for cowboy builders to drum up trade; it has also become a preferred cover for criminals targeting vulnerable, frail and elderly people.

The case of a Mr. D reported in a West Sussex trading standards and Help the Aged inquiry is sadly typical. He is aged 87 and was approached at home by a group of men to whom he ultimately gave £9,200. The men originally said that his front drive needed doing. They started clearing the drive and then said that the back needed doing. They then said that the job was bigger than they thought and they wanted more money. This was refused after the intervention of Mr. D's friend, but it was only through the subsequent involvement of trading standards and Help the Aged that these predators were finally warned off.

Evidence is strong of a link between this sort of activity and distraction burglary, and there is also disturbing evidence of repeat targeting of the most vulnerable victims to organised criminal gangs. The comprehensive April 2003 Trading Standards Institute report argues for a bin and quotes one offender: Another team may have been and done work there and found them to be a soft touch.. They might be moving on or feel it's risky to go back and do it again. They will sell us the house for a cut of our take, or we might give them a soft touch of our own in exchange. Recently, these vile, Artful Dodger-style modes of criminality have rightly attracted significant attention in the House. My hon Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) has raised the issue in two Adjournment debates, and has championed trading standards initiatives to tackle the problem. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) told us in an Adjournment debate that his own father had been a victim, and the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) highlighted similar abuses in his recent Property Repairs (Prohibition of Cold-Calling) Bill. I am grateful to all of them for their support.

Last week, hon. Members may have seen coverage of the report by the Office of Fair Trading on doorstep selling, which was produced in response to the super-complaint from Citizens Advice. It is an important examination of that undesirable activity and the techniques involved, including the way in which those people worm their way into the confidence of elderly and often housebound people. It offered constructive suggestions, which Ministers will want to consider closely, including a welcome proposal for consultation on a ban on work or payment within seven days. The OFT is looking at the case for banning cold calling for property repairs and maintenance and has suggested that the DTI should consult on the option of such a ban and on specific issues and alternatives involved". In view of the mounting evidence of abuse, I would strongly urge Ministers to go further and move swiftly to consult directly on legislation to implement such a ban.

A ban on such cold calling has already been discussed, and has the strong support of Help the Aged, for whose assistance with the Bill I am indebted. Jan Williams of the organisation wrote:

Too often, when consumers are confronted on the doorstep, they end up paying high prices for work…not needed in the first place…and are left feeling embarrassed, their confidence is damaged, and they no longer feel able to live independently. Banning doorstep trading for property repairs would mean rogue traders were unable to take advantage of older people. A ban also has the support of the Trading Standards Institute, whose team, including Brian Steele, the Leeds police co-ordinator of its distraction burglary project, and Stuart Pudney, head of trading standards for North Yorkshire, have worked tirelessly to gather evidence. Indeed, Ron Gainsford, chief executive of the Trading Standards Institute, said: The Institute has been working hard for over a year to gain support for this initiative…Older and vulnerable adults are often persuaded to part with thousands of pounds for shoddy or unnecessary work, and in some cases, losing their entire life savings. Victim Support, Neighbourhood Watch and Sense, the charity for people with deaf-blindness and associated disabilities, support a ban. Importantly, it has the backing of the Federation of Master Builders, which says: Vulnerable consumers should be protected from being pressurized into purchasing repairs on their doorstep, often at grossly inflated prices and with shoddy workmanship". A ban has the support of Detective Sergeant David Stone of Operation Liberal, a consortium of 11 police forces dealing with distraction burglary. I am delighted that Assistant Chief Constable Graham Gerard, the senior police representative on the Home Office distraction burglary taskforce, has confirmed that the police are often called to investigate cases where work is either carried out to inferior standards or payment is obtained and no work is undertaken. There are also cases where grossly inflated costs are claimed by the property repairers and intimidation is used to make the householder pay. Legislation that bans cold calling will greatly reduce the opportunities for rogue traders. I do not wish to damn everyone who promotes goods door to door or companies that have demonstrated their probity and professionalism over many years. My proposal would impose nothing more than a mild inconvenience on them, but only the absolute clarity of a ban, backed up with tough enforcement powers, will protect elderly and vulnerable people from the vultures who prey on them.

The scale of some abuses and the harm done is shocking. I shall conclude with the story of Mr. H, whose daughter contacted trading standards after discovering that her father had been systematically targeted by rogue traders for about four years. An unknown trader carried out some work for Mr. H, then claimed that his garage needed underpinning, demanding over £10,000 to carry out the work. It then appeared that a trader had been returning almost fortnightly to carry out building work and obtain money. No paperwork, no receipts and no invoices had ever been issued. Mr. H had remortgaged his home in order to pay the trader a sum of approximately £80,000.

Help the Aged made it clear to me when we discussed options for action in this area that without a complete ban on cold calling for property repairs, backed with powers of arrest, those criminal elements would continue to be able to target vulnerable older people. That generation, many of whom in the second world war helped save our country and the values we hold dear, deserve better than that. I hope the House will give leave to introduce the Bill. Question put and agreed to. Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Gordon Marsden, Mr. Paul Truswell, Mr. Andrew Robathan, Sandra Gidley, Dr. Julian Lewis, Mrs. Joan Humble, Lawrie Quinn, Ann Clwyd, Dr. Howard Stoate, Mr. Mike Hancock and Mr. David Drew.