New Forest East



Dr Julian Lewis: When it first became known that I had been fortunate enough to secure this short debate on cold calling and vulnerable elderly people, I began to realise that I was addressing only the tip of an iceberg of cruelty that is happening in our society today. I am pleased to have the support of the hon. Member for Pudsey (Paul Truswell) from the Government Back Benches, who has done important work on the issue. I hope to finish my contribution in time to give him the opportunity to explain the wider context of the debate.

I could not have been more delighted to find that the Minister who will reply to the debate is the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Hazel Blears), for whom my admiration has been undimmed since the days when we served together as officers of the all-party group on motorcycling. To see the hon. Lady bowling along on a motorcycle, in the full knowledge that if ever she came to a halt her feet would barely reach the ground on either side, is an object lesson in fortitude, courage and bravery. I hope that she will be equally robust in her response to the debate.

Since the subject of the debate became known, I have received information on concerns about cold calling from Hampshire County Council, CORGI – the arrangement whereby British Gas attempts to prevent bogus callers masquerading as gas representatives – and from BBC South, which is carrying out important investigative work on cold calling. What struck me most was the number of individual cases that were brought to my attention. I shall refer briefly to four, two of which came to my attention by indirect means and two of which I have extensive direct knowledge about, and I shall make a declaration of interest at the appropriate point in my remarks.

The first case is that of Muriel, an 80-year-old artist living in SW14. She was persuaded to give £900 in cash to three cold callers who had tidied her garden. Only timely action by her friends, the police and the bank, in turn, prevented her from being defrauded of even more money.

Then there is the case of Stephen, an 84-year-old retired civil servant living in Blackheath, who made as many as nine cashback withdrawals in a single day for cold callers and who is believed to have withdrawn more than £20,000 in cash from his bank for them over a three-month period.

Those two cases were brought to my attention by immediate friends in my close circle. I am sure that other hon. Members could replicate those stories indefinitely. However, the two stories that I shall address in detail relate to Pat, an 80-year-old retired railway worker, and Sam, a 90-year-old retired tailor. Both lived alone in Swansea, South Wales, and both had the misfortune to be targeted by a man called Paul Grey. In that connection, I record my personal thanks for the support that I have received – as will become clear – from several sources.

The first is the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Alan Williams), my old adversary in the 1983 General Election. The right hon. Gentleman would have been in the Chamber this evening, but he is attending the funeral of his predecessor, Hugh Rees, who served as Conservative Member of Parliament for that constituency between periods of – let us say – rather extensive Labour representation in Swansea. The second is Detective Constable Ian Griffiths of Swansea CID. The third is Mr Ray Potter of Swansea Trading Standards Department, and the fourth is the investigative reporter, Mr Chris Segar, and his team on the programme, “The Ferret". I have been most impressed by the way in which they addressed those cases.

The first case is that of Pat Meehan who, as I said, is 80. He lives on a state pension and a small railway pension. Paul Grey knocked at his door one day and offered to replace his hedge with a wall. The idea was that the job would cost £600 and Mr Grey was given £200 for materials. Before the job was not even nearly complete, Pat was cajoled into parting with the other £400 and Mr Grey never went back to finish the job.

Pat Meehan is no ordinary retired railwayman. Like so many of his generation he is a tough character. He may be a bit deaf, a bit shaky and quite elderly, but he landed on the beaches on D-day plus 6. He went to Paul Grey's home and tried to confront him. Mr Grey saw Pat coming, wound down the window of his van, called out to him, made a V-sign and drove off. As Pat's sister-in-law, Christine Meehan, said to me only this afternoon:

“It's disgusting, isn't it?"

We now come to the question of Sam. Sam is Sam Lewis. Sam is 90. Sam is my father. He was Mr Grey's other recent victim. He is now safely in a residential home in London, which is why I can share this story with the House.

