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Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of a leaflet published by Royal Mail, entitled "Fair Play. Making the most of competitions--a guide to winning", which has a photograph on the front of two young people who are enthusiastic about letters that they have received. Although the leaflet refers to the Advertising Standards Authority and the Office of Fair Trading in relation to scams, it tells the reader:


That can be interpreted as clearly encouraging action that relates to some of the scams that the hon. Gentleman is describing.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I know that he has taken up the matter, most recently in the Whitsun Adjournment debate last year. I am amazed that Royal Mail's advice is couched in those terms. It is not appropriate, and I hope that the Minister will have something to say about that.

The Minister may also have something to say about whether it is possible to work within the international postal system to deal with these occurrences, because it clearly cannot be done entirely within the United Kingdom or the European Union, as many of the countries of origin are outside the EU. I wonder whether the Universal Postal Union, for example, could be a vehicle for at least discussing these matters and drawing up concordats with Commonwealth countries that are involved, if nowhere else.

The information that the Office of Fair Trading has sent me shows that it takes a rather more robust line. I applaud its press release last August which drew attention to the so-called psychic scam that I have mentioned. However, the legal apparatus within which the OFT works is also limited. There are the Control of Misleading Advertisement Regulations 1988, but if those are to be activated, there must be a complaint

That is all right if the courts will accept that it is a trade or profession to try to defraud innocent members of the public, but otherwise it is a worrying limitation.

The OFT's great problem is getting court orders to act overseas. That is where the injunctions directive comes in. I understood that it was to have taken effect from 1 January, but it has not done so and there are still problems with it. That directive is crucial if we are to take effective action against such material, at least within the European Union. What has happened to that directive? Can it be extended beyond the EU, if and when it sees the light of day? How does the Minister expect it to be used?

The last legal sanction available is the Malicious Communications Act 1988, which makes it an offence to convey information that is known or believed to be false

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with the intention to cause distress and anxiety. The material that I have mentioned is clearly false information that is intended to cause distress and anxiety with the purpose of extracting money from people. I should like the Minister to tell the House how many times that law has been used recently, and whether it will be used more extensively in future, as I hope it will.

This is a short debate and it is impossible to cover the whole subject, but I want to mention two other concerns before I ask the Minister to respond. The first concerns communications sent not by post but by fax. We are all victims of this. The fax machine goes off in the middle of the night and a fax emerges from an unknown source, which is a waste of paper and wakes one up, if one happens to have a fax machine in the house, to no good effect. That is a nuisance, rather than an attempt to extract money under false pretences such as those that I have described, but it is a costly nuisance. It is often used to support fallacious opinion polls of no statistical value. People sometimes feel constrained to answer those faxes on premium lines if they want to make their point.

Such faxes are often received by junior members of companies who feel obliged to respond, for example, to a request to maintain an entry in a non-existent directory. That is a common form of exploitation. What can be done about it?

My final point is about unsolicited e-mail, which is infamously known as spam. I applaud British internet service providers for taking the subject seriously. However, 30 per cent. of all e-mails are unsolicited, and research by Nortel suggests that tens of millions of pounds are wasted in the United Kingdom and Ireland on dealing with them. In America, it is estimated that 10 per cent. to 15 per cent. of internet service providers' disk space is filled with spam. If nothing else, that shows that spam and chips are not compatible. The issue should be tackled through international action.

We have a problem about which most hon. Members and, I am sure, the Government are aware. I have several questions to ask the Minister. How many prosecutions or court orders have been made in the past year or so to tackle the matter? When will the injunctions directive be operational so that jurisdiction can be extended throughout the European Union? Can Royal Mail take a more aggressive and more responsible stance on the abuse? Can international action be taken through the Universal Postal Union or any other organisation to achieve a concordat at least between Commonwealth countries and perhaps the wider community? Can the Government take effective action on nuisance faxes? Clearly, concerted international action needs to be taken, especially in conjunction with the American Administration, so that nuisances that clog up the e-mail and internet systems and are detrimental to businesses and private users throughout the world can be tackled. When can that be done?

