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Mr. Forth: My right hon. Friend queries that. He knows that I am a reaching-out sort of person. Here we are on a private Member's Bill Friday in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere discussing a Bill. Having said that I am against the Bill and will oppose it if I get the opportunity to do so, I want to make helpful suggestions. Why do we not provide a helpline? The Department of Trade and Industry is awfully keen on helplines for all sorts of other things. People are supposed to call the DTI about almost every aspect of their lives these days. Why not say to people, "If you are considering responding to a seductive advertisement that says that you can work at home and get well paid, why don't you call us and we will try to talk you out of it?"--or something of the kind? It would not be worded in quite that way, but it would be along those lines.
Mr. Maclean: My right hon. Friend is clearly having some mild aberrations this morning. Has he considered setting up a self-help group to deal with the problem? Perhaps if he continues in this vein, he will become the chairman of a self-help group and other touchy-feely things that may help people who spend £40 on a scam.
Mr. Forth: That is possible. I am surprised that there is not a provision in the Bill for counselling victims. I have just had an idea for an amendment or new clause. It strikes me that the lack of counselling is a lacuna that we might seek to remedy. However, I shall not be deterred from my little bit of positivism at the end of my remarks.
I have suggested giving proper information and a helpline. My right hon. Friend has suggested support groups. Labour Members or the Minister may want to take up the idea of counselling. The Minister may want to do it personally. I cannot imagine anything more comforting for someone who has been a victim of a scam than to have a session with the Minister, if he can keep away from murder for a moment. There is then the role of trading standards officers--people whom we all hold in the highest regard, and who are very professional. I should have thought that they could make a much better contribution to all this.
I make no secret of the fact that I think that the Bill is ill-conceived. There might be a real problem out there, but the Bill is not a proportionate response to its incidence and extent or the amounts of money involved. It is time that we did not reach for legislation every time that groups of people got into difficulty. We should expect people in a mature, educated, civilised society to take more responsibility. We can inform them, but we must expect them to make their own decisions. For all those reasons, I shall oppose the Bill on Second Reading.
Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): I congratulate my colleague and fellow midlands Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden), on introducing this much-needed Bill, which--despite some of the comments by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)--would be immensely valuable were it to hit the statute book. In a slight parody of JFK, I declare my interest: ich bin ein outworker--or at least, I was until May 1997. As a freelance accountant, I dealt with the financial affairs of many outworkers in the area where I live.
As hon. Members have said, many people who are outworkers or home workers are not vulnerable or in badly paid occupations. They are at the core of our economy, and increasingly so, as teleworking develops. The Bill makes it clear that such activities and the firms involved with such work are not threatened; the scams are the Bill's prime target. We acknowledge that the great majority of firms are legitimate and many outworkers are reasonably paid. None of them would be caught by the Bill.
What is the extent of the problem? The National Group on Homeworking produced some useful and valuable statistics. Its analysis, which is a little different from the Library report's, states that about 80 per cent. of outworkers are female. We need to understand why they seek home work or outwork to find out which groups would benefit in society. The prime reason given by those surveyed was child care, unsurprisingly. The second of four reasons was low income. The third reason was lack of other work opportunities, and the fourth was long-term illness or disability. Those are the groups of people who would benefit from the elimination or reduction of the scams that are endemic in certain parts of the country.
There are four main categories of scheme, and I am pleased that that is recognised in the Bill. First, there are those in which the client receives nothing in return for the fee, and any further attempt to contact the company fails. That is particularly frustrating, so I hope that it will be much less common if the Bill reaches the statute book. Secondly, clients are asked to recruit more people by placing advertisements similar to the one that they responded to--a relatively unsubtle pyramid home-working scam. Again, I hope that such scams will disappear under the legislation. Thirdly, the client is sent work to complete. The work is often bogus, with artificial standards that can never be met by even the most perfect of workers. Fourthly, the client receives a directory of home-working opportunities--another problem tackled in the Bill.
Hon. Members have referred to the links to premium rate telephone numbers. I shall not develop that further, but I was pleased to hear the promoter's reassurance that the costs associated with the problem are included in the definitions.
Why do we need the Bill? The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that it represents the nanny state at its worst, that people should be more alert to their own interests and that it should be necessary only to provide them with more information. However, I assume that the few Members here who oppose the thrust of the Bill broadly support the work of the Advertising Standards Authority. In its assessment, the most common reasons for such complaints is that, first, the adverts in
The people at whom the scams are targeted are vulnerable in all sorts of ways. The type of information that they request of the National Group on Homeworking illustrates the picture nicely. Their top need is information on employment rights. They feel especially vulnerable about low pay and about the availability of redundancy and lay-off pay.
The National Group on Homeworking should be commended, not criticised as it was by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. He was also dismissive of NACAB's support for the Bill. It is a mark of the Bill's strength that NACAB is so strongly in its support. It frequently receives complaints about the loss of money to clients who are least able to afford it. We have heard about the categories of people who are often the victims of such scams. NACAB often reports nationally and locally on the failure of legislative provision to deal with the problem. That is precisely why we are debating the Bill today. However, many people fail to complain at all, so we are looking only at the tip of the scam iceberg.
The existing legislation, which one or two right hon. Members have suggested is adequate to protect vulnerable people, is absolutely deficient because individual complaints are unlikely to be investigated by the police, given the small sums involved, although the amounts can be substantial for those concerned. I was pleased to hear the supportive comments about trading standards officers that have been made from both sides of the House. Those in that profession must wait until members of the public have lost money and made a complaint before they investigate. The Bill would improve the process.
Trading standards officers' involvement is restricted to the activities covered by the bogus home working addressed in the Bill. There seems to be no suggestion of anyone being targeted who wraps bogus bananas and sells them illegally in imperial quantities. We are not talking about such activities.
Another indicator showing that the legislative framework is inadequate is that the fines imposed by courts do not reflect the sums being made by such businesses. I dispute the figures given by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who suggested that the Bill deserved to fail because the predicted costs of implementing it were greater than the overall cost to those defrauded recently. In fact, in four years, one firm is estimated to have defrauded the British public of between £2.5 million and £6 million--considerably more than the Bill's likely cost.
Existing legislation also fails because the types of business involved in such disreputable activities are usually very difficult to track down. They operate using mobile phone numbers or post office box numbers and are almost impossible to identify with any certainty. Consumers have no practical means of redress.
I shall illustrate the difficulties by citing some examples provided by my own citizens advice bureau in north-west Leicestershire. They show the nature of the scams and of the people behind them. People are asked to provide money up front for an envelope template that is badly cut and useless and could never make a reasonable envelope. Of course, they cannot make the envelopes and the money is lost. That is the kind of activity that the Bill is aimed at tackling.
Sometimes, national insurance payments are stopped from home workers' pay but not passed on to the Inland Revenue. That is not covered in the Bill, but it is a matter that I have taken some interest in and one that the Inland Revenue and the Department of Social Security should consider.
My area has traditionally had a substantial economy in the clothing, textiles and footwear sector, which has had a very difficult time. Outworking is common in the sector, and much of it is legitimate and welcome, and not at risk from anything in the Bill. I am pleased to see a fellow Leicestershire Member on the Opposition Front Bench, no doubt waiting to leap to his feet and endorse everything in the Bill.
When scams are reported in our county, the same firms' names crop up time and again. Let us hope that they will not resurface when the Bill is enacted. The names include Capital Publishing, Creative Solutions, Sterling UK, Formula One International and Unicorn Direct. The names have a certain resonance of quality and high technology that completely belies what they are about. If the service that they provided was commensurate with the effort put into concocting their names, the Bill would not be needed.
We have come to a time, in relation to the development of the economy and the assessment of social difficulties, when action is needed. My hon. Friend the Minister will have been involved with the White Paper "Modern Markets: Confident Consumers", in which, in July 1999, the Government said:
Unscrupulous and immoral firms that trade on the desperation of the poor and the gullibility of the naive and exploit the isolated housebound should have no further part to play in the economy of the United Kingdom.