HC Deb 07 May 1971 vol 816 cc1818-23

Lords Amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 35, leave out from "behalf" to "before" in line 37, and insert: an order complying with this section or a note complying with this section of his agreement to the charge and, in the case of a note of agreement to the charge.

11.7 a.m.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

Lords Amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 41, leave out from second "of" to "be" in line 42, and insert: an order or note of agreement to the charge complying with this section, No. 3, in page 3, line 3, after "that" insert the entry to which the charge relates was ordered in accordance with this section or and No. 4, in page 3, line 5, at beginning insert: For the purposes of subsection (1) above, an order for an entry in a directory must be made by means of an order form or other stationery belonging to the person to whom, or to whose trade or business, the entry is to relate and bearing, in print, the name and address (or one or more of the addresses) of that person; and deal basically with the same point and make little sense if considered in isolation. It might be for the convenience of the House if we considered them together.

Mr. Speaker

I take it that it will be for the convenience of the House if we do that.

Mr. Goodhart

Many hon. Members are now aware of the extent of the bogus directory racket in this country. It has been estimated that a sum of £1½, million is milked each year from unsuspecting firms in all parts of the country by the publishers of bogus trade directories. During the past year attempts have been made to reach every firm in the country by one or other of the bogus directory operators.

In the five months that have elapsed since I first introduced the Bill hardly a day has gone by, even during the postal strike, without some complaint about this abuse being brought directly to my notice. Clause 3 sets out to curb this practice by requiring publishers to send a substantial number of details about the directory they intend to print to any person whose name is to appear in that directory. The person must sign an order form before he can be asked to pay anything. Many experts have studied this Clause and agree that it should effectively end the racket.

It has been argued that, as it stands, it would impose an unnecessary complication on a number of perfectly normal and wholly uncontentious business transactions and that when an entry or order was made in good faith by an individual or firm it could not readily be accepted unless all the information set out in Clause 3 had been sent to the individual concerned and returned to the firm. In another place there was much discussion as to whether reputable firms could be helped without providing a loophole for the unscrupulous. It was argued that when people or companies used their own printed notepaper or printed order form to ask for an entry they plainly knew what they were doing. Official help with the drafting was sought and generously given, and the Amendments should meet the problem without weakening the original effect and intention of Clause 3.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

I should merely like to support my hon. Friend in commending the Amendments to the House. We should be as careful as possible in our legislation not to impose onerous and unnecessary burdens upon people who are in no sense causing offence or doing anything wrong. There could be a case where somebody wrote of his own accord to a directory firm and asked to have his name or the name of his business included in the directory, and where, if that perfectly genuine order were simply accepted by the directory company, that company might well find that it had no right to exact payment, unless this group of Amendments is made. That clearly is a situation that the House would not like to see.

I should like to draw attention to one detail. The Amendment allows the directory companies to require and pursue payment for orders if the orders have been received upon writing paper with the printed address of the person ordering. It perhaps is a curious point, but if the writing paper has the address typed or handwritten rather than printed those conditions are not met, and the directory company would have to have the order confirmed. However, the problems of drafting are such that it is hard to overcome this little difficulty. The vast majority of such orders are from traders who operate with printed writing paper. But it shows the extraordinary difficulty of trying to legislate both to stop the abuse which I am sure the whole House wishes to stop and to be fair to legitimate transactions, that we have to split hairs to this extent to find an acceptable form of words.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the Clause as amended appears to meet the needs of the case and at the same time is satisfactory to all those who operate responsible and respectable directory businesses. Like him, I believe that it will lead to an end of the practice of bogus directory entries and harassment for payment for entries in those directories. Since he introduced his Bill a number of hon. Members have written to me with letters from constituents complaining about this practice. I have been very pleased to be able to reply that if my hon. Friend's Bill reaches the Statute Book I believe that the nuisance will be brought to an end. Therefore, perhaps I may end on a personal note by saying that it will save me, for one, a certain amount of work, if the Clause is amended. That is of benefit to me, but it will be of very much greater benefit to those who have been troubled by this nuisance in the past.

