Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne referred to the comments of the CBI, which acts on behalf of business organisations. It has opposed the concept of unfair trading on the basis that it is insufficiently well targeted and gives rise to a degree of legal uncertainty. Having crossed the Rubicon and decided to go ahead with some degree of unfair trading in the Bill, we should ensure that these provisions have some teeth. Our main concern is that we would quickly find that protection of the consumer under the Bill proved illusory. For that reason, we are keen to press amendments Nos. 195 and 196 to a Division.

Reference was made earlier to the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977. It has worked very well for the past quarter of a century; under its terms, individuals are, by necessity, treated differently from businesses. The concept is that in any trading bargain there could be a disaggregation between the bargaining powers of a large or even a small business and an individual who may be subjected to a doorstep sale or one by mail.

There has been no feeling that the 1977 Act should be repealed and no concerns about its provisions. There is, therefore, an acceptance of the potential inequality of bargaining power that needs to be entrenched within the law. Amendments Nos. 195 and 196 do not seem to go much further than the Government have been willing to go to date. They would ensure, as far as possible, a culture of fairness and fair trading between businesses that will also allow consumers a fair share of any resulting benefit, as the NCC has pointed out.

The last thing that any Government want, when putting new legislation on the statute book, is many hundreds or thousands of claims. It has been made quite clear that the unfair practice envisaged in our amendments would have to affect a group of consumers before any action could be taken. In other words, an individual could not clog up the legal system.

I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in this regard. I agree with all Opposition Members who have spoken so far that the amendments require further buffing up. We would be comfortable with the Minister reconsidering the wording and finalising it before the Bill goes to another place. I hope that she will not only answer some of these points but go some way to ensuring that this very important procedural protection is included in the Bill.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): I support amendment No. 196, tabled by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). If he cares to push it to a vote, we will support him in the Division Lobby.

I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael). If I were him, I would not be too sure about the tarmacadamers; they have reached from Eastbourne up to Angus. I have often

17 Jun 2002 : Column 29

had them at my door, along with people wanting to cut my trees, install double glazing and paint my windows. I suppose that that may say more about the state of my house than anything else.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne slightly undersold amendment No. 196. It seems to me that his amendment would lay down certain principles for deciding whether an action had been unfair. That is important because, as has already been pointed out, changes can occur rapidly—con men have a habit of getting around regulations quickly.

Like the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, I was a solicitor in private practice prior to my election to this place, and often came across the problems of victims—especially elderly people—of power salesmen who came to their door. One very elderly client of mine, sadly now deceased, was subject to periods of confusion and I was constantly having to extricate her from contracts that she had signed after the visits of salesmen who had persuaded her to buy all sorts of strange and wonderful things of which she had no need and which she would never have bought in normal circumstances.

Some of the worst offenders were the privatised utility companies; salesmen constantly tried to persuade people—especially the elderly—to change their electricity and gas suppliers. Those salesmen often used methods involving extreme pressure. On one occasion, I went home from my office at lunchtime to find one of those people on my doorstep trying to convince my wife. In my brief conversation with him, he told me three things about the contract that he was trying to sell that I knew were untrue.

That salesman was quickly shown the door, but many elderly people are not able to do that. The client to whom I referred earlier changed her electricity supplier and then became utterly confused about who she was getting her electricity from. Worse than that, however, because she had changed to a gas company, the electricity company salesman appeared at her door a couple of weeks later trying to persuade her to change to that supplier. The matter went on and on and the poor lady got into an utter fankle. I had to sort it out and get her back to suppliers that she could recognise and understand.

That situation arose because people are allowed to engage in that type of doorstep selling. Although amendment No. 196 is not perfect, it would go some way towards laying down principles that a court could consider in dealing with such techniques. If we are too restrictive, it will be easier for con men to get around the regulations. General principles allow the courts more latitude to interpret actions as they occur.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): The general debate on amendment No. 196 was conducted in a fairly laid-back way by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), who suggested that if there was general Labour support for the aims of his proposal, he would not divide the House. I hope that he does not do so, as his proposal could almost be described as a wrecking amendment.

We all understand and accept that a number of people suffer from high-pressure salesmanship. There are a huge number of victims, so it is right to do what we can to protect people. However, once we make high-pressure

17 Jun 2002 : Column 30

salesmanship illegal, we might begin to bring the process into disrepute—a law that applies almost all the time is difficult to apply at any particular time.

Subsection (a) states that a person must not unfairly induce

Let us consider that in relation to decisions about purchasing a holiday on the basis of brochures which, as we all know, bear little relation to the actual circumstances that obtain at the holiday resort. It is understood that a certain distortion is part of holiday companies' modus operandi. That is a form of high-pressure salesmanship, but it does not typically result in people complaining bitterly when the resort turns out to be more overcrowded than expected, with fewer loungers, less clean water—or the sewage being used to water the plants, as was my experience at one holiday venue—and so on.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving us all a sneak preview of his holiday plans, but how would he approach the case, raised in the NCC's briefing, of the holiday brochure that quite truthfully said that the holiday hotel was 25 metres from the beach, but sadly did not mention that there was a motorway in between?

Mr. McWalter: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We could probably all exchange enjoyable anecdotes about these matters. Clearly, there is deception, but the issue is at what stage that deception becomes more than something that could be addressed by a compensatory payment from the holiday company if it were a member of the Association of British Travel Agents. At what stage do we move from an informal framework for resolving bitter disappointment at the quality of the venue to requiring the power to take strong legal action? That is my worry with amendment No. 196.

One needs to understand what would count as an informed decision. There is an onus on consumers at least to conduct their proceedings as wisely as possible. I understand that the current framework could be much extended, and I agree with the hon. Member for Eastbourne, who made this point in Committee, that selling people products in their own homes is perhaps not so much high-pressure salesmanship as almost putting the seller in such a dominant position that gainsaying the transaction is not feasible. If we can somehow produce a form of words that would prevent that, we might perhaps have an amendment that would be worth pressing to a Division.

Many decisions that people currently take are not fully informed, but informed enough, and many of them are not free, but free enough. If we try to elaborate too strongly in general terms on whether there is a legal right to take such matters to the Office of Fair Trading or others, there is a real danger that we could end up with a completely unworkable law. I suspect that the Opposition know that amendment No. 196, which they drafted, would be unworkable. However, the motives behind it are good and it would be sensible not to divide the House but to engage in what I hope would be constructive discussions.

To revert to a theme to which I have referred several times in these discussions, one has to try to make clear to what extent we should seek to combat unfair trading under

17 Jun 2002 : Column 31

the Bill and to what extent we should bear in mind the fact that there would be huge repercussions for the rest of the law, including the criminal law, in trying to tackle some of the other issues that result in people trading not just unfairly but viciously.

I hear what hon. Members have said about the tarmacadam merchants. Funnily enough, they have even appeared in Hemel Hempstead. One of the things that I have been trying to do is to get the Treasury to break down the barriers between Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue. It is clear that much of the activity that goes on is illegal under current tax law, but we have an absurd situation in which information is insufficiently shared between two departments of the Treasury. Consequently, just when it might become apparent that a driveway layer is in breach of his obligations under Customs and Excise regulations, corroboration is needed from the Inland Revenue—whose records are completely different—and nothing gets done.

Next Section

IndexHome Page