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Question agreed to.






6.2 pm

Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP): I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce my petition this evening. It reads:

To lie upon the Table.

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Cold Calling (Elderly People)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Charlotte Atkins.]

6.3 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): When it first became known that I had been fortunate enough to secure this short debate on cold calling and vulnerable elderly people, I began to realise that I was addressing only the tip of an iceberg of cruelty that is happening in our society today. I am pleased to have the support of the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) from the Government Back Benches, who has done important work on the issue. I hope to finish my contribution in time to give him the opportunity to explain the wider context of the debate.

I could not have been more delighted to find that the Minister who will reply to the debate is the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety, for whom my admiration has been undimmed since the days when we served together as officers of the all-party group on motorcycling. To see the hon. Lady bowling along on a motorcycle, in the full knowledge that if ever she came to a halt her feet would barely reach the ground on either side, is an object lesson in fortitude, courage and bravery. I hope that she will be equally robust in her response to the debate.

Since the subject of the debate became known, I have received information on concerns about cold calling from Hampshire county council, CORGI—the arrangement whereby British Gas attempts to prevent bogus callers masquerading as gas representatives—and from BBC South, which is carrying out important investigative work on cold calling. What struck me most was the number of individual cases that were brought to my attention. I shall refer briefly to four, two of which came to my attention by indirect means and two of which I have extensive direct knowledge about, and I shall make a declaration of interest at the appropriate point in my remarks.

The first case is that of Muriel, an 80-year-old artist living in SW14. She was persuaded to give £900 in cash to three cold callers who had tidied her garden. Only timely action by her friends, the police and the bank, in turn, prevented her from being defrauded of even more money.

Then there is the case of Stephen, an 84-year-old retired civil servant living in Blackheath, who made as many as nine cashback withdrawals in a single day for cold callers and who is believed to have withdrawn more than £20,000 in cash from his bank for them over a three-month period.

Those two cases were brought to my attention by immediate friends in my close circle. I am sure that other hon. Members could replicate those stories indefinitely. However, the two stories that I shall address in detail relate to Pat, an 80-year-old retired railway worker, and Sam, a 90-year-old retired tailor. Both lived alone in Swansea, south Wales, and both had the misfortune to be targeted by a man called Paul Grey. In that connection, I record my personal thanks for the support that I have received—as will become clear—from several sources. The first is the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), my old adversary in the

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1983 general election. The right hon. Gentleman would have been in the Chamber this evening, but he is attending the funeral of his predecessor, Hugh Rees, who served as Conservative Member of Parliament for that constituency between periods of—let us say—rather intense Labour representation in Swansea. The second is Detective Constable Ian Griffiths of Swansea CID. The third is Mr. Ray Potter of Swansea trading standards department, and the fourth is the investigative reporter, Mr. Chris Segar, and his team on the programme, "The Ferret". I have been most impressed by the way in which they addressed those cases.

The first case is that of Pat Meehan who, as I said, is 80. He lives on a state pension and a small railway pension. Paul Grey knocked at his door one day and offered to replace his hedge with a wall. The idea was that the job would cost £600 and Mr. Grey was given £200 for materials. Before the job was not even nearly complete, Pat was cajoled into parting with the other £400 and Mr. Grey never went back to finish the job.

Pat Meehan is no ordinary retired railwayman. Like so many of his generation he is a tough character. He may be a bit deaf, a bit shaky and quite elderly, but he landed on the beaches on D-day plus 6. He went to Paul Grey's home and tried to confront him. Mr. Grey saw Pat coming, wound down the window of his van, called out to him, made a V-sign and drove off. As Pat's sister-in-law, Christine Meehan, said to me only this afternoon, "It's disgusting, isn't it?"

We now come to the question of Sam. Sam is Sam Lewis. Sam is 90. Sam is my father. He was Mr. Grey's other recent victim. He is now safely in a residential home in London, which is why I can share this story with the House.

Back in November 2002, I was due to send in some builders to Sam's home to deal with an outbreak of dry rot. I rang my father the week before 25 November, which was the date they were due to start. To my surprise he told me, "Oh, but the builders are already here, Julian." He said he was unhappy about what was happening—it was turning into a very big job and they were making a terrible mess. I asked him whether he had paid them any money. The problem with Sam was and is that, although he is perfectly lucid, and although he is perfectly intelligent and not confused, he has virtually no short-term memory. So he went and recovered his cheque book and he looked up what he had paid, because he is also very meticulous. He told me that he had given Paul Grey a cheque for £800 on 14 November and one for £1,000 on 18 November. I was not very happy about that but eventually I managed to speak to Mr. Grey, who assured me that the £1,800 would be for the total job. I also spoke to Lloyds bank in the Uplands in Swansea, two doors from where my father lived at the time and where he had his account, and I asked it please to alert me if anything suspicious happened with regard to withdrawals of money from my father's account.

