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Mr. Heath: I understand that Royal Mail has to carry what it is given, unless there is a direction to the contrary. Surely, however, it must enter into some sort of contractual arrangement when it provides a PO box number. Given the hoops through which we all have to jump to get material distributed by Royal Mail, is there some control that Royal Mail could exercise when giving an organisation a PO box number?

Dr. Howells: Yes. I shall deal with that now. If any UK PO box is used illegally or for fraudulent purposes or if customers break the service terms and conditions, which they must sign, that PO box can be withdrawn. Once that happens, all subsequent mail addressed to the box is returned to sender. Royal Mail is not permitted to intercept or open mail that quotes or is addressed to a PO box, but if permission for the box is withdrawn, all mail sent to it is returned to sender. The majority of mailings from abroad conform with UK legislation and the British codes of advertising and sales promotion.

Mr. Barnes: For Royal Mail, that is not just a matter of PO box numbers. It also offers HQ code provision, which allows a HQ number and "Royal Mail" to be added to the front of an envelope. That contractual arrangement enables cheap delivery of post from all over the world to people in this country. Such scams are being operated under HQ code provision and surely action can be taken. Royal Mail should be shown what is in such envelopes. That would stop the arrangement for such companies.

Dr. Howells: That is a good point and I shall try to deal with it. Should a mailing infringe either legislation

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or advertising codes, Royal Mail would rely on law enforcement agencies to bring that mailing to its attention and stop it if able to do so. That is where those contractual obligations are so important. If a company was working within the law, but not complying with the British codes of advertising and sales promotion, Royal Mail would work with the overseas company to ensure that future mailings were acceptable to UK customers. Further failures to comply would result in withdrawal of both mailing discounts--as my hon. Friend said, boxes are cheaper in such circumstances--and the use of a UK PO box for a specified period. The problem can be approached from both those angles.

On the distance selling directive, some protection can be offered. The Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 do not specifically implement article 10 of European directive 97/7 on the protection of consumers in respect of distance contracts, which of course relates to unsolicited commercial communications from a business to consumers by phone, fax, mail or e-mail. On phone and fax communications, implementation has already been achieved by means of the Telecommunications (Data Protection and Privacy) Regulations 1999.

I return to the point that I have made twice already about making sure that such incidents are notified to the authorities. All too often they are not. People receive mail and grumble about it, but do not take action. On mail and e-mail, my Department considers that the self-regulatory schemes that are in place provide a degree of necessary protection. That approach accords with article 11.4 of the directive, which provides for voluntary supervision by self-regulating bodies.

I return briefly to the important point that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) made about Royal Mail's "Fair Play" leaflet, which he drew to my attention some months ago. Since then, my officials have discussed with Royal Mail whether the leaflet gives the most appropriate advice. I tend to agree with my hon. Friend--I do not think that it does. There is too much ambiguity and it leads people on, especially in view of the consequences for consumers of falling victim to the numerous scams in operation.

Unsolicited direct marketing faxes are banned under the Telecommunications (Data Protection and Privacy) Regulations 1999, unless the individual has given prior consent. For the purposes of the regulations, the term "individual" refers to both private individuals and sole traders anywhere in the United Kingdom as well as the partnerships in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We could add MPs to that, because we probably receive as many of those communications as any firm.

The regulations introduced an opt-out scheme primarily for corporate subscribers who do not want to receive unsolicited direct marketing faxes. The Direct Marketing Association was appointed by the Office of Telecommunications to run the opt-out scheme, which is called the fax preference service. Under the regulations, no one can send a direct marketing fax--

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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