Back in November 2002, I was due to send in some builders to Sam's home to deal with an outbreak of dry rot. I rang my father the week before 25 November, which was the date they were due to start. To my surprise he told me:

“Oh, but the builders are already here, Julian."

He said he was unhappy about what was happening – it was turning into a very big job and they were making a terrible mess. I asked him whether he had paid them any money. The problem with Sam was and is that, although he is perfectly lucid, and although he is perfectly intelligent and not confused, he has virtually no short-term memory. So he went and recovered his chequebook and he looked up what he had paid, because he is also very meticulous.

He told me that he had given Paul Grey a cheque for £800 on 14 November and one for £1,000 on 18 November. I was not very happy about that but eventually I managed to speak to Mr Grey, who assured me that the £1,800 would be for the total job. I also spoke to Lloyds Bank in the Uplands in Swansea, two doors from where my father lived at the time and where he had his account, and I asked it please to alert me if anything suspicious happened with regard to withdrawals of money from my father's account.

In the second part of December 2002, I heard again from Mr Grey, after the other builders – the ones I had put into the premises to do a much bigger job than Mr Grey was supposed to be doing – had finished their work and departed. Mr Grey said that he had almost finished his work but asked whether I would like to have some guttering and pipework renewed while he was doing it. He indicated that that needed to be done, so I agreed to pay him £400 for what should have been two to three days' work. That cheque was cashed on Christmas Eve.

When I went back to the house – this is the problem with dealing with elderly relatives a couple of hundred miles away – on 26 January, I found that the work was nowhere near completed. On 27 January, in the morning, I managed to speak to Mr Grey. He was terribly sorry; he would give it his personal attention. His roofer, a man called Joe Edwards, had assured him that the work had been finished. One of Mr Grey's techniques is that he gets other people to do what passes for the work that he inflicts on his victims.

However, later that Monday morning, just before we were about to come in for Defence Questions, I received a call from Lloyds Bank. An alert cashier, Hazel Matthews, had become concerned that my father was withdrawing large sums of cash. She then looked into it further, saw that I had asked to be informed, and duly contacted me.

Unfortunately, this was rather late in the day. That evening, I rang my father, and I found that as well as the £800 cheque on 14 November and the £1,000 cheque on 18 November, to Paul Grey, the following cash withdrawals had been made: £500 on 4 December, £400 on 6 December, £1,200 on 16 December, £1,000 on 20 December, £800 on 7 January, £1,000 on 9 January, £1,200 on 24 January and £1,400 on 27 January. Interestingly, when I finally managed to obtain my father's chequebook, I was able to see that after the two cheques to Mr Grey, where all these cash withdrawals started, the first of those withdrawals, for £500, had originally been made out to “P. Grey”, crossed out and altered to “self" – that is, cash.

I decided to see whether I could get some evidence together to nail this man, and I decided to do something that I was not entirely happy about, which was to ring up my own father, ask him to go over the story again and tape-record what he said. I tried to do this on 29 January but found that Mr Grey was in the house. I obviously did not want to let on that I was suspicious about what was going on, because my father was quite frail and I did not like the idea of a confrontation while my father was still in the house; but I succeeded the next day in talking to my father again, and tape-recorded his answers, which were identical in every respect to what he had told me on the Monday. He spoke with total lucidity. He explained again and again that every bit of this money had been given by him to Paul Grey.

At the end of the conversation, my father collapsed and I had to dial the emergency services. He went to hospital. After a week of 24-hour care, he went into an assessment unit on 7 February, and the happy ending to this story is that, as I said at the outset, he is now safely resident in a good residential home in London.

On 14 February, I visited the house and found that Mr Paul Grey's work was still incomplete. On 23 February, I managed to confront Grey over the telephone. He denied that he had taken any of that money, but he refused to give me any detail that would enable me to track down the only other person who had been regularly on the site: his alleged roofer, Mr Joe Edwards, allegedly of Manselton. When I insisted on having those details, he concluded the conversation with the words:

“You effing find him" –

he did not actually say “effing" – and slammed down the phone.