In the second part of December 2002, I heard again from Mr. Grey, after the other builders—the ones I had put into the premises to do a much bigger job than Mr. Grey was supposed to be doing—had finished their work and departed. Mr. Grey said that he had almost finished his work but asked whether I would like to have

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some guttering and pipework renewed while he was doing it. He indicated that that needed to be done, so I agreed to pay him £400 for what should have been two to three days' work. That cheque was cashed on Christmas eve.

When I went back to the house—this is the problem with dealing with elderly relatives a couple of hundred miles away—on 26 January, I found that the work was nowhere near completed. On 27 January, in the morning, I managed to speak to Mr. Grey. He was terribly sorry; he would give it his personal attention. His roofer, a man called Joe Edwards, had assured him that the work had been finished. One of Mr. Grey's techniques is that he gets other people to do what passes for the work that he inflicts on his victims.

However, later that Monday morning, just before we were about to come in for Defence questions, I received a call from Lloyds bank. An alert cashier, Hazel Matthews, had become concerned that my father was withdrawing large sums of cash. She then looked into it further, saw that I had asked to be informed, and duly contacted me.

Unfortunately, this was rather late in the day. That evening, I rang my father, and I found that as well as the £800 cheque on 14 November and the £1,000 cheque on 18 November, to Paul Grey, the following cash withdrawals had been made: £500 on 4 December, £400 on 6 December, £1,200 on 16 December, £1,000 on 20 December, £800 on 7 January, £1,000 on 9 January, £1,200 on 24 January and £1,400 on 27 January. Interestingly, when I finally managed to obtain my father's cheque book, I was able to see that after the two cheques to Mr. Grey, where all these cash withdrawals started, the first of those withdrawals, for £500, had originally been made out to P. Grey, crossed out and altered to "self"—that is, cash.

I decided to see whether I could get some evidence together to nail this man, and I decided to do something that I was not entirely happy about, which was to ring up my own father, ask him to go over the story again and tape record what he said. I tried to do this on 29 January but found that Mr. Grey was in the house. I obviously did not want to let on that I was suspicious about what was going on, because my father was quite frail and I did not like the idea of a confrontation while my father was still in the house, but I succeeded the next day in talking to my father again, and tape recorded his answers, which were identical in every respect to what he had told me on the Monday. He spoke with total lucidity. He explained again and again that every bit of this money had been given by him to Paul Grey.

At the end of the conversation, my father collapsed and I had to dial the emergency services. He went to hospital. After a week of 24-hour care, he went into an assessment unit on 7 February, and the happy ending to this story is that, as I said at the outset, he is now safely resident in a good residential home in London.

On 14 February, I visited the house and found that Mr. Paul Grey's work was still incomplete. On 23 February, I managed to confront Grey over the telephone. He denied that he had taken any of that money, but he refused to give me any detail that would enable me to track down the only other person who had been regularly on the site: his alleged roofer, Mr. Joe Edwards, allegedly of Manselton. When I insisted on

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having those details, he concluded the conversation with the words, "You effing find him"—he did not actually say "effing"—and slammed down the phone.

Subsequently, with the help of "The Ferret"—the programme that I mentioned earlier—I discovered that there was no roofer of the name of Joe Edwards in Manselton; only a milkman, a well-known character in the community, who died recently. Mr. Grey refused to respond to letters, to list the people on the site and to name a solicitor with whom I could correspond. I later discovered that he has 10 criminal convictions, dating back over 25 years until 1999. Those convictions included theft, deception, criminal damage and shoplifting. I discovered that he had a habit of calling on my father every November. In November 2000, he was trading as Enterprise Roofing and Building; in November 2001, as St. James's Building Services; and, in November 2002, Paul Grey Building Services. He has been interviewed by the police, and the Crown Prosecution Service has yet to decide what to do, but I am the first to concede that it is not easy for them. The only way in which they might be able to proceed would be to put my elderly father through the ordeal of giving evidence and facing cross-examination, and at his age I doubt whether that is something that ought to be inflicted upon him.

I have no doubt that Paul Grey spun out a two-to-three-day job over two months, during which he ruthlessly exploited Sam's frailty fraudulently to obtain thousands of pounds in cash. What is to be done about people like Grey? Before I hand over to the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), who has great experience of this problem—I thank the Minister for allowing me to make that arrangement—I should like to give my single idea: it may be too draconian to ban cold calling altogether, although I would have sympathy with that view, but, as a first step, may I suggest that it ought to be made a criminal offence for anyone with a criminal record to engage in cold calling? That would nail the likes of the lowest of the low, like Mr. Paul Grey.

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