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9.59 am

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am delighted to support the Bill and I wish to put it on record that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) has put huge amount of work into its preparation. Indeed, I suspect that a lot of home working has been necessary.

I think that the Minister will acknowledge that, had it been possible for the Government to introduce their consumer protection legislation in the current Session, the provisions of the Bill would have formed an integral part

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of it. I would also like to put it on record that I remember the shadow Leader of the House, and indeed the leader of the Conservative party, expressing great disappointment at the fact that consumer protection legislation was not going to come before the House in this Session. I look forward to hearing that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) is prepared to give the Bill a fair wind.

Mr. Forth: Why?

Mr. Tyler: So that it can be examined properly in Committee as part of that overall objective.

Mr. Forth: No.

Mr. Tyler: I notice that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is with us this morning. In the context of private Members' legislation, I heard one of his colleagues describe him as the serial strangler. I hope that somebody will keep the right hon. Gentleman quiet so that we can make progress on this important Bill.

A significant feature of the Bill, to which the hon. Member for Northfield referred, is that it would provide greater protection for those who offer genuine schemes. An important part of our function, therefore, is to distinguish between the scam and the genuine, although those who have to deal with this murky world, particularly local authority trading standards officers, often find that impossible.

I am pleased to support the Bill because I, like you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, represent a rural constituency and I believe that the measure has particular advantages in protecting our constituents. The Conservative spokesman also represents a rural constituency, so he, too, will recognise that those who live in small, sparsely populated communities with problems such as expensive public transport, if public transport even exists, have particular difficulties getting to work. Such people are attracted to schemes of this sort.

My area of the south-west and other parts of Great Britain contain some extremely low-paid households. Indeed, Cornwall and west Wales have European Union objective 1 status precisely because the average household income is so low. There is a great deal of seasonal work in my area and in similar ones, and such work may be all that is available to certain people during the holiday season. Again, the attraction of some form of outworking is considerable.

I am also worried about the dilemma facing carers. Carers of all ages who live in isolated communities such as my constituency of North Cornwall, and particularly those who care for the elderly, the disabled and young children, find the ability to earn limited but steady income in the home attractive. Like other hon. Members, I am concerned about those who have retired early. They, too, find that ability attractive. Redundancy may have caused early retirement for some people and their retirement pension may not be sufficient to maintain their life style. [Interruption.] I notice that the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) anticipates Conservative Members who may lose their seats at the election having a personal interest in the matter, but I suspect that their pension arrangements are a great deal better than those of my constituents.

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The detail is important and I draw the House's attention to clause 1(3), which deals with exclusions. We must be careful to ensure that we deal with them properly in Committee. Similarly, we must precisely define advance payment, which so often would have to be the trigger for action, and how it should be dealt with.

I am indebted to one of the newspapers in my constituency, the Cornish Guardian, for running an effective campaign a few months ago. It discovered that a company in the town of Bodmin in our own area, KMP Homeworkers, had used an accommodation address in the main street, but could not be directly contacted by anybody who took up opportunities that it appeared to offer. The company offered people £14 per 100 envelopes produced, but those who registered found that there was a £20 fee. The materials never materialised and people were out of pocket before even starting work.

The company was effectively driven out of town because of the campaign by the Cornish Guardian, but, significantly, Cornwall county council trading standards officers found that they were powerless under existing legislation. That is not an isolated example, and Members who think that the Bill may be unnecessary should talk to trading standards officers, who are strongly in favour of it.

The hon. Member for Northfield referred to the work of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, whose briefing states that vulnerable people in isolated communities are often the ones who are caught. I shall give examples. In Ross-on-Wye, a mother of three paid £35 for what she later realised was a worthless opportunity. A mother with young children from Bridgnorth, which, again, is a comparatively rural area, paid £65 for work, but was never reimbursed. A woman with two children from the Salisbury area had a similar experience. Each paid an expensive introduction or registration fee for a catalogue or a set of instructions. Such people get sucked in. Two women in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) paid £70 in fees for equipment needed for home working, but were of course told that the completed work was unsatisfactory.

Precisely because the scam preys on vulnerable people in difficult circumstances, the House has a responsibility to provide protection. Furthermore, we must act because we who have drawn up the existing legislation, including the previous Conservative Government, have left trading standards officers in a vulnerable position. They devote a huge amount of time to trying to deal with these scams, but they do not have the legislative backing effectively to reduce them, let alone remove them altogether.

In any Bill that comes before the House, be it one introduced by the Government or a private Member, the devil is in the detail. We must get the Bill in Committee as soon as possible so that it can be scrutinised rigorously; and I hope that the House will give a fair wind to a measure that would meet a real need.

10.7 am

Angela Smith (Basildon): I am pleased to sponsor and support the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden). It is a tradition to congratulate a Member on drawing a high place in the ballot even though that is a matter of luck--one in which I have never succeeded. However, I sincerely congratulate him on choosing an important

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subject. Parliament is here to support and protect the vulnerable, so I am disappointed by some comments--perhaps they were heckles--that implied that people do not need protection. Parliament has a duty to recognise that obligation and if we fail in it, we fail in our duty as parliamentarians.

The Bill represents a shift in the balance of power at work and is part of a wider change in society. We are moving to a much fairer system in which people who want to work are paid a fair wage and are not exploited for their labour simply because they choose, for whatever reason, to work at home. The Bill acknowledges people's rights as consumers and workers, and justice is a strong theme. It could put an end to bogus scams and the activities of those who rip off the most vulnerable in society. Indeed, the nature of the work that the most vulnerable seek in itself makes them vulnerable.

Despite the misgivings expressed by some people about the nature of regulation, we should always discuss the merits of state intervention. What appears to be a nanny state to some--[Interruption.] I hear that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) does not support the Bill, even though it would protect people from being ripped off. What for some is a nanny-state measure is for others protection of their livelihood. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman denigrates the Bill. That is unwise, and his comments will be noted by those inside the House and outside.

I do not want to go too far down the philosophical route, but all legislation restricts personal liberty in some way. I believe, however, that there is no natural right to con and cheat people, and to engage in scams that rip others off. Parliament should try to prevent that as far as possible. I am pleased to note that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) supports what I am saying. I hope all Members will see the merits of the Bill, and give it a fair wind.

Owing to the way in which the House operates, private Members' Bills are often small measures. This Bill represents only a small step forward, but it could have an immense impact on people who might become victims without it. It would be tremendously important to those who are or seek to be home workers. If it is not passed, I believe that there will be more complaints, and that even more people will be ripped off as my constituents have been.

Complaints about bogus home-working companies form a proportion of the 1 million or more complaints that the Office of Fair Trading estimates are made about unsatisfactory goods and services. Many people choose to work at home because of their circumstances. Often they are already on low incomes; they may be disabled or elderly, and they may be carers. They may be seeking work; they may have to care for children, or for elderly or disabled relatives. They may be tied to the house, and may need to earn extra cash. Those who have skills that are greatly needed in the economic market, and who are on higher rates of pay, are not generally caught by such scams, unlike those who can least afford it--those who do manual work at home for lower rates.

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