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6.17 pm

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), and I thank him for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Similarly, I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Minister. The hon. Gentleman describes classic cases of abusing cold calling. They are bad, but they are far from being the worst. I came to the issue of doorstep crime and unscrupulous selling five years ago, when a number of my constituents were stung by a home improvement outfit called Midland Coatings. Thanks to an excellent campaign by the Yorkshire Evening Post, in which I was closely involved, we drove that cowboy outfit out of town. Unfortunately, it is only one of many.

That campaign brought me into contact with a phenomenal individual called Brian Steele. Brian is a retired detective chief superintendent, who has made combating doorstep crime his life's work ever since he investigated a particularly harrowing case. A lady in her 80s, Isabel Grey, was murdered by burglars who tortured her and broke her back. It was later discovered that she had been a serial victim of bogus builders of the type that the hon. Gentleman describes, and that they had carried out a series of botched jobs on her property.

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Brian subsequently studied the activities of distraction burglars. His interviews with them in prison revealed a picture of cynical leeches who said that they could smell the money in an old person's home, who bought and sold the names of their victims and who showed not the slightest contrition about their crimes. I helped Brian to lobby the Home Office for a £500,000 grant to set up the Leeds distraction burglary initiative, which has proved highly successful in tackling a range of doorstep crime and pressure selling. Brian acted as co-ordinator for the first three years, and now works for trading standards authorities in the north of England. It is my privilege to work with him, with colleagues such as Stuart Pudney, head of trading standards for North Yorkshire, and with numerous organisations, in campaigning for a law to prohibit cold calling at someone's home for the purpose of offering property improvement, maintenance or repair. It is a measure that those experienced people, who include police officers, have decided is perhaps the only way forward in combating such activity. It is not a panacea but it will help to paint those villains further into a corner and to restrict their areas of operation. My hon. Friend the Minister may be aware of early-day motion 219, which refers to that campaign.

The campaign is targeted specifically at those who call for the purpose of offering property maintenance, repair and improvement services. There are two reasons for that. First, that is the principal modus operandi of criminals and the sort of character who fleeced the father of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). Such people are criminal in every respect apart from, unfortunately, sometimes, the narrow legal sense. Secondly, although we may not like it, many people have a legitimate and sometimes altruistic reason for knocking on our doors, and it would be a pity to have a blanket ban and rule them all out.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Office of Fair Trading will report shortly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry regarding cold calling. I hope that one of the recommendations will be on the need for such legislation as well as other measures. In the interests of joined-up government, I trust that my hon. Friend's Department will have some input into the discussion on this matter. It is crucial that it does not fall between the two stools of crime prevention and consumer protection. There is often a fine line—even a grey area—between those two aspects. Prohibiting cold calling for property repair, improvement and maintenance would help to tackle that range of crime and sharp practice.

I also urge my hon. Friend to ensure that her Department takes more effective steps to record such doorstep crime, which, as I say, falls between two stools, which makes it more difficult to demonstrate the incidence of such crime even though experience shows that it is widespread.

6.21 pm

The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears): I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) in what is an extremely important debate. I also welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell). It is fair to say that the cases that both have highlighted this

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evening are shocking, and illustrate the despicable behaviour of some people in these circumstances. It is excellent that these issues have been raised in the House.

I am responding as a Home Office Minister, but both Members have made the point that bogus callers, distraction burglary and people being deceived into parting with their money cross over the boundaries between the Home Office, in terms of crime reduction and crime prevention and, inextricably, the Department of Trade and Industry, in terms of consumer protection and the important role played by trading standards officers in seeking to regulate this area. I will do my best to reply across the piece, because I accept entirely the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey that we must ensure that these issues do not fall through the gap, whether in terms of regulation, the OFT's response to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux super-complaint, or gathering intelligence, which is absolutely key in such matters.

I am delighted to tell the hon. Member for New Forest, East that a very good operation in the south-west, Operation Litotes, now brings together all the agencies and the five forces across the south-west to share intelligence about the kind of people who conduct the terrible acts highlighted this evening, whether bogus callers, people seeking to extort money for the kind of home improvements that have been highlighted, or those attempting distraction burglary. It is important that once we share that information, we can track such people across a wide geographic area, as it is clear that they are prepared in a cynical way to travel hundreds of miles to find their victims.

As I said, both distraction burglary and cold calling are covered, but I would not want elderly people to be unduly alarmed—distraction burglary represents a small proportion of burglary as a whole, and elderly people are only a quarter as likely to be victims as young people. I would not want this matter to be taken out of perspective. It should also be taken in the context of burglary being reduced by about 39 per cent. over the past few years. In relation to relatively small numbers of burglaries, therefore, bogus calling is difficult to record. I acknowledge that a huge amount of work is already going on.

The issue is especially important to me because I recently had cause to knock on people's doors during the Brent by-election. I knocked on the door of an elderly lady aged 82 four minutes after she had been burgled and deceived. A man had come along purporting to want to get into her bathroom because repairs were being carried out three doors down the road. She opened her door perfectly innocently, but he pushed past her to break into her home. He stole not only her money, but money that she had been collecting for her church. I have no doubt that she was traumatised by the event and that it affected her independent way of living. The incident showed me the depths to which people are prepared to sink in such circumstances.

A great deal of work has been done on distraction burglary, such as establishing projects and a taskforce. The taskforce has been extremely successful in the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey. However, I shall talk about consumer protection, because that was the main issue that was raised in the debate.

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Hon. Members will know that the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux published its report on doorstep selling in September 2002. The report was based on 1,500 case studies that were submitted by citizens advice bureaux over two years. The case studies were analysed and recommendations for improvements were made. During national consumer week last year, the Office of Fair Trading announced that it would accept the details from NACAB as a super-complaint under the Enterprise Act 2002. The OFT has been considering the issue since then and I understand that it is due to report early in the new year. Legislation on the matter exists in the form of the Consumer Protection (Cancellation of Contracts Concluded away from Business Premises) Regulations 1987, which are commonly known as the doorstep selling regulations.

Additionally, the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 contains provisions on cooling-off periods so that people who have bought goods from people selling door-to-door have a chance to get out of onerous contracts into which they have entered. Although legislation is in place, it is right for the OFT to consider whether further legislation is required and whether there should be closer work with the police service to tackle the problems.

Dr. Lewis: I appreciate the Minister's comments. What is her view of the specific idea of criminalising cold calling by people with criminal records?

Ms Blears: That issue was raised by the Trading Standards Institute, which produced a report on cold calling this year that especially examined property repair and maintenance, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The institute said that the statutory control of such cold calling was long overdue, and recommended criminalising people in such circumstances, and the OFT is considering those recommendations and taking them fully into account. I should tell the hon. Gentleman that it might be difficult to define the offences that would lead to a person being prohibited from doorstep selling. For example, offences such as a driving offence might not be relevant to a person's subsequent activities. However, it is legitimate for the OFT to consider the matter.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East said that outlawing the whole business of doorstep selling would be perhaps a step too far. Doorstep selling represents a substantial business and there is only a small proportion of rogue traders, but the OFT will consider whether such action would be appropriate.

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