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Mock Auctions

Volume 531: debated on Thursday 29 July 1954

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10.56 p.m.

We have had important debates today about Egypt and Brazil. It might seem presumptuous of me to raise what some people would consider the piffling matter of mock auctions. No matter how important the other debates were I claim that among the people of this country there is as much, if not greater, interest in mock auctions. This is largely because many have had experience of the swindling tactics of the mock auctioneer. It is 12 months since I raised this subject on an Adjournment debate. The Minister who replied then is to reply tonight.

I am well-informed about the activities of these mock auctioneers, both by the general public and by men who work, or worked, in this type of racket. My information is that this July there is much less activity by mock auctioneers than there was a year ago. I also know that many of them are marking time, and that if they could believe that the limelight would be taken from their activities they would be operating again. I ought to say, with respect to the remarks I have just made, that many of them have left their usual haunts in the large towns and seaside resorts and gone to small towns and villages where several days pass before the local people get to know their tactics and they are forced out.

What is remarkable is that the best pickings seem to be among Scottish people. Last year the biggest profits and easiest pickings were made at the Highland Games. A newspaper this week indicated that the Scottish visitors to a northern inland town were found to be easy pigeons for plucking. I wonder what has happened to the canny Scot, whom all of us knew to be loath to spend a penny if a halfpenny would do.

We cannot thank the Home Office for the improvement in the position in regard to mock auctions. I have been more than disgusted at the types of letter I have had from the Department, and I think that that disgust is shared by many. We have to thank the Press for the improvement. The Press has done a good deal to educate the public. For instance, the "Sunday Chronicle," the "Daily Herald," for the last few days "The Times" in its correspondence columns, and the "News Chronicle"—all the daily papers, and many of the Sunday papers—have carried stories about mock auctions. Consequently many more people know about these things than knew of them 12 months ago.

We must give credit to the B.B.C. for the television show of two or three weeks ago that portrayed in a glaring fashion the swindling techniques of the mock auctioneer. The action of the Brighton Corporation in getting a Private Bill through the House has given splendid publicity to the matter and helped to pinpoint the evils of this trade. Quite modestly, I think that some of my activities have had more than a little interest for the general public in this connection. During the past 12 months some terrible threats have been made by mock auction people to me and to members of my family about what would happen. Four or five weeks ago Scotland Yard found a plot against myself and I was offered police protection. Of course, in these matters I am not asking the police to be a wet nurse. I think that it is a public duty to keep on exposing these mock auctions, and I hope that I shall have the health and strength to continue to do so as long as they operate.

What are the views of the Home Office about the B.B.C. television show? It surprised many people that there could be such a clear exposure of swindling technique. The Home Office must know about it. Do they agree with it? They must know whether it is desirable or undesirable. If it is undesirable, are these tactics within the law, and if they are, what is the Home Secretary going to do about seeing that these people are not operating within the law?

A week ago I gave notice of this matter so that we could expect an answer tonight. Do the Home Office think that the B.B.C. imagined these things and were unfair to the mock auctioneers? Many people would like to know the answer.

The B.B.C. exposed a technique that was easy to portray. They showed quite clearly that there was a confederate in the audience who was taking part in the bidding. Is that not unlawful? Many people will think that it is. There is a much deadlier technique than that, operated by the big circuits of mock auctioneers. They do not have a confederate in the audience. They believe there are dangers of blackmail in that, because even mock auctioneers fall out sometimes. The confederate may be stupid, or not too clever, and he has to be paid.

The modern technique is that goods which are never intended to go to the public are "planted." The auctioneer pretends to have accepted a bid from the audience that has never been made. The man in the front of the counter, while on his way through the crowd, having paused in the meantime to sell a pair of braces for 6d. or a pair of scissors for 1d., will produce notes himself for the expensive bid—collect the 6d. or 1d.—hand up cash to auctioneer—the goods never intended to be sold go behind to be wrapped up and appear at the next sale.

Is that not illegal? If it is, what is happening about it? I see it almost every day, when I go to the mock auctions. I have gone to some trouble, because last year, when I spoke, I generalised and realised it was not anybody's business. Since then, I have rather put the Home Office on the spot and at least made them get a report about it.

Following investigations in Oxford Street, I went to the Tottenham Court Road police station and made a complaint about a practice, which I stipulated, and asked that it should be looked into. I did the same thing in respect of Petticoat Lane at Commercial Road police station. I have done it with the City Police and been interviewed by a representative of the fraud squad.

I informed the Home Secretary of the specific complaints and asked that I be informed, following investigations, whether these techniques were seen by the police and if so whether they were illegal and what steps were being taken to deal with them. I got a letter back from the Home Secretary, months after I put in the complaints, and only when I asked about it. That letter was very vague. I have, since then, sent a letter to the Home Secretary asking for further information and asking whether these techniques have been seen. I have repeated the other questions I asked prior to that. I should like to know the answers tonight.

During the last few weeks, I have been checking to see if these operations still exist and they do, in Oxford Street at No. 80. I should say that the two big mock auctions in Oxford Street, that I specified last year, have, of course, closed down, but recently two others, but smaller ones, have opened. It is difficult to twist when there is a small number of people but in No. 80 I saw the technique again. It was rather remarkable, because the British people know about the evils of mock auctions; one could hear them in the shops, talking about the B.B.C. show and the various newspapers that have been reporting about it. In the districts in which people read the papers and really know what is happening in life, the mock auctioneers are having great difficulty.