Subsequently, with the help of “The Ferret" – the programme that I mentioned earlier – I discovered that there was no roofer of the name of Joe Edwards in Manselton; only a milkman, a well-known character in the community, who died recently. Mr Grey refused to respond to letters, to list the people on the site and to name a solicitor with whom I could correspond. I later discovered that he has 10 criminal convictions, dating back over 25 years until 1999. Those convictions included theft, deception, criminal damage and shoplifting.

I discovered that he had a habit of calling on my father every November. In November 2000, he was trading as Enterprise Roofing and Building; in November 2001, as St James's Building Services; and, in November 2002, Paul Grey Building Services. He has been interviewed by the police, and the Crown Prosecution Service has yet to decide what to do, but I am the first to concede that it is not easy for them. The only way in which they might be able to proceed would be to put my elderly father through the ordeal of giving evidence and facing cross-examination, and at his age I doubt whether that is something that ought to be inflicted upon him.

I have no doubt that Paul Grey spun out a two-to-three-day job over two months, during which he ruthlessly exploited Sam's frailty fraudulently to obtain thousands of pounds in cash. What is to be done about people like Grey? Before I hand over to the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr Truswell), who has great experience of this problem – I thank the Minister for allowing me to make that arrangement – I should like to give my single idea: it may be too draconian to ban cold calling altogether, although I would have sympathy with that view, but, as a first step, may I suggest that it ought to be made a criminal offence for anyone with a criminal record to engage in cold calling? That would nail the likes of the lowest of the low, like Mr Paul Grey.

[Mr Paul Truswell: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis), and I thank him for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Similarly, I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the Minister. The hon. Gentleman describes classic cases of abusing cold calling. They are bad, but they are far from being the worst. I came to the issue of doorstep crime and unscrupulous selling five years ago, when a number of my constituents were stung by a home improvement outfit called Midland Coatings. Thanks to an excellent campaign by the Yorkshire Evening Post, in which I was closely involved, we drove that cowboy outfit out of town. Unfortunately, it is only one of many.

That campaign brought me into contact with a phenomenal individual called Brian Steele. Brian is a retired detective chief superintendent, who has made combating doorstep crime his life's work ever since he investigated a particularly harrowing case. A lady in her 80s, Isabel Grey, was murdered by burglars who tortured her and broke her back. It was later discovered that she had been a serial victim of bogus builders of the type that the hon. Gentleman describes, and that they had carried out a series of botched jobs on her property.

Brian subsequently studied the activities of distraction burglars. His interviews with them in prison revealed a picture of cynical leeches who said that they could smell the money in an old person's home, who bought and sold the names of their victims and who showed not the slightest contrition about their crimes. I helped Brian to lobby the Home Office for a £500,000 grant to set up the Leeds distraction burglary initiative, which has proved highly successful in tackling a range of doorstep crime and pressure selling. Brian acted as co-ordinator for the first three years, and now works for trading standards authorities in the north of England. It is my privilege to work with him, with colleagues such as Stuart Pudney, head of Trading Standards for North Yorkshire, and with numerous organisations, in campaigning for a law to prohibit cold calling at someone's home for the purpose of offering property improvement, maintenance or repair. It is a measure that those experienced people, who include police officers, have decided is perhaps the only way forward in combating such activity. It is not a panacea but it will help to paint those villains further into a corner and to restrict their areas of operation. My hon. Friend the Minister may be aware of early-day motion 219, which refers to that campaign.

The campaign is targeted specifically at those who call for the purpose of offering property maintenance, repair and improvement services. There are two reasons for that. First, that is the principal modus operandi of criminals and the sort of character who fleeced the father of the hon. Member for New Forest, East. Such people are criminal in every respect apart from, unfortunately, sometimes, the narrow legal sense. Secondly, although we may not like it, many people have a legitimate and sometimes altruistic reason for knocking on our doors, and it would be a pity to have a blanket ban and rule them all out.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Office of Fair Trading will report shortly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry regarding cold calling. I hope that one of the recommendations will be on the need for such legislation as well as other measures. In the interests of joined-up government, I trust that my hon. Friend's Department will have some input into the discussion on this matter. It is crucial that it does not fall between the two stools of crime prevention and consumer protection. There is often a fine line – even a grey area – between those two aspects. Prohibiting cold calling for property repair, improvement and maintenance would help to tackle that range of crime and sharp practice.

I also urge my hon. Friend to ensure that her Department takes more effective steps to record such doorstep crime, which, as I say, falls between two stools, which makes it more difficult to demonstrate the incidence of such crime even though experience shows that it is widespread.

The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears): I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) in what is an extremely important debate. I also welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr Truswell). It is fair to say that the cases that both have highlighted this evening are shocking, and illustrate the despicable behaviour of some people in these circumstances. It is excellent that these issues have been raised in the House.

I am responding as a Home Office Minister, but both Members have made the point that bogus callers, distraction burglary and people being deceived into parting with their money cross over the boundaries between the Home Office, in terms of crime reduction and crime prevention and, inextricably, the Department of Trade and Industry, in terms of consumer protection and the important role played by trading standards officers in seeking to regulate this area. I will do my best to reply across the piece, because I accept entirely the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey that we must ensure that these issues do not fall through the gap, whether in terms of regulation, the OFT's response to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux super-complaint, or gathering intelligence, which is absolutely key in such matters.

I am delighted to tell the hon. Member for New Forest, East that a very good operation in the south-west, Operation Litotes, now brings together all the agencies and the five forces across the south-west to share intelligence about the kind of people who conduct the terrible acts highlighted this evening, whether bogus callers, people seeking to extort money for the kind of home improvements that have been highlighted, or those attempting distraction burglary. It is important that once we share that information, we can track such people across a wide geographic area, as it is clear that they are prepared in a cynical way to travel hundreds of miles to find their victims.

As I said, both distraction burglary and cold calling are covered, but I would not want elderly people to be unduly alarmed – distraction burglary represents a small proportion of burglary as a whole, and elderly people are only a quarter as likely to be victims as young people. I would not want this matter to be taken out of perspective. It should also be taken in the context of burglary being reduced by about 39 per cent. over the past few years. In relation to relatively small numbers of burglaries, therefore, bogus calling is difficult to record. I acknowledge that a huge amount of work is already going on.

The issue is especially important to me because I recently had cause to knock on people's doors during the Brent by-election. I knocked on the door of an elderly lady aged 82 four minutes after she had been burgled and deceived. A man had come along purporting to want to get into her bathroom because repairs were being carried out three doors down the road. She opened her door perfectly innocently, but he pushed past her to break into her home. He stole not only her money, but money that she had been collecting for her church. I have no doubt that she was traumatised by the event and that it affected her independent way of living. The incident showed me the depths to which people are prepared to sink in such circumstances.

A great deal of work has been done on distraction burglary, such as establishing projects and a taskforce. The taskforce has been extremely successful in the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey. However, I shall talk about consumer protection, because that was the main issue that was raised in the debate.

Hon. Members will know that the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux published its report on doorstep selling in September 2002. The report was based on 1,500 case studies that were submitted by citizens advice bureaux over two years. The case studies were analysed and recommendations for improvements were made. During national consumer week last year, the Office of Fair Trading announced that it would accept the details from NACAB as a super-complaint under the Enterprise Act 2002. The OFT has been considering the issue since then and I understand that it is due to report early in the new year. Legislation on the matter exists in the form of the Consumer Protection (Cancellation of Contracts Concluded away from Business Premises) Regulations 1987, which are commonly known as the doorstep selling regulations.

