HL Deb 30 June 1972 vol 332 cc1129-40

12.44 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. When the honourable Member for Sedgefield, Mr. David Reed, asked me to support his Bill, I was only too pleased to do so. The Bill illustrates yet again the continuing loyalty and interest taken in disabled people, and people who are genuinely working for them, by Parliament. The Bill has had all-Party support, including support from the Government, in another place. I think, and hope, that it will have the same support in your Lordships' House. I am delighted to see that the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, is speaking on this Bill. I cannot think of a better person to do so and I only hope that the noble Baroness will be supporting the Bill, because among her many offices is that of General Secretary of the National Association of Women's Clubs. If this Bill becomes an Act, to make it work, the public, and especially the housewife, will have to be educated, and I do not think any organisations can do this particularly essential job better than the Women's Clubs.

The Trading Representations (Disabled Persons) Act, 1958, was a praiseworthy attempt to control the activities of traders engaged in selling goods from door to door or by post and who represent that the goods are made by blind or other disabled people. It was introduced as a Private Member's Bill, because it was felt that traders were exploiting public sympathy for the blind and disabled by selling goods and exaggerating the extent to which they employed these people. This was harming the interests of genuine charities. Under the Act, traders, other than non-profit-making organisations, selling goods by post or from door to door and representing that they employ or, by the sale of their goods, otherwise benefit disabled people, are required to register with the Department of Employment. At the present time there are only 37 current registrations covering some 200 workers. The largest firm registered employs about 50 disabled people in packing goods, but most of the registered traders are quite small with, at the most, only a few disabled employees.

This Act is being disgracefully abused. Shady traders have set up in business, making themselves look presentable and official by using "registered under the Trading Representations Act 1958" as a cover. It has been found that in order to register, traders have been employing disabled people and, once registered, laying them off. Also, the disabled (who are employed in mainly menial jobs such as packing goods) work in a central place in very unsuitable premises, with no ramps for access and no medical assistance should they need it. It is estimated that for approximately 200 disabled people employed there are at least 600 or perhaps a thousand salesmen, each operating identical sales methods—these being able-bodied people. These are rogues, making their living from the misfortunes of others and playing on the emotions of unsuspecting housewives. They use the disabled as their "sales gimmick".

I have here an example of the sort of thing that is sold from door to door—a "J" cloth and one of the poorest quality dusters I have ever seen stuffed into a plastic bag. Inside is a slip, saying "Packed and prepared by a disabled person who is registered with the Department of Employment and Productivity". These products are priced at 20p, whereas the maximum selling price in the shops would be about 7p. No disabled person could be proud of the workmanship of packing involved in these things. To me, it seems exceedingly pathetic. It has been found that one-third of the profits are taken by salesmen's commission; a further one-third covers overheads such as directors' expenses; and one-third (if they are lucky) gets through to the disabled. The Press has done considerable research into these matters and in one paper which I have in my hand it tells how these rogues operate. It says: He exploits cripples for profit. His turnover once reached £1,000 a week, he boasted. The Act has proved too difficult to administer and it is virtually impossible to police. This Bill, which is intended to amend the 1958 Act, is short—which, after recent Bills and Bills shortly to come, will make a change in your Lordships' House—but nevertheless it is important. There may be only a few people involved in this racket of selling or exchanging articles under false pretences, but the bad publicity which comes from this practice can spread far and wide and involve many people. The major provision of this new Bill is to withdraw the right to register. All representations that goods have been made by the disabled, except by a limited number of worthwhile organisations, will be made illegal. The penalties will be fines not exceeding £400: conviction on indictment shall not exceed two years' imprisonment. The traders who have been selling their goods supposedly to help the disabled and using the fact that they are registered under the 1958 Act will have to sell their goods on their own merits, if the Bill becomes law. They will still be able to visit houses and prattle on with their sales jargon, but leaving out the disabled. Perhaps some housewives may be disappointed if door to door selling is stopped altogether. Some housewives' mundane, lonely days, can sometimes be brightened up by a salesman who may have a considerable amount of charm and talent.

Another damaging aspect of the door-to-door selling using the gimmick of the disabled is that when a much-needed genuine appeal for the disabled is being made in an area which has already been covered by the racketeers, the public say that they have already given to the charity; so the genuine charity suffers. For this reason and of course because of the exploitation of disabled people many nationwide organisations for the blind and disabled have supported this Bill. I want to make it quite clear to your Lordships that a firm composed of disabled people producing goods by their own labour will be exempt from the penalties in this Bill. The Charity Commissioners could not guarantee that all the firms which registered with them were reputable. That is hardly surprising, as there are over 78,000 organisations who register. Because of this, the reference of the Charity Commissioners was deleted from the Bill, at their request, at the Committee stage in another place. The cover of the Charity Commissioners was also being used by the rogues.