They are finding it difficult to get away with the technique, because of the knowledge people have; but, what a scandal it was in Oxford Street—and it is happening every day—to see that most of the people who were swindled were foreigners, people coming to Britain and buying goods marked British and guaranteed as Sheffield steel which really were absolute rubbish. I saw a Persian man, who could not speak English, with his young son of 12, who was showing off his knowledge of our language and who was fleeced of a lot of money.

We want to encourage these people to come here and we want to build up a thriving tourist trade, but visitors are being swindled and it is an absolute disgrace. Let us think of someone else's testimony. Earlier in the year, the National Chamber of Trade held its conference at Margate. A resolution was passed expressing disappointment with the replies of the Home Secretary to points about mock auctioneers.

Later in the conference, reference was made to the fact that Brighton got a Bill through the House, and of course they mentioned that it seemed to be all wrong that the ratepayers of the various towns, should be put to the cost of thousands of pounds to get the powers to control mock auctions. There may be something to be said for the view that it might be a good thing for Brighton to try this out and to see how they get on, but when one reads the minutes of the evidence of the Committee on the Brighton Corporation Bill there, at least, is testimony as to the tactics adopted by these people, which, I am sure, no one could claim to be anything but undesirable.

I have here the testimony of the Incorporated Society of Auctioneers. It says:
"The Society has always taken the view that mock auctioneers swindle the public and injure legal practitioners and bona fide traders in general, and that more effective action should be taken than at present to prohibit or control their sales. Since these people use what looks like auction technique—that is to say, they stand on a rostrum and use patter to excite the interest of crowds—they are frequently confused in the public mind with proper auctioneers, and our members are far from happy about this result."
I have been criticised for the fact that in my activities in this connection I may have damaged the legitimate business of auctioners. I want to say that at all times I shall endeavour to correct that impression, because I have no quarrel whatsoever with the legitimate auctioneers who, I think, represent a valuable part of the British way of life. In support of my argument, I will read to the House a letter from a man who practised for two years as a mock auctioneer, but who, because of the adverse publicity which made the job more and more nerve-wracking, was advised by his wife to give up the job and to seek a more legitimate means of making a livelihood. It says:
"Previous to the slick salesman getting the audience to bid for the bigger lots like canteens and brush sets, etc., he will offer an article, run it up to £2 to £3 and may be more, and knock same down to a fictitious customer. The floorsman works his way round the side of the audience and asks them to come forward please assisted by the auctioneer. In the shuffling forward of the audience, the floors-man works his way back and hands up to the auctioneer £2 or £3 which the customer, a fictitious one, is supposed to have bid. This money the floorsman has concealed in his hands, and it is the money he is given to use during the sale. This indeed is a glaring incident of obtaining money by means of a trick. If the police watch for this move, they can catch the floorsman with the money in his hand."
I do not wish to go into the technique of how I think these people can be caught, but I should be willing to accompany two or three plain-clothes police officers to a mock auction and point out how it is done. I was able to get behind the scenes in one mock auction in Petticoat Lane, and I saw what happened to the tray of goods which was supposed to have been knocked down to a bidder for £4 or £5. I saw how when the goods were handed back, ostensibly for the purpose of being wrapped up, they were taken off the tray and put on the shelf ready for the next sale.

It is beyond my comprehension that the police cannot get proof of the trickery that takes place. Every mock auctioneer who confesses to it says that it is absolutely impossible to make money unless this trickery is practised. I am sure that one prosecution would cause the collapse of the whole racket. I said at the beginning that the mock auctioneers were going to the small towns and villages. Here are some of the bills:
"Great Sale—M. Browne & Co.,
Crown Hotel, High St., Pateley Bridge,
Harrogate, Yorks.
£5,000 worth of Household Linens.
200 Turkish towels at 2s. 6d.,
500 Heavy Pattern Tablecloths at 3s.,
also £2,000 worth of Glass, china, canteens of
"Great Sale—Dixon's
The Assembly Rooms, Barton-on-Humber."
Here, strangely enough, the articles are exactly the same. It is only the name which is different, which clearly indicates that these rackets are being worked by big people who send these mock auctioneers round the towns and villages.

Another reads:
"Wisdom Clubs invite you to a £1,000
Advertising Sale at Vallis Way, Frome.
Tea sets 2s. 6d., stockings 1s. a pair,
pillow cases 1s. a pair etc."
Here is the trick: none of these things ever appears. The man comes with a motor van and all his usual junk but none of the household linen or towels. These are the bills which bring the people. There is plenty of evidence that in some areas these mock auctioneers have been bundled out of the district. That is due to the education carried on by the Press and the B.B.C.

In one of my letters to the Home Secretary about five weeks ago I told him that trouble was brewing in Petticoat Lane. Many of my friends from the North visit that bazaar in a thoroughfare when they come to London, as I did years ago as a country yokel. Some still think that I am a country yokel, but there was no doubt about it then. I spent many happy hours there and got many a bargain. There is a great feeling of animosity among the many people who have had stalls there for tens of years that they have among them this growing body of dishonest people. In this morning's "Daily Herald" it says: