Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Forth: Does my hon. Friend believe that the 650 or so other Members who are not here today are doing some kind of outworking instead of being here at Westminster where they should be?

Mr. Duncan: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It could be said that this is where we should be doing most of our work, and that our constituency work could be described as outworking.

Given that the Bill has so much Government support--indeed, it has been drafted by the Government--and that it has, quite reasonably, been taken off the shelf by the hon. Member for Northfield, it has attracted only a handful of Labour Members to the debate. However, numbers count in this House.

I was drawing a parallel between working at home as a secretary and standing for election. My point was that we cannot see so clearly into the future that we can predict who might get caught by the Bill. That is always the danger of legislation.

Mr. Maclean: Clause 1(2)(b) describes the exemptions. However, they are merely those

That is all that we know at the moment. The explanatory notes to the Bill state that the Secretary of State will exempt cases if he thinks that they are legitimate and might genuinely benefit workers. All we have from the Government is a suggestion that those categories of home workers that might be included or excluded are ones that the Secretary of State or his civil servants might think it beneficial to include or exclude. That is not good enough for legislation.

Mr. Duncan: My right hon. Friend hits on an important point. If the exclusions are to come before the House only by order, will the Minister say whether they will be descriptions of particular categories or ad hominem exclusions--that is to say, by named company? Will not that effectively amount to an approval process whereby a company seeking an exclusion will have to wait for the Secretary of State to put before the House an order stating that its proposed method of working is legitimate, even though it may be clear that everything it wants to do is legitimate?

Anyone who believes that he will work within the law can set up a company, employ people, trade and make a profit. However, under new Labour, we may suddenly

2 Feb 2001 : Column 602

create a category of commerce for which permission and a statutory instrument are required before concerns can go about their lawful commercial business. That amounts to a pre-approval process unparalleled in any other area of commercial activity. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House what exclusions he envisages and how regularly he will have to amend and adapt such exclusions to keep up with an ever-changing world.

All that gives rise to a fundamental concern about the Bill and returns us to the point about social justice that both sides of the argument have tried to address. Unlike most legislation--unlike all legislation, I would like to think--the Bill contains a presumption of guilt. It assumes that anyone who might seek prepayment is guilty and that anyone who might advertise is guilty of wanting to set up a scam. That is upside down legislation.

If people do not conform to certain criteria and are proved to be administering a scam, we should get 'em and get 'em hard. However, the Bill suggests that there is a certain method of doing business that, in all cases, would be deemed to be criminal even though the Government and many Labour Members accept that much of what is going on is not criminal, deceitful or corrupt. We may criminalise the good--arguably, criminalise the majority--to catch the bad.

The Bill would be better legislation that properly tried to address a problem that we all want solved if it took a different approach. It should define what is bad about the effects of such scams on individuals sufficiently to provide that those who overstep the boundaries would fall foul of the law and that there would be powers to stop them. However, it would criminalise people who could be doing something perfectly proper, decent and beneficial. It is a pity that a lot of the good could be caught up in the bad.

Assumption of guilt is questionable as a principle of legislation. The methodology is questionable, but the purpose laudable. Conservative Members support the purpose, but there are severe questions about the legislative detail. Ideally, a proper consumer Bill containing trading standards measures to address the issue properly, honestly and fairly would be introduced, although I accept that we will not get that from the new Labour Government, who have failed to deliver a lot of what they promised.

12.9 pm

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): I, too, am pleased to sponsor the Bill. When I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) what subject he might choose, I was surprised when he suggested home working and outworking, as no constituency cases have been brought to my attention. I know two people who are involved in home working. One is a woman who used to live in the flat below mine and did sewing work at home. I knew that that work had come from a factory owner, who was not really exploiting her. He may not have been paying her very well, but no scam was involved. The other employer was someone I know who produces a great many embroidery kits. Embroidery is a popular activity, and many people work for him at home; he, too, pays his workers well. Those cases would not be caught by the Bill, because in neither case has there been a demand for money in advance, followed by a rejection of the work on spurious grounds.

