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Mr. Forth: While my right hon. Friend is on the subject of the Home Office, and can give us the benefit of his vast experience of it, will he think--perhaps not now, but as he develops his remarks--about whether simpler, civil remedies might be available to people who feel that they have been sufficiently exploited in the way that Labour Members suggest? Perhaps they could take the person who has committed the offences to court. Perhaps there is a way to assist them using existing legal redress rather than introducing a ghastly Bill such as this.
Mr. Maclean: My right hon. Friend could be on to a good point there. I do not want to go too far down that route. I suggest that the Government have looked down the wrong end of the telescope. This Bill and other Bills could improve access to civil remedies. That could be a better solution than new criminal penalties. We could make it easier for the so-called little people of the world to get access to court to get their money back, or to take collective action against the crooks.
Where people are engaged in criminal activity, there has to be a criminal sanction. I have no problem with that. If people are fraudulently advertising goods and services that do not exist, as they seem to be, and are ripping people off, they should be prosecuted somehow or other and suffer penalties, whether it is £5,000 or some other amount. I shall wish to move an amendment on Report to make such scams an indictable offence if we are dealing with a more serious crime.
If one chap's scam took in £600,000, it is a pretty big scam and level 5 on the standard scale could apply. Admittedly, the fine could be imposed for every offence, so if 1,000 people gave money and there are 1,000 charges against the person involved and he is fined £5,000 for each charge, that could be a substantial sum. I presume that the magistrates court would have the authority to pass the case to the Crown court for sentence. We will wish to explore that matter on Report.
Provision should be made for an indictable offence in cases involving such a high level of criminality. I shall not go into detail about that today. It would be inappropriate to do so, but I can envisage amendments and possibly a new clause being tabled on Report. Trading standards officers might have confiscation powers. After all, their warehouses might be full of all the hamburger carts that they have confiscated in the metropolitan parks during the past year, but they should have space for some of the documentation, as well as the other goods, that they might confiscate from the scammers.
Mr. Maclean: It is not just bureaucracy. I make the point for the last time: if people have set up a little business and issued leaflets, saying "Send me 10 quid"--perhaps for a new idea, a new internet guide to home shopping, or whatever--they have already committed the offence, so it is difficult to say that the Department will consider that on a case-by-case basis. Those involved will already be guilty.
Mr. Forth: I hate to disagree with my right hon. Friend, but surely people will be advised not to set up such a business until they have got clearance from the bureaucracy, and the entrepreneurs will take the risk if they do not get it. That is why I want to make it clear to my right hon. Friend that that will stifle business. Following his own logic, surely those who want to set up a new business will have to go through some ghastly DTI bureaucracy and their proposals may even need to receive the signature of the Secretary of State, or the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs, before they dare set up their little businesses.
Mr. Maclean: My right hon. Friend is right for those who know about such matters--those who ask business links, the latest name of such things, or any of the other county-based industrial start-up schemes how they can get help or funding from the board or the various Government agencies. Those organisations will say, "Hang on, this is an outworking idea and it's not within the parameters that the Secretary of State has described." In that case, the people will have to apply to the Secretary of State, describing and justifying their ideas. The explanatory notes state that, if the Secretary of State thinks the proposal
My right hon. Friend is right to say that those entrepreneurs who know that such things are prohibited by law will have to go through the bureaucracy to ask a Government advisory quango and to get permission.
I am concerned that the Bill puts the onus on the Government and the Secretary of State to decide what is lawful and what is legitimate. I am suggesting, inadequately, that the Bill should be drafted differently so that the courts determine such matters. The Bill should set out an offence of fraud or deception, so that anyone who advertises with the intention of deceiving people into sending money is guilty of that offence. Then the trading standards officers can round up anyone they like and let the court decide whether the activity is crooked or legitimate.
We should not substitute the Government's judgment for that of the courts or magistrates. The Government will make the judgment--in advance, we hope, but often post event--not on an individual who is tried, but on whether a business is legitimate and would "genuinely benefit workers". How is the Department to decide that?
If the election goes badly for me and I find myself seeking other activity--[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear"]--I know that I would have hon. Members' support in finding honest employment. If I answer an advertisement in the Labour party paper asking me to send in £25 for a pack that one day may lead to my being selected as a candidate, I may conclude that that would genuinely benefit me, but the Bill says that the Government should decide what is of genuine benefit to home workers.
Of course, we must protect people from criminality, but there may be a wide range of views on what is of benefit. Some people would not work at home for less than £10 an hour, but others would be willing to work for £5, £4, £2 or even 50p an hour. We might all agree that working for so little is scandalous and wrong, but the individual has the right to decide. Why should the Government decide what is best for people who choose to work in their own homes?
Mr. Forth: My right hon. Friend has talked almost exclusively in terms of rates per hour. Does he not agree that piecework is more common? In passing, does he think that the minimum wage will ever bite on that? More importantly, does he agree that some of the information technology applications may move way beyond anything as mundane as a rate per hour, or even piecework, and into a new sphere and era altogether?
Mr. Maclean: Indeed. For some of the work that is done on computers, it would be nonsense to pay a rate per hour. There will be a new, sophisticated method of piecework, calculating, for example, the number of letters processed or addresses entered, although with mailmerge systems--with which I am sure my right hon. Friend is entirely familiar--I am not sure what rate may be payable. Neither I nor anyone in the Government knows what the correct payment system is. We can all say that rates are too low or that somebody is a mug for agreeing a certain term of contract, but if the individual is content to work in that way, it is not right that the Government should intervene.
I am, therefore, a great believer in tough penalties, but I also believe in not inflicting them on people who are genuinely innocent. That is the danger of the Bill; but it is not merely a matter of considering the detail in Committee. As long as the Bill omits offences on knowingly deceiving and fraud, I do not think that it can be improved in Committee. All that hon. Members can do when it goes upstairs is to try to force the Secretary of State to spell out more of the exempted categories and sectors. Perhaps we could suggest the use of advertising to prevent innocent individuals from being caught unawares, but it is clear that the Bill tackles the problems from the wrong end of the spectrum.
My only other point concerns the schedule, on which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) commented. He correctly said that it was one of the most important aspects of the Bill, but he skipped over paragraph 1(2), which states:
I do not think that I have ever encountered legislation that imposes a "must" instead of a "may" obligation on an authority in respect of enforcement. Of course, authorities will want to enforce the Bill, but they may decide in some circumstances that it is not legitimate to take action. The Bill seems to remove that discretionary power. If an authority thinks that a case that has been reported to it is not legitimate or not worth the candle, does the requirement that it "must enforce this Act" mean that it must none the less enforce the legislation in respect of that case?
That terminology is slightly odd and should be explored in more detail. For example, what about the Nigerian letters that we all receive from people who claim to be former politicians or to have run Nigerian oil companies? An hon. Member--or, indeed, any member of the public--could report the scam to a trading standards authority in the belief that it is one of the worst matters and should be tackled. The writers of such letters claim to have salted away £30 million and tell us that they would kindly deposit a few million pounds in our bank
Somebody, however, might report the scam to a trading standards authority in the belief that it should be caught by the Bill. After all, it involves the sending out of a letter in advance and a request for the payment of money up front in return for a benefit--in this case, a share of £30 million stolen from a Nigerian oil company. The trading standards authority may rightly say, "We do not think that that's included; it's not worth the candle to chase it, as we'll never catch these people." That may apply even if the senders are based in London and are officially registered in this country.