Additionally, the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 contains provisions on cooling-off periods so that people who have bought goods from people selling door-to-door have a chance to get out of onerous contracts into which they have entered. Although legislation is in place, it is right for the OFT to consider whether further legislation is required and whether there should be closer work with the police service to tackle the problems.

Dr Lewis: I appreciate the Minister's comments. What is her view of the specific idea of criminalising cold calling by people with criminal records?

Ms Blears: That issue was raised by the Trading Standards Institute, which produced a report on cold calling this year that especially examined property repair and maintenance, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The institute said that the statutory control of such cold calling was long overdue, and recommended criminalising people in such circumstances, and the OFT is considering those recommendations and taking them fully into account. I should tell the hon. Gentleman that it might be difficult to define the offences that would lead to a person being prohibited from doorstep selling. For example, offences such as a driving offence might not be relevant to a person's subsequent activities. However, it is legitimate for the OFT to consider the matter.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East said that outlawing the whole business of doorstep selling would be perhaps a step too far. Doorstep selling represents a substantial business and there is only a small proportion of rogue traders, but the OFT will consider whether such action would be appropriate.

Mr Truswell: Does the Minister accept, nevertheless, that no reputable tradesperson really needs to use cold calling? I am heartened by the fact that the Federation of Master Builders takes no exception to the idea of outlawing cold calling for the specific purpose of property repair, maintenance and improvement.

Ms Blears: I am sure that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not trespass on the domain of the Department of Trade and Industry in that respect. He has made his representations extremely robustly for a long time, and I am sure that the DTI will take on board his extensive personal experience, knowledge and expertise on the matter, as will the OFT when it considers its final report.

I want quickly to make a point about action being taken to protect the bank accounts of vulnerable people. The hon. Member for New Forest, East made a compelling point about significant, high-value transactions taking place in a short period, and I am delighted to be able to tell him that representatives of the Trading Standards Institute and the British Bankers Association, who are on the distraction burglary taskforce, are working together on that very issue. They have a pilot scheme in Kent which asks bank and building society staff to be on the lookout for requests for unusually large cash withdrawals for building work, and to take action to safeguard their clients.

The institute is producing videos and other training materials for use with banking, call centre and enforcement staff – everybody who deals with victims of such crime. That is an important pilot project, and we will be learning lessons from that about how we might implement it across the piece. Increasingly, banks and financial institutions are carrying out fraud checks when significant numbers of payments are made in a short period. That is an excellent way to help to protect elderly people who are particularly vulnerable.

I want to say a little about how Departments are working together to try to tackle distraction burglary and bogus callers. It is increasingly obvious that many elderly people are in touch with social services, and they can get valuable information from their carers, home helps and other people with whom they are in contact. Many elderly people are influenced by their family, so we must get the message out to families that much of this burglary and deception can be prevented if people take simple precautions, such as checking callers and asking for proof of their identity.

There is now a national crime protocol, which has been signed by many energy companies and those who have traditionally needed access. It requires callers to submit their identity and to provide a telephone number so that the resident can confirm it. Simple, practical steps such as those can help to reduce distraction burglary, which causes people huge distress and trauma. Through crime and disorder reduction partnerships we are trying to engage everybody in these issues as part of their mainstream business. Then, when people are going about their daily work, they are thinking about how they can help to protect elderly people.

This is a difficult issue, because we are asking many elderly people to change the habits of a lifetime. They grew up in times when it was, perhaps, safer to be more open, friendly and welcoming and to keep the door open. These days, sadly, that is not the case, so we have to ask people to put the chain on the door, stop and check the identity of callers, and think very carefully about what is happening. It is not about being unfriendly; it is about being in control. We want to empower people so that they can rebuff approaches from rogue traders.

I am delighted that this issue has been highlighted in the House. There is a great deal of work going on throughout the country to ensure that we protect people from such despicable activity. The more we can do to work together on crime prevention in the Home Office and the Department of Trade and Industry, the better for everybody. I certainly undertake to ensure that we have an input and work closely with the DTI before the OFT report comes out early next year.]