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28 Feb 2007 : Column 321WH—continued

In conclusion, I am grateful to have been able to highlight this important problem, which worries my constituents in East Dunbartonshire and people throughout the UK. ASA guidance and the powers held by the OFT to police the peddlers of misleading advertising material are important in a limited context,
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but the scope for extending them is perhaps limited. The new powers given to the Charities Commission are welcome and they might bring about changes for the better, but only if the Commission has sufficient resources.

Jim Sheridan: Is the hon. Lady aware of anyone who has been convicted and charged, and if so, what sentence was passed?

Jo Swinson: I am not aware of any convictions, but there have been occasions where there was an opportunity for them, such as in the case I outlined earlier where the opportunity was spectacularly missed. Perhaps the Minister will have further information on whether there have been any convictions so far.

A greater concentration of minds is needed on the issue of policing to deal with the criminal gangs carrying out this widespread theft. An inter-regional approach would seem to be the logical middle way. The crimes that I have described do not have as high a human cost as drug trafficking and their financial impact is not as great as the most serious forms of fraud, but the victims that they target—charities and the beneficiaries of charity work—are some of the most vulnerable in society. Theft from the children of Great Ormond Street should not be happening full stop, let alone on the scale that we are talking about here.

In a wider sense, such crimes make us all victims, because they threaten our charitable institutions and our trust in giving. The legacy of failing to tackle such thefts and of failing to allow people to give to charities without fear that their donation is funding criminals will not only be damaging to charities’ work; it will be a loss of trust, good will and charitable spirit among the public as a whole. Once lost, that is something that will be very hard to win back.

5.3 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your wise counsel, Mr. Bercow?

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on securing this debate. She spoke eloquently about an issue on which she has been campaigning for some months and her speech was very well made. As she said, she put down a well supported early-day motion last October that helped to raise awareness of the issue.

The issue is important because it relates to maintaining public trust in charities, which is vital in our society. For the benefit of hon. Members present, I shall explain the Government’s approach to the issue and some of the plans that we have in train. It is important to distinguish three different types of activity. The first type consists of activities that clearly break the law such as outright fraud, where companies claim to collect for the developing world but do not do so, and theft from doorsteps, about which I know the hon. Lady is concerned. The second category comprises companies that do not explicitly claim to be charities, but use misleading literature, of which she provided examples, to give the impression that they are. The third area, which, to be candid, is the most difficult to deal with, is that of organisations that are openly commercial but do not make it obvious to consumers or the people who are supplying clothes. I shall say a few words on each of those issues.

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First, on the subject of outright fraud and theft, there are fake charities, fake collections that adopt the names of real charities, and collectors that steal clothes left on doorsteps. We have cause to be optimistic about what is possible in that area. The Fraud Act 2006 came into force on 15 January. It gives trading standards officers and the police greater powers to act against that type of abuse. As the hon. Lady said, we need to be vigilant and to look for ways to improve how organisations can work together, but good work is going on between law enforcement officials.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) asked about prosecutions. In the west midlands recently, trading standards officers and police arrested six people: four at the end of January for circulating a leaflet about a fictitious charity in Lithuania that was accompanied by a picture of children in Africa, and two on 1 February, for distributing a clothing collection leaflet that contained a number for a real UK charity with which they had no connection. Action is being taken, and the Fraud Act helps in that regard.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of thefts, and she talked about the case involving Great Ormond Street and Alder Hey hospitals. I understand that Clothes Aid, the company she mentioned, is working with local trading standards officers and the police successfully to catch and to prosecute thieves who pick up collections meant for charities.

The hon. Lady talked about the role of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and its core functions in this area. We have to understand that SOCA has huge issues to deal with, such as human trafficking, drug trafficking and major international fraud, and it is also involved in dealing with international terrorist financing. I say that not in any way to minimise the issue that she raised. SOCA’s position is that it is happy to co-operate with police forces that approach it in order to tackle such issues, in cases where it can be of assistance. I shall return to the issue of co-operation between SOCA and the police in a moment.