I am grateful for the opportunity to make those points. I look forward with interest to the Minister's reply.

10.42 pm

The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells): I thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for raising an important matter. He is right to say that many hon. Members have approached him and me about it. I share the anxiety of

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many people about mailings sent to British consumers which, in many cases, are designed to frighten them into parting with their money. I shall try to answer some of the hon. Gentleman's questions, although I could not write them all down fast enough.

More often than not, the mailings come from so-called clairvoyants who are based overseas. They allege that they have had a mystic revelation about the individual to whom they are writing. A common theme is that the author has an insight into potential problems that will affect consumers' well-being--either a threat from someone else or the fact that some unidentified bad luck will befall them. He or she offers to provide the solution to those difficulties in return for a payment. As the hon. Gentleman said, payments are typically of £20 or more. The Welsh Rugby Union paid a great deal more than £20 to try to avert identifiable bad luck. However, judging from the way Wales played last Saturday, it seems that the WRU might as well have paid £20 to Peter the Magician. The result would probably have been far better.

The approaches are clearly designed to prey on people's vulnerability and are, by definition, unacceptable. Another theme is that some good fortune awaits the recipient, whether through lottery winnings or some other life-enhancing event, and that the key to success is available at a price. I have seem many such letters in my postbag, from people rejoicing in such names as Eva du Maurier, Paula Zikorski and Peter the Magician. I know a Pete the chemist in Pontypridd, but he has five children and is clearly no magician.

From time to time, unfortunately, the mailings are sent to the deceased, which must surely throw considerable doubt on the psychic skills of their authors. The advice from the Office of Fair Trading, which I would commend to anyone who is concerned about the practices, is never to send money, and to pass the correspondence to the local trading standards department so that appropriate action can be taken. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will pass that suggestion on to his constituents.

The hon. Gentleman asked what action could be taken on behalf of consumers. Two pieces of legislation may be applicable: the Control of Misleading Advertisements Regulations 1988 and the Malicious Communications Act 1988. At present, action can be taken against operators based in this country by the Advertising Standards Authority or the Director General of Fair Trading using those two pieces of legislation.

The Advertising Standards Authority can also arrange for the investigation of overseas operators with the help of other members of the European Advertising Standards Alliance. The alliance has 28 members, including all the EU member states, and comprises the national bodies responsible for administering the states' self-regulation systems and codes of advertising practice, based on those put in place by International Chamber of Commerce principles. Recently the ASA, with the backing of Royal Mail, has begun intervening directly in complaints about mailings originating outside the alliance's sphere of operations, and has made encouraging progress. I hope that that provides some kind of an answer to the hon. Gentleman's questions on how many successful prosecutions or enforcements have been conducted.

We are also aiming for the earliest possible implementation of the European injunctions directive--we are almost there now--which will empower the

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Director General of Fair Trading to take cross-border action. The hon. Gentleman was keen on such action being taken, and I agree with him. The action will be taken in conjunction with counterparts across the European Union to impose "stop now" orders, which are an additional enforcement mechanism for use when the collective interests of consumers are threatened.

For operators based further afield, the Office of Fair Trading works closely with its counterparts in the 30 or so Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, through the international marketing supervision network. The member bodies have had some success in stopping some of the worst cases targeting UK consumers. I assure the House that I shall continue to monitor the matter with a view to reducing consumer detriment arising from these undesirable practices.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about Royal Mail and about his dissatisfaction with some of the efforts that it has made to try to deal with the delivery of unsolicited mail. Royal Mail is contractually obliged to deliver items posted at home or abroad, unless it is established that the contents contravene EU or UK laws. If a mailing breaches EU or UK regulations, Royal Mail can refuse to carry it, but it has to be notified first. The bodies or groups that can notify Royal Mail are the ASA, the police, trading standards officers and magistrates. That brings me back to a point I made earlier, when I suggested to the hon. Gentleman that, whenever such a case as this arises, it is imperative that notification is made to trading standards officers.

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