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3.45 pm

The NCC says that Kent county council is having a problem with itinerant tarmacadam merchants. I wondered where they had gone. They have tarmacadamed a large proportion of my constituency over the years, and now they have clearly moved on to Kent. This typical scam is especially serious in areas with a high proportion of elderly people. These characters turn up and talk people into having their drives tarmacadamed unnecessarily. They do the work shoddily and then demand more than they original contracted for. The NCC says that a general power would deal with that problem.

The NCC also describes how these matters are approached in the European Union and the United States of America. Very recently, the Commission issued a communication outlining key issues for a framework directive based on the wider concept of fair commercial practices, rather than on misleading practices. It suggests four possible categories: a prohibition on businesses engaging in commercial practices that mislead or are likely to mislead the consumer; a duty to disclose to the consumer all material information that is likely to affect the consumer's decisions; a prohibition on the use of physical force, harassment, coercion or undue influence; and effective information disclosure and complaints handling in the after-sales period. It also proposes, as a side issue, that the framework directive would be covered by the injunctions directive, so that such practices could be tackled quickly and effectively.

That approach may go too far for our purposes, and any solution that we come up with here will not simply be grafted on to a European directive; it must be properly bedded in English law. I repeat, however, that such concepts are not unfamiliar in legislation and regulations covering unfair contract terms, for example.

The United States Federal Trade Commission takes a somewhat similar view. It has a double mandate, to ensure fairness in competition and fairness in commercial practices in the interests of the consumer. That is not dissimilar from the approach that we are suggesting. Recently, the FTC took a case against Budget, which was apparently renting out cars that had been subject to recall notices. Consumers were not adequately informed about the risks or how to avoid injury.

Not surprisingly, the NCC argues that business should not be overly worried about these measures, because good businesses will benefit from measures that stamp out unfair competition from those who use unfair practices.

Another part of the Bill scraps part II of the Fair Trading Act 1973, which has fallen into relative disuse, largely because of the procedural problems that it poses. In principle, and in its day, however, it allowed the Secretary of State to prohibit a novel unfair practice that harmed the interests of consumers. Certainly, we need to extend protection, not to reduce it. The NCC cites the Consumer Transactions (Restrictions on Statements) Order 1976, prohibiting notices misleading consumers about their rights under the Sale of Goods Acts, such as no returns or no refunds for sales goods.

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That takes us back to the essential difficulty with what the Government are trying to do. Of course we welcome the extension of stop now orders and the provisions on enforcement, but the legislation has to make a difference and it is no earthly good simply making it easier to enforce existing legislation. There is a large body of malpractices, abuses and, frankly, scams out there, which form a regular part of all our mailbags. They simply will not be tackled by this legislation as it stands.

I have given the example of the unsolicited visit versus the solicited one—a narrow distinction that can make all the difference. Those who invite a salesperson in are not covered; they do not enjoy protections such as the cooling-off period. That is a perfect example of how, over the years, tricksters and downright criminals have developed a fine ability to get round current law by making minor adjustments to the way they do their business.

Unless the law can get ahead of such fraudsters, rather than constantly banging along in their wake, I cannot see how we can clamp down properly on what the NCC and other bodies call shark practices. Indeed, we can all commend and support its "shark practices" campaign. The NCC's latest press release states that, according to its research,

a staggering figure—

As Deirdre Hutton, chairman of the NCC, states:

We agree, which is why we have tabled the amendments.

I stress that the amendments are new. We and the NCC have taken the trouble to narrow their wording as much as possible, but we will in no way get upset if the Minister thinks that the drafting could be improved. All that we need is an assurance that she agrees with what we are trying to achieve, and that—perhaps in the Lords—the Government will produce specific amendments to deal with these precise issues. However, unless she gives clear undertakings and makes clear promises in response to these amendments, I intend to divide the House.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): Amendment No. 373, which is in my name and those of my colleagues, is short and technical, and deals with an issue on which we would not seek to divide the House. However, I would welcome the Minister's explanation as to why paragraph (b) refers to

but not to conduct that constitutes a domestic infringement. That seems a simple point of consistency, and if the Government have chosen to be inconsistent, it is incumbent on them to explain why.

The Liberal Democrats broadly support the thrust of amendments Nos. 195 and 196. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) comprehensively outlined the thinking behind them, and on this occasion I am pleased to associate myself with the bulk of his comments, particularly those relating to the NCC, which offered invaluable assistance to me and my colleagues in Standing Committee. The more I consider the consequences of

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repealing part II of the Fair Trading Act 1973, the more I recognise the need for protections such as those offered in the amendments.

My experiences as a solicitor in private practice and since becoming a Member of this House have shown me that, after a contract has been perfected, the struggle between the consumer and the supplier is very unequal. I have seen many examples of it causing great distress to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Elderly people, perhaps for reasons of politeness, are not prepared to show pushy salesmen the door. However, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne said, if they invite them in, they thereby forgo even the benefit of the small protection that the law currently offers.

The fraudster will always stay one step ahead, no matter how inventive or ingenious we are in the protections that we seek to give the consumer. The fraudster will always try to find some way to negate the work that we do here. My experience is that two main types of fraudsters are operating. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the drive tarmacadamers. I am alarmed to hear that they have moved from Eastbourne to Kent, but I am somewhat comforted by the thought that if they are on a northward march we have some time to go before we have to suffer them north of the Pentland firth. In the meantime, I hope that we will be able to put the necessary protections in place.

At the other end of the spectrum is the large commercial organisation that operates by sending a targeted sales force to people's homes and having them sign up on the spot to something that they subsequently are not able to honour. My experience of that was prior to the election, when I wished to install double glazing in my house in Aberdeenshire before selling it. The sales techniques of the double glazing companies were remarkable. I could not believe the number of salesmen who came to the house while I was away politicking in the northern isles and who told my wife that they could not enter into a contract unless her husband was home. That was all the more remarkable because anyone who knows the Carmichael household will know that the soft touch was the one in the northern isles, not the one who had to stay at home.

I have given one small example of the techniques used by such companies. The most vulnerable individuals need some protection from the worst excesses. I hope that the Minister will give us some assurance that the necessary protections, which would be the teeth of the Bill, will be given serious consideration in the other place. The amendments tabled by the Conservatives have our support and the blessing of the NCC. Their acceptance would be an important signal from the Government that they are prepared to protect the rights of vulnerable individuals in their homes.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I wish to speak briefly in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and the amendments he has tabled. I hope that the Minister will consider the points that he made. When all is said and done, I suspect that we do not disagree on much. We had a robust debate on the issues in Committee, but it was also a friendly debate. I know that the Minister has received briefings similar to those we have had, both from consumer bodies and from business representatives.

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I am a little less idealistic than my hon. Friend about our ability to change the law for ever more. I fear that whatever changes are made, there are some who will always look for loopholes. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne and the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) made it quite clear that there are a number of rogue traders who will abuse any loopholes in the law.

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