Clause 3 of the Bill, apart from giving the title, suggests that January 1, 1973, should be the operative date. This time lag of about six months should give the Department of Employment a chance to find alternative employment for the few disabled people—maybe about a hundred—who will lose their jobs because of this Bill if it becomes an Act. I hope that the noble Earl will be able to give an assurance on this point to your Lordships in a few moments. Even with the sanctions and the penalties proposed to make life difficult for the racketeers, some of them will try to carry on "conning" the gullible housewives. If your Lordships accept this Bill, there are many in this House who hold high office in committees and organisations, and therefore your Lordships can help to educate the public and try to stamp out this practice for ever. I commend the Bill to your Lordships and I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Masham of Ilton.)

12.53 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words in support of my noble friend Lady Masham of Ilton. This is a small Bill; nevertheless, I think it will be a useful one, and it is necessary in order to protect the interests of disabled persons. Unfortunately, in our society to-day we have a small minority of people who will go to any lengths for their own gains, even to the extent of misrepresenting the disabled. This I consider to be despicable. The Bill itself is straightforward and, so far as I can see, there is no reason why we should need to amend it in Committee. It prohibits the selling or exchanging of any goods purporting to have been produced, prepared or packed by blind or otherwise disabled persons when in fact they have not been so produced, prepared or packed. It also increases the punishment on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £400, and on conviction on indictment to a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or both. These figures are much more relevant to the present day than those in the 1958 Act, and might perhaps serve as something of a deterrent. I wish the Bill well.

12.54 p.m.


My Lords, very briefly, I support this Bill. I sincerely hope that this noble House will see that the Bill becomes enacted. I will not detain the House for more than one minute. I was delighted to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, say that there are occasions when a bright salesman can cheer up a lugubrious girl's day by knocking on the door. This is the whole point: sometimes that type of person who is lonely and just wants to chat is willing to spend two, three or four shillings on something which quite often is useless. I have done that myself. Unfortunately in my home the door where people knock is not far from my study, and only the other day a brush salesman called. When my wife came home she said, "Why in the name"—I will not say of whom—"did you spend so much money on a brush that could have been picked up in a shop not many miles away for a quarter of the price?" But I did this for sentimental reasons because the salesman was supposed to be selling goods for ex-servicemen and the disabled. This racket goes on. In modern society it should be stopped. I have said enough; to continue would be only to reiterate obvious arguments in this noble Chamber. I sincerely hope that the Bill will have the support of your Lordships.

12.56 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, on the lucid and splendid way in which she introduced this Bill—characteristically, if I may say so—and also for remarking on my organisation. It is always useful to have this kind of publicity, which is rather rare in your Lordships' House. On Wednesday we were discussing the Report of the Crowther Committee on Consumer Credit. There is a section in this splendid Report which refers to doorstep selling. I have selected this quotation: Where the experienced salesman is facing an inexperienced housewife on her doorstep, or in her sitting room, there is hardly an equality of bargaining power". If we add to this the additional emotional blackmail of the sad story of the handicapped person there is little doubt that women are grossly exploited in this field. I am sorry that the noble Baroness felt that salesmen might enliven the housewives' day. Perhaps we could form a club for them where they can do good to help other people. This might be more rewarding to the community. Ever since the days of the Old Testament there has been something particularly repugnant in the citizen who exploits the disabled or blind in order to gain his own ends. I would put them on the level of the landlord who exploits the tenants who are sorely in need of occupation, or those in the last century who exploited little children. I thought the phrase "to use the disabled as a sales gimmick" was a very true one. I am very happy to tell the noble Baroness that we on this side of the House heartily support this small but very important measure, and I hope that it will move speedily through the House.

May I conclude by telling her that my own mother, a very lively lady of advanced years, has a way of dealing with these salesmen, by saying that she is only the woman who works in the house and therefore cannot have anything to do with these matters. On one occasion a gentleman came rather late, at about eight o'clock at night, offering some appallingly painted cards which he said were painted by the disabled. She said that she was only the woman who worked there. He said, "You poor little thing, at your age! Do have a box of these cards for nothing." Perhaps this was one occasion when the biter was bitten. I have great pleasure in supporting this measure.

12.59 p.m.


My Lords, this has been, in Parliamentary affairs, a long summer and it is certain that its end is a long way ahead of us, and whatever the temperature outside Parliament the political temperature has been high and contentious enough to be going on with. It is always a pleasure, on Friday mornings, to cool down a little, and to get on with legislation no less important for being less contentious than the week's work behind us. To-day it is a special pleasure for me to participate in the Second Reading of a Bill which I believe will commend itself—which I believe has already commended itself to noble Lords on all sides of the House. A special pleasure, my Lords, for three reasons. First, it has been introduced with great clarity and dignity by my noble friend Lady Masham. I was delighted to see that she did not in this day eschew visual aids in this Chamber, and I wish we could have more of them.

Secondly, it is liable to remind your Lordships of the life and work of Lord Stonham who, as Victor Collins, in another place in 1958 sponsored the Private Member's Bill which became the Act which the present Bill is designed usefully to amend. When I first started taking part in debates in your Lordships' House, noble Lords opposite were in Government and Lord Stonham used, I thought, to be specially considerate and tolerant of my contributions when he came to wind up debates. I therefore think of him with special affection.

Third, and most important, I believe that for all its sincerity and brevity this is a useful and muscular Bill which will, when it becomes law, go a long way towards putting an end to a particularly shoddy and disagreeable type of fraud, or—since I must be careful of the legal implications of what I say—of near fraud.

Your Lordships will know from what has gone before that the Trading Representation (Disabled Persons) Act 1958, was an attempt to control the activities of traders who sell goods from door to door or by post and represent that the goods are made by blind and other disabled people. It was introduced as a Private Member's Bill and I am glad to say that my right honourable friend the Lord President of the Council, then a Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Department for which I speak in this House, saw to its success. It was introduced because of the concern felt by many organisations and institutions, including the Royal National Institute for the Blind. This concern arose because by exaggerating the extent to which they employed blind or otherwise disabled people and by charging high prices for inferior goods, immoral traders were exploiting public sympathy for the blind and disabled; and, of course, an important side effect of such misrepresentations was their ability to harm the interests of genuine charities.

Under the Act traders, other than nonprofit making organisations, selling goods by post or from door to door and representing that they employ, or that the sale of goods otherwise benefits, disabled people, are required to register with the Department of Employment. Before they can be registered the Department has to be satisfied that the representations which traders propose to make can reasonably and properly be made and that they fairly convey the extent and nature of the employment and benefit to be provided. A trader is liable to have his registration cancelled if he is found to be making representations which do not do so.

This was the intention—commonsensical and humane—underlying the Act. To-day we are giving a Second Reading in this House to a Bill to amend it. The reasons for amending it are, as your lordships have learned, simple. However well intentioned and sensible the Act, it must be admitted that it has not worked well in practice. The officials at the Department of Employment have, of course, done their best on a day-to-day basis to make sure that the register works but, in the words of Mr. David Reed, who sponsored this Bill in another place early this year, it has proved impossible to make the register bite or to prevent its abuse. Indeed, I am sorry to say that the register has to some degree, and albeit unwittingly, compounded the malpractice, since it is not unknown for registered firms to represent the fact of their registration in such a way as to make it appear that the Department endorses the goods they were selling or the ways in which they were selling them. Clearly, if the Act were to bite, a disproportionate number of officials would be involved in relation to the scale of the present abuses. And even then it would be unlikely that they would succeed in curbing all abuses in this field. One of the disadvantages of red tape, as your Lordships will be aware, is its tendency to form loops and, consequently, loopholes. I believe that if your Lordships accept what I have said so far, you will be quite a long way along the road towards giving the Bill a Second Reading.

It may be helpful if I were now to tighten up a few screws adjoining the nuts and bolts of the Bill which the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, laid out clearly by summarising a little of what has gone before and by drawing to the attention of the House the assurance for which the noble Baroness asked. The first Part of the Bill—these are really the salient points—simply requires that where the 1958 Act dealt with selling in this way, the present Amendment Bill covers exchange and barter as well. It provides for prevention against touting by telephone because under the 1958 Act traders who touted by this method were exempt from prosecution should they be caught, and I readily admit that it is extremely hard to catch them.

