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"Petticoat Lane Men Start War

Volume 531: debated on Thursday 29 July 1954

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Tricksters who flood London's famous Petticoat Lane market with shoddy goods are to be driven out. Every Sunday, visitors fall for their smooth patter and are wheedled into buying junk at high prices.

The 1,200-strong Stepney St. Traders Association has declared war on the tricksters. 'We are determined to stamp them out,' said one member. 'We are losing trade and our reputation because of them.'

Fifty sandwich-board men have been employed to parade Petticoat Lane and the borough's seven other markets, warning the public against mock auctions."

I am informed that it is only necessary for one man organising them to get them to tip up their stalls and there will be real trouble in Petticoat Lane. I hope that it will not be necessary and that the honest decent traders in Petticoat Lane will get the protection for which they pay well from the authorities who are required to look after them. In all the circumstances as we see them today it is shocking that the Home Secretary is doing nothing about this menace. If, of course, something is being done then tonight is the night to let us know what is happening on the mock auctions front.

11.20 p.m.

It is a year since the subject of mock auctions was last discussed in the House and I can assure the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) that the Government have treated the concern which he expressed last July with the respect which it deserved. I very much appreciate the interest which he has taken in this matter, and it may well be that the publicity which he has given to it has done something to produce the effect which he has described today.

It is unfortunate, in a way, that this subject has been raised on the Consolidated Fund Bill, because that is bound to present a somewhat one-sided picture. The hon. Member can describe the proceedings of these mock auctions—and he does not mince words in describing them—and can imply, as he has implied this evening, that the Government are responsible for action, but I reply I am in a difficulty because, in the first place, the Home Secretary is not responsible for taking proceedings and, in the second place, reference to legislation is out of order in this debate. There is very little which it is open to me to say.

The Home Office and the police have paid a great deal of attention to this question of mock auctions. No doubt undesirable practices take place at these auctions—there is no question about that at all; but that does not necessarily mean that criminal practices take place, for there is a considerable difference between the two.

The kind of thing which would be criminal under the present law would be, for example, if there were sham bidders who pretended to be real bidders and forced up the price against those who attend auctions. If it could be shown that that was taking place, the promoters of the auctions could be charged with conspiracy with intent to defraud.

It may well be that an example of that was given in the television programme. There is no difficulty in putting on an example if one wishes to do so; but that does not necessarily mean that that kind of thing takes place in real life.

I have no doubt that the script of the B.B.C. programme was written by some able script writer. Every thriller or murder play is made up in that sense; it may correspond to something which occurs in real life or it may not. I have no doubt that the overall picture was a good picture. It brought home to people's minds the kind of thing which may be occurring. But that is not evidence that crime of this kind takes place.

If goods were knocked down to someone who had not bid for them and he were intimidated in some way into paying for them, that would be a form of larceny; or if goods were sold—this is the sort of case which the hon. Member had in mind—by some false description—for example, if cutlery were sold as silver when in fact it was nothing but base metal—those engaged would be guilty of obtaining money by false pretences.

In view of the representations which the hon. Member has made, both in the House and by correspondence to the Home Secretary, that criminal acts of this kind were taking place, the Home Secretary called for reports from the police, and particularly for reports of what was happening in this connection in London. I have seen the reports and have studied them carefully. They are full and careful, and a great deal of time and trouble were taken by the police in attending the auctions and preparing the reports.

The police have been advised that there is no evidence which would justify criminal proceedings. There is nothing that they have seen and reported upon which would enable criminal proceedings to be taken against those who hold these auctions. I quite agree that undesirable things go on. Those who conduct the auctions are no doubt guilty of sharp practice which goes just as near the edge of crime as they dare go. Unless they step over the boundary, and evidence can be produced that they have done so, it is not possible to take proceedings.

If the Joint Under-Secretary says that these undesirable practices are near to criminal offences, does he not make out a case for giving local authorities power to prohibit them?

I shall say something on that subject.

There is a great deal in the way of blandishment and what is generally known as ballyhoo, but neither blandishments nor ballyhoo are illegal. The hon. Member will agree with me that it would be wrong in principle to make such things illegal. The policy of the law has been not to insist upon protecting people against themselves. I think that that is the right policy, and I am perfectly certain that the House would be very loth indeed to depart from it. The hon. Member has suggested that the law could be amended. It was easy for him to make that suggestion, but he will appreciate the difficulty in which it puts me.

As a result of a deputation from the National Chamber of Trade, my right hon. and learned Friend caused inquiries to be made of chief constables about the scope of the problem. We also sought the views of the Association of Municipal Corporations and the Urban District Councils Association. It became quite clear from the chief constables that the problem was a localised one. It exists in London and in the larger seaside towns, that is to say, in places where people resort for amusement. The people who attend these auctions are not, for the most part, serious buyers. They go there for amusement and they are the ones to get caught in the toils.

In the second place, it became clear that the local authorities favour dealing with this problem on a local rather than a national basis. I cannot possibly give reasons now why there are objections to dealing with this matter by general legislation, but perhaps I can say within the bounds of order that one of the Home Secretary's administrative duties is to report upon Private Bills which come before the House, and I take it that I can refer to what has been done in past legislation.

In a recent case a large seaside town was seeking new powers. It promoted a Private Bill containing a Clause requiring the registration of premises used in the borough for the conduct of auction sales, and, as the hon. Gentleman indicated in his speech, the purpose of the Clause was to enable the borough to control the holding of auctions of this kind. The Clause was amended by the Select Committee to make an exception for auction sales conducted by members of certain organisations representing reputable auctioneers.

I think it is right that I should read the advice that was given by my right hon. and learned Friend in this connection, because it is generally applicable. It is:
"The Secretary of States takes the view that provisions of this nature, which confer upon a local authority a discretionary power to grant or refuse permission for the carrying on of a lawful occupation, should not be allowed except on clear evidence that it would be in the public interest to do so. He recommends, therefore, that Part II of the Bill should only be allowed if the promoters can show that there is a serious public mischief in …"
the borough
"… that cannot be dealt with by other means and, if any provision is to be allowed, it should be limited to what is really necessary to deal effectively with that mischief."
Here is a way of dealing with the matter in the particular places where it is a nuisance. It is a way which can be easily followed. It has not the objection which I have indicated in broad outline to taking general legislative powers which would be vastly in excess of what is necessary to deal with the matter.

I should have said that in the case of a substantial borough the cost would be negligible.

I suggest to the House that the right way to deal with the matter is by mobilising public opinion and by enabling those areas which are seriously afflicted in this way to take action on the lines that I have indicated.