2 Feb 2001 : Column 603

As I had encountered no bad cases myself, I wondered what the Bill was about. However, once I had talked to trading standards officers in my area, Derbyshire, I realised why no cases had been referred to me. The fact is that the scams often require relatively small sums from a large number of individuals. The operators feel that they can rely on complaints not being made, and on the loss being written off to a bad experience. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield said, many people just see themselves as mugs and feel that they were stupid to be taken in. John Logan, who was caught by one of the many scams of Simon Stepsys of Win-Star Direct in Cheshire--who, having been caught out by the Office of Fair Trading, had to make a "voluntary" statement that he would not continue his scams--produced a cogent account of his experience. He said:

John Logan did not make a complaint. He just felt stupid, tore up the material and chucked it in the bin. It is because many people react in the same way that cases are not referred to us, and stronger legislation is needed.

Derbyshire's trading standards department tells me that, although the complaints it has received represent only the tip of the iceberg because most people feel too stupid to say anything and the sums involved are often small--though they add up to a huge amount--it received 38 complaints in the last financial year alone. I want to mention three of those scams, because I think that the more variety we see, the easier it will be for us to identify the problem with which we must deal.

The first example involves a Derbyshire resident who replied to an advertisement for extras in films and television. I do not think that such advertisements have been mentioned so far. Such work sounds rather glamorous, and people would not necessarily be considered gullible for taking up the offer--not in Derbyshire, anyway. Nearly everyone in my area knows someone who has been an extra in "Peak Practice", my local TV soap. Alastair, my constituency party chair's son, gave a brilliant performance in a recent episode of "Peak Practice". We also have Chatsworth house, which is always seeking extras for the various films made there. The scam was therefore quite plausible, but, having paid a £10 registration fee, the consumer received no offers of work as an extra at Chatsworth or in "Peak Practice". He did not receive the regular newsletter; indeed, he did not receive anything. Eventually, he was told that the trader had moved, and a new telephone number was given. The number, of course, did not exist, and the trader had disappeared.

Sometimes people are found out. My second example involves an advertisement for work printing envelopes, which is quite common. Consumers had to pay a £35 fee, and a £110 fee for every 250 envelopes mailed was promised; but the consumer had to supply her own materials, including stamps. The materials cost about £135. Although the printed result was of good quality, payment was refused on the ground that the quality was not of the standard required. In that case intervention by a consumer adviser worked and the consumer received a full refund, but it is the exception rather than the rule.

2 Feb 2001 : Column 604

Another Derbyshire resident saw an advertisement for a home worker scheme involving making pottery cottages, and sent off £36 for the kit. He thought that he would receive four moulds and enough plaster and paint to make 40 cottages. On opening the kit he found that the materials were of very poor quality, and that the quantity was only enough to make about 10 cottages. He felt that he had been misled and asked for a full refund. He is still waiting for that, but he knows that the person involved in the scam could be caught by such legislation.

There are many examples; others have been quoted. Once we start to think about it, we will all remember seeing the amazing headlines, including on the internet. There is a good list of examples on the Office of Fair Trading website. It points out the things that people should look out for when they see a scam on the internet or in an advertisement: capital letters that shout at them; words such as "The secrets of guaranteed success"; vague references and so on. It warns against advertisements that say, "This is not a scam." It probably is. Promises are made of instant wealth and easy money. We have all seen such advertisements.

I have heard no hon. Member say that he or she approves of the scams; obviously, no one does. Indeed, Conservative Members, although querying how the legislation is framed, have made it clear they do not support the scams, so why do they not support the Bill? The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) said that he wanted to deal with those cases and supported the purpose of the Bill, and other Conservative Members have opposed the scams. They have made a number of detailed points, which should be considered in Committee. I appeal to them to put their votes where their mouth is and to support the principle of the Bill.

That is the whole point of a Second Reading debate: to gain support for the principle of a Bill, and then the details of the legislation can be argued about in Committee. I urge Conservative Members to support the Bill.

The scams prey on the vulnerable. People are not necessarily gullible or taken in. The scams are often plausible. We should give the Bill a Second Reading so that it can then go into Committee, where the detail can be looked at. I hope that hon. Members will support it today.

Next Section

IndexHome Page