Previous SectionIndexHome Page

11.45 am

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): This has been an interesting debate. The House is full of good intentions on this topic, even though the conclusions reached on either side are very different. I do not in any way impugn the good intentions of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden). He has identified a problem and attempted to solve it. It is not a massive problem, but it is a nasty one that comes up repeatedly and, as the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) said, especially hits the vulnerable, the poor, the disabled and those who are scrabbling to get every penny that they can in order to subsist.

We all want to eliminate the scams, in the cause of social justice, but we need to try to marry good intentions with good law, and there is a danger that the Bill could get us into a bit of a mess. Conservative Members share the desire of the hon. Member for Northfield and his supporters to tackle the problem, but it is always difficult to legislate simply for good intentions. Equally, it is difficult to outlaw gullibility.

The Bill would empower trading standards officers, under the weights and measures structure, to intervene and apply the law to stop scams. We, too, want to tackle the deceit and corruption. It is a poor reflection on some people that they still fall for such scams. Local newspapers have run excellent campaigns to expose those scams, and it is sad that people can still be taken for suckers--but we must treat the world as it is, and if we, as parliamentarians, feel that a law is needed, we must make that law and frame it well.

We are determined to try to find a way of giving people the power to banish these swindles from our society. There are a lot of scams, sometimes dressed up with new ways of advertising and describing what is essentially a system of saying, "I'll give you a penny, and you give me a pound." At the heart of all the scams is a little bit of enticement leading to the participants parting with more money than they get back, to the benefit of someone who knew at the outset that that was exactly what would happen. Scams have included bogus recruitment, envelope addressing and basic manufacturing in somebody's living room, as well as directories, kits and so on.

Many home-working schemes are, however, legitimate. Some people--especially those who are caring for children or who are housebound--participate legitimately and profitably in home-working schemes and are satisfied with their involvement. The danger of the Bill is that faulty drafting might cause the good to be caught up with the bad. I want to address that issue, about which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is especially concerned. He pointed out that there are far more good schemes than bad. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) said, it appears that the proposed financial gain from the Bill could be up to 10 times greater than the current loss. I have no doubt that the Minister will want to explain that loss.

The key point about getting the Bill right is for us all to be satisfied that the good will not get caught up with the bad or suffer in well-intentioned attempts to tackle the

2 Feb 2001 : Column 598

problems that exist. I should like to set out some background in that respect, as Opposition Members have some regrets about the origin of the current situation. The measures contained in the Bill should have been part of the Government's much-promised and long-awaited consumer Bill. They failed to introduce such a Bill in the Queen's Speech, which is why we are considering the add-on, stand-alone Bill that is before us.

The Government have been promising that wider consumer measure for a long time. In their consumer White Paper, which was entitled "Modern Markets: Confident Consumers", they said that they would publish a consultation paper and introduce a Bill. They have published a consultation paper that does not deal with many issues, certainly not in respect of the Bill that is before us; they have merely conducted an informal consultation with a few privately selected consumer groups. That process goes against the grain of what they always promise in the consultation that they pretend to offer in the spirit of so-called open government. All that has happened is that a few quangos have told the Minister or his Department what they want. The Bill is certainly not the product of wider consultation.

I am especially concerned that the many legitimate companies that provide a livelihood for people who are working from their homes have not been adequately consulted and may not yet be aware of the effect on them of the dangers that lurk in the Bill. I doubt whether the internet industry has been consulted. Many of the Bill's provisions could be circumvented by advertisements on the net. One could sit in Calais and advertise through an internet service provider a home-working scheme on what appears to be a UK-based website. People with credit cards could then subscribe to that scheme. I acknowledge that many of the people involved in home working will not have credit cards, but they would somehow find a means of remitting money if they thought that such a scheme was the way to their fortune and reward. The money would then go outside the United Kingdom.

Internet advertising could, therefore, result in the transmission of money through a Visa card or a MasterCard to pay for the sort of scam that the Bill is designed to address, but the Bill would have no power over those involved. The internet can, therefore, allow easy, modern and inexpensive circumvention of the very problem that the Bill is trying, but failing, to address.

I have a greater concern. I cannot quite match with the detail of the Bill the claims that hon. Members--I refer mainly to Labour Members--make about its contents. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) rightly said, the devil is in the detail. Indeed, I was going to use that phrase anyway, but he said it first. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, the House has become increasingly prone to introducing legislation on the basis of good intent, favourable headlines and campaigns. We have begun to lose detailed scrutiny and a proper understanding of how every dot, comma and word that we are enshrining in a Bill will be enforced in practical terms when that Bill is enacted.

Mr. Forth: It is perfectly legitimate for focused single-interest groups to lobby Members of Parliament and to seek to persuade them to introduce laws. However, does my hon. Friend agree that it is our wider responsibility to balance those representations with the more general good and to make our judgment on that

2 Feb 2001 : Column 599

basis? It can never be good enough merely for us to say that we must legislate simply because an organisation or body says that a proposal is good. Our duty runs much wider and deeper.

Mr. Duncan: I agree with my right hon. Friend. The Government have sought to buy off pressure groups by representing them, and probably them alone, in some of their legislation, even if not in the Bill that is before us, yet hon. Members must represent all their constituents and the country when they pass laws that are universally applicable. We must therefore consider the detail.