Next, and most important, the Bill ends the principle of registration. This is the nub of the matter because, as I said, registration was, as it were, the cloak of respectability under which these malpractices were being concealed. One category of bona fide—one might say a false category—is thereby being removed, but I would add to what the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, said that of course existing bona fides which are benefiting existing legitimate charities will in no way be affected. I realise that such a Bill will not prevent crime. Nevertheless, it will strengthen the deterrents against crime or at least it will remove a blanket under which crime was somewhat easier to get away with.

In the next Part of the Bill it is made quite clear that disabled people—for instance, blind persons who manufacture goods themselves—are in no way prohibited from selling them. Were I a handicapped person I could say that I had made a basket, but I could not say that I had wrapped it in polythene or made it in conjunction with others. Again I emphasise what the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, said about the big charitable organisations being 100 per cent. behind us on this. The noble Baroness outlined this point, so I will not detain your Lordships by going into it. The question of penalties is important and it brings me to Clause 2, in which the mechanics of Clause 1 are put into effect.

Clause 3 is also mechanical and deals with the name of the measure and the question of the few sheltered workships which are approved by the Department. It is on this point that I can give the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, an assurance that everything possible will be done to provide employment for local people who will become employed as a result of this Bill reaching the Statute Book. Discussions are already going on with some local authorities about the possibility of increasing sheltered employment for this purpose and we shall, of course, pursue this with great vigilance.

My Lords, it has been a long week and I do not wish to delay further your Lordships' well earned weekend, so I will bring my remarks to a close by simply commending this Bill. The Government in general and the Department of Employment in particular endorse it most warmly and we congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, for the way in which she has brought it before the House. It is a rigorous and useful piece of legislation. We are aware, of course, of the limitations, not so much of the Bill as of human life; there is no end to fraud or to ingenuity. Discussion of the Bill helps to publicise abuses which no Act can altogether prevent; prevention being best served by the education of the public, in particular of the housewife, in the kind of tricks dishonest traders can get up to. I would add without prejudice to him that if I were a housewife being approached by the blandishments of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, I would succumb very quickly.

It would be wrong for a Bill to prevent door-to-door salesmanship in a free society but this Bill does prevent spurious claims being made on behalf of those who have known handicap and misfortune. It brings the penalties which may be imposed under the principal Act up to those which may be imposed under the Trade Descriptions Act, 1968, and so provides for an appropriate deterrent. It helps to correct the very wrong image which the kind of traders we have been referring to project of handicapped people to-day. As my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment pointed out in another place, given the right sort of training and aids, handicapped people are increasingly opting for employment under ordinary conditions and are holding down jobs as university lecturers, civil servants, teachers, computer programmers, shorthand and audio typists and a wide range of industrial jobs. And here let me just say that to-day I have the backing—as my honourable friend had the backing—of an official who is an expert in these matters and who also is a blind person.

To return to the Bill, in 1958 Lord Stonham, as Mr. Victor Collins, said in another place: If the House accepts the Bill to-day and it becomes law, it will stop this racket. It will stop the cheating of the warm-hearted public and, most important of all, it will assist the blind, the crippled and the otherwise disabled, who deserve all the help we can possibly give them. My Lords, it would be superfluous of me to try to improve upon those words. The present amending Bill is cast in just the same spirit; indeed, it is cast so that that spirit may be strengthened and preserved. That is why I would ask your Lordships to read it a second time.

1.11 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to detain your Lordships any longer, because I know that the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, is waiting to speak on yet again the disabled. I have a special interest in that regard because he is speaking of bringing in more legislation to benefit the disabled in Scotland; and, being a pure-bred Scot, that is why I have a special interest. I should like to thank all the speakers who have taken part and to say that I think the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, illustrated rather well, by the example of her mother, how a salesman strikes when the woman is alone and the man of the house is out. That is one of their ways of trying to put over their bad example. I was glad that the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, mentioned that the telephone also was used for this type of selling, because while I did not mention this it does of course happen, and these people again use the disabled. This they will no longer be able to do.

The noble Earl showed. I thought, that the Government are taking this matter seriously and consider that this is an important Bill. That was shown by the way in which he so wholeheartedly spoke on the Government's behalf. I was most interested in all he said about the employment of disabled people. I cannot stress too strongly to your Lordships that disabled people do not want pity; they want opportunity. They want good jobs which will give them job satisfaction. People who have employed disabled persons find that they do exceedingly good and thorough work, and have perhaps more interest and more challenge than an ordinary, able-bodied person. I hope that this Bill will encourage people to employ disabled people. That is all I have to say, and I hope that your Lordships will now give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question. Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.