I turn to the second problem that we must deal with, which is that of misleading adverts. As the hon. Lady said, legislation exists that should help us deal with the issue. The misleading advertising directives give the Advertising Standards Authority the powers to adjudicate against deceptive advertising, and any organisation that ignores adjudication by the ASA may be referred to the Office of Fair Trading, which also has the power to investigate misleading leaflets.

I shall just say something about the Charity Commission. The Charities Act 2006, which is now coming into force, strengthens the licensing requirements for charitable collections of goods. It may interest hon. Members to know that there is potential for action and tightening up in that area. The 2006 Act requires the licensing of door-to-door charitable collections, which should enable local authorities to identify and to report bogus collection activities more easily. However, it is important to make it clear that the commission is responsible only for regulating organisations that claim to be charities. It is not responsible for regulating commercial organisations. When it is approached, it can and does make referrals to local trading standards and the ASA. As I say, having a register of charitable organisations that collect
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door to door will, I hope, make local authorities more alert to such issues when they are reported to them.

Action has been taken on misleading advertising in respect of this issue, but I acknowledge that there is more to be done in ensuring proper co-operation between the different authorities. We need to acknowledge that, as the hon. Lady said, the companies involved are often fly-by-night operations that are difficult to pin down and to enforce action against. They can change their names, and it is hard to track down the individuals concerned. There are no easy solutions to that issue, and it would be misleading to say that there are. However, when we debated the 2006 Act, we said that, following its passage, we would consider how better to co-ordinate the activities—

Jim Sheridan: I fully understand what the Minister said about the difficulty of tracking down the people responsible. However, those people publish a mobile telephone number. Could they not be traced through that?

Edward Miliband: There are definitely attempts to do that, but it can be hard to track down individuals even in those circumstances. However, the point is well made.

We plan to bring together all the different agencies that work on the issue—the ASA, trading standards, the Association of Chief Police Officers, which obviously has a role, the Office of Fair Trading and charity sector representatives—to investigate whether there are better ways to tackle the problem raised by the hon. Lady and the one to which my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) so eloquently drew attention in an intervention.

Jo Swinson: I welcome the news that there is a plan to bring together all the stakeholders on this issue. Is there some idea of the time scale for such a meeting? When is it likely to take place?

Edward Miliband: It will take place in the coming months; I shall keep the hon. Lady and other Members in this debate in touch with the progress on that.

Thirdly, the best defence against bogus collections is consumer vigilance—the hon. Lady expressed that well in a press release that she issued on 13 October. That is partly due to the difficulties in tracking down bogus collectors, but also because sometimes the organisations will be conducting legitimate business. I do not think that anyone in this debate is calling on us to ban any organisations from operating for profit.

We need to do a better job of helping people to tell the difference between giving to charities and to legitimate commercial companies, so that they can make the choice about which they give to. I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that it is to be welcomed that the Charity Commission and the OFT have recently started a public awareness campaign, about which she may know. Over the Christmas break, the Charity Commission worked with a number of hon. Members and secured 40 articles in the regional press that drew attention to precisely the issue that we are discussing. A separate Charity Commission campaign, “Safer Giving”, received widespread coverage in national newspapers and on the radio.

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Earlier this month, the Charity Commission, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, or OSCR, and the Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland—the UK’s three charity regulators—joined forces to issue guidance and to raise public awareness on how to make an informed choice when asked to give on the doorstep. I say to the hon. Lady and to my hon. Friends the Members for Dundee, West and for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North that any suggestions that they have about how hon. Members, local newspapers and members of their communities can help to raise awareness of the issue, and about how the Charity Commission and others could be involved, would be very welcome.

Jo Swinson: In the final few seconds, will the Minister touch on what more the police could do and how we could get a better response from them on this issue?

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Edward Miliband: That will be discussed when we meet ACPO as part of the discussions that I talked about.

To sum up, we believe that the right approach is being taken: enforcement action in cases of fraud or theft; referral of misleading advertisements to the ASA and OFT; and the promotion of messages of safer giving. We want to do more, which is why we will convene the relevant authorities. Above all, we recognise the importance of charity collections to the charity sector and a generous society. The hon. Lady has raised important issues, as have my hon. Friends. I hope that she and they accept that the Government take such matters seriously and are acting on them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Five o’clock.

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