Mr. David Mitchell (Basingstoke)

I am aware that the House wishes to get on to the next business, and I do not wish to delay hon. Members, but perhaps I may intervene briefly, because I have a constituency interest in the matter. I have had correspondence with a constituent who is particularly concerned about it, and I had hoped to catch the eye of my hon. Friend the Minister before he sat down. He spoke of harassment of people to secure payment. I have in my hand an example of the sort of deception which has caused considerable concern to many hon. Members. It purports to be an invoice statement from a firm, and it says: 1971. To bold type entry classified as Class Restaurants—£15.50p. Discount terms, 5 per cent. within 10 days—£14.72p. Then in minute type at the bottom it says: This is a pro-forma effected by payment. This is a deception; no order has been placed. But there must be very few businesses which are so incompetent that they will pay bills for goods or services that they have not ordered and have not received.

11.15 a.m.

Therefore, I was particularly disturbed by what my hon. Friend said about harassment for payment, because there is a distinct difference between the case of someone who puts in an order form which may be dressed up to look like an invoice and the case of someone who, having done that, proceeds to try to dun someone for payment without having received a written order from them. We should not molly-coddle businesses to the point where people who have received an invoice for goods they have not ordered and received are expected to be protected by law. What is the difference between an entry in a register and sending an invoice for a ton of coal when someone has not delivered the goods?

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

I know of a case in my constituency of a junior secretary who had been with a firm for only a week or so and was harassed into making payment on just such a proforma under the natural illusion that it was an invoice and was due for payment from the firm. My hon. Friend should be very careful about this matter, because it is a deception and it should be stopped.

Mr. Mitchell

That is the point I was trying to elucidate, and I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. Whilst I take the view that we should not molly-coddle businesses, if there is harassment to secure payment in the way my hon. Friend has described, the situation is different. and in that case the House should give full blessing to the Amendment as well as to the Bill in its amended form.

Mr. Ridley

With the leave of the House, I should like to reply briefly to my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. David Mitchell.) I think that the two positions he took are entirely met by the Clause as amended. The unwise business which does not look after its own interests may well simply be paying, when it receives a request for payment, for something it has not ordered, and it is in no sense protected against its own foolishness if it makes that mistake. The offence will arise where, when no order has been placed, the directory firm harasses the individual or company for payment. The penalties mentioned in the Clause are quite severe for any attempt to obtain payment, let alone to harass for payment for an order which has not been placed—an unsolicited order. Therefore, I think that I am right in saying that my hon. Friend's worries are entirely met. I hope that it will become generally known that it is an offence to demand or press for payment for any order for an entry in a directory which has not been placed, just as it is to demand payment for goods which have not been supplied, or anything of that sort.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

My hon. Friend says that he hopes that this will become generally known. May I ask him to do his best to make sure that it is generally known, because the practice in question is very widespread? I have several examples from Staffordshire in my files, and we have heard of examples from two other parts of the country, so it must be a very widespread practice. I hope that my hon. Friend will do all he can to draw attention to the penalties.

Mr. Ridley

I accept what my hon. Friend says, but I have no control of the means of mass communication, and it would be wrong for me to have any. I have consistently given this view and will continue to do so on all possible occasions. I feel sure that those responsible for the mass communication media would be better able to perform the task than the Government would, and we have no means by which we could circu- larise—again it would be wrong for us to have them—all businessess, let alone all individuals, about the state of the law. I think that it is a reasonable presumption that it is up to business and individuals to acquaint themselves of changes in the law made by Parliament. I am sure that all hon. Members will add to that by giving their constituents the benefit of their knowledge of the provisions of this Clause.

Mr. Arthur Davidson (Accrington)

I, too, have no objection to these Amendments. The purpose of Clause 3 is to put an end to the practice by which bogus directory firms send out the minimum of details, deliberately concealing the true charge and the circulation, thereby both milking the public and enriching themselves. The Amendments in no way weaken the Clause. I always look to see from whence an Amendment comes, and when it comes from the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), I am always inclined to look at it with favour.

The Amendments also have the support of the Advertising Association, and Mr. Alan Hickman, to whom I pay tribute, has done a great deal to try to stamp out the bogus directory racket. He feels that the Amendments will in no way weaken the Bill. I have had long discussions with him and he has convinced me also that that is the effect.

I have no doubt that many of these firms will try to go so far as possibly to forge the letterheads of some of the companies they want to milk, just as many of them have gone to the extent in the past of transferring to order forms signatures of firms which were merely attached to notifications that they did not want any more orders. But that is covered by the present law, and if such people are caught, as I hope they will be, they will suffer the full rigours of the criminal code. I do not think that we can legislate for every possible eventuality, because there are always criminals and always people who will try to find a way around the law.

In the circumstances, I am happy to welcome the Amendments.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendments agreed to.

Back to
Forward to