Mr. Tyler: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for missing the first minute of his speech. Unlike the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), does the hon. Gentleman support the Bill? Does he want it to go into Committee so that the detail to which he refers can be properly scrutinised in the right forum? I accept his point about internet circumvention of the measure. Does he wish to amend the Bill in Committee to tackle that problem?

Mr. Duncan: We are considering a private Member's Bill, and the structure of a Committee that considered it would be slightly different from that of a normal Standing Committee. We support the Bill's intentions, but it would be better if it was completely redrafted. Amendment in Committee would remove so much of it that it would require such redrafting. As I develop my argument, the hon. Member for North Cornwall will understand my position. We want to get rid of the scams through good law. We accept in principle the Bill's intention and would support a well-drafted measure on home working. However, we are duty bound to consider the detail.

As with every measure that I have examined in detail, the style of drafting terrifies me. Why cannot Bills use simpler English? There is no obstacle to our insisting on updating our legislative language. Many of the "wherefores", dots, commas, cross-references, letters and numbers are unnecessary. I try to read legislation and I find it difficult, so heaven knows how people cope when they pick up a Bill simply to ascertain whether they fall foul of the law.

I found the comments of the hon. Member for Northfield on premium-rate telephone lines difficult to reconcile with the wording of the Bill. I should welcome it if he could identify the clause that applies to those premium lines. Whether a company that sends a fax and asks for replies through a premium-rate fax line--the hon. Gentleman believes that he used such a line this morning--falls foul of the Bill will be a matter for the courts. The Bill lacks the necessary clarity, although the hon. Gentleman believes that it is clear.

The main problem is the breadth of the category that the Bill automatically chooses to criminalise in clauses 2 and 3. Clause 2 makes it a criminal offence to seek or receive

Clause 3 makes it a criminal offence to receive money for providing information about outworking proposals. That may appear innocuous and so simple and obvious that

2 Feb 2001 : Column 600

hon. Members believe that it properly tackles the corruption and theft that are the basis of the problem. That may be true in some cases, but it may also catch the good with the bad.

All the speeches that I have heard this morning imply that the main problem is the anonymity of the scam monger and the difficulty of tracing such a person. We have heard that such people use PO box numbers, and that they provide only mobile phone numbers. They can chuck a mobile phone in the river or disconnect at will. It is therefore difficult to track those people.

The best method of tackling the scams and finding the people who are behind them is to require in law that anyone who trades in outworking registers makes available a proper name, address and contact details, and that PO box numbers and mobile phone numbers are not acceptable. No one has presented an argument to show why such a provision, and perhaps a little extra, would not suffice to tackle the problem.

Instead of that simple provision, which would go a long way towards tackling the problem, the Bill criminalises anyone who asks for a little deposit--I shall give possible examples shortly--or makes a charge or even advertises some sort of home working.

I can envisage an idea--touched on by hon. Members on both sides of the House--that one might call a home secretary scheme. By that, I mean a scheme whereby secretaries work at home using modern technology. Many people have a laptop computer in their house. A wife, perhaps looking after a young child, could do a few hours' work a day transcribing, typing or even proofreading a book.

A company, perhaps a publisher, might say to a secretary, "I am going to employ you to proofread documents." They could be instruction manuals for new products, perhaps, or books. The person could then sit at home, receive the documents through the ether on to her computer, do the work and send them back. It would be only fair for the company to say that, for that to work sensibly, the person should have some kind of compatible software. She might have to buy that. Alternatively, she might be required to provide some evidence of training. She might then have to pay to go on a course, for example. Such practices would be outlawed by the Bill. I see the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) shaking her head; perhaps she would like to tell me why. I also seek assurances from the Minister--I am sure that, if they exist, he will be well briefed enough to provide them.

There are possible problems that have not yet been envisaged. Decent schemes that are perfectly legitimate and above board, and that would benefit home workers, might require the transfer of money to get them started--to prime them, in some way. Such schemes might find themselves trapped and outlawed by the Bill. That would be a pity because that would be worse, in some ways, than getting rid of the problem that the Bill is trying to address.

If we were to find that the unintended consequences of this Bill were to reduce and, in some cases, forbid the kind of work that suits the way in which people in the modern world want to work--and the kind of work that we want to encourage--we should have done a bad thing. I cannot see sufficient exclusions and exemptions in the Bill to address that concern. We might find that, rather

2 Feb 2001 : Column 601

than having a Bill that outlawed home-working scams, we had a Bill that outlawed home working. That would be a disgrace to the procedures of the House.

We cannot envisage every eventuality. I can, however, think of one example. Hon. Members might think it is absurd, but at least it is close to home. Let us imagine an advertisement that states: "There is a life out there in which you can earn up to £50,000 a year. You will be very important in life in the future. All you have to do is send £1,000 deposit to the returning officer." There could be an exclusion in the Bill that will ensure that trading standards officers will not stop the next general election. However, that is an example of someone applying for a job--it could be called outworking--who has to submit money in advance. There are probably much better examples.

Next Section

IndexHome Page