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Small Print

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2008

4.29 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make requirements regarding the minimum size of print in certain documents, including those relating to advertising and contracts; and for connected purposes.

The Bill’s objective is simple: it is not to impose any additional regulations on the content of terms and conditions in advertisements or contracts, but to ensure that customers are reasonably able to read what they say. It is easy to say “Let the buyer beware”, but if the buyer cannot read the contract, how is he or she supposed to beware?

I shall give an example that happened to me personally just last week. It is not a particularly severe example compared with some of the others that I shall cite, but it illustrates the point. People who make an online purchase, as I did last week, may be offered a voucher if they make another purchase from the same firm—in this case, Expedia. If they click on that offer, they find that they have signed up to pay £8 a month for ever, until they cancel it, for a package of discount vouchers that they will get in the future. The website does not spell out what the vouchers are or their value. More to the point, the deal is in small print and people have to look for it to see that that is what they are signing up for.

I noticed the offer because a constituent raised the matter with me a few weeks ago, after he had ordered some flowers online. He accepted the offer and, as a result, a couple of months later he noticed he had been paying £8 a month to a company that he had never heard of. He inquired why and found out that he had been fooled by the small print.

Much more serious examples have come up in my discussions with non-governmental organisations, in relation to matters such as the redemption payment to be made when a mortgage is redeemed, which may be much more substantial than the mortgage holder expects. In a lease, the fine print relating to rental arrangements governs when the deposit is to be returned. Often the deposit is never seen again because of something deep down in the contract, especially if a person is a relatively vulnerable renter who is not used to the formalities of legal contracts and who has difficulty burrowing into small print deep in the contract. In the case of insurance policies, insurance companies are happy to take people’s money no matter how old they are, but when policyholders come to claim, they find that in the small print there is an exclusion based on their age.

The Bill has widespread support. The phrase “in the small print” has become a standard metaphor for evasive and devious modification of what appears to be on offer. I am grateful for the help of the Royal National Institute of the Blind and the Plain English Campaign in preparing the Bill. I welcome the support of Age Concern, Help the Aged and the Trading Standards Institute, which was helpfully brought in by my co-sponsor, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell).

I thank the other co-sponsors present—my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), and the hon. Members for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer). If I have missed anyone, I apologise. I am grateful for the all-party support and for the support of my local newspaper, the Nottingham Evening Post.

In fairness, amid the orgy of congratulation, I have had a critical note from the Advertising Standards Authority, which has reservations about the Bill and does not believe there is a problem. It says that it already has the power to regulate the area adequately. With all due respect to the Advertising Standards Authority, that does not seem in practice to prevent widespread use of small print with the objective of obscuring unwelcome terms and conditions.

As we all know, ten-minute Bills tend to have a sad fate in the eternal grey waiting room of the pending section of the Order Paper, but I am glad to say that in this case a Minister from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has agreed to take the matter up, and I will meet him next week to see whether the issue can be addressed as part of the new EU directive on consumer protection. There might be those who have their doubts about the EU but I hope that on this issue at least we are of one mind in saying that the consumer deserves protection against manipulation in the small print. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Nick Palmer, Mr. Graham Allen, Norman Baker, Michael Jabez Foster, Mr. Fabian Hamilton, John Hemming, Susan Kramer, Dr. Julian Lewis, Shona McIsaac and Mr. Paul Truswell.

Small Print

Dr. Nick Palmer accordingly presented a Bill to make requirements regarding the minimum size of print in certain documents, including those relating to advertising and contracts; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 14 March, and to be printed [Bill 76].


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Order [28 January],

That the Order of 28th January be further amended as follows: in the Table, in the entry for Allotted Day 7, in the third column:

(a) for ‘4½ hours’ substitute ‘3 hours’, and

(b) for ‘1½ hours’ substitute ‘3 hours’.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

Question agreed to.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will the Chair reconsider the decision not to select the Liberal Democrat amendment for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU? That is the question that goes to the heart of the debate before the House. That is the debate that people want to hear. We are being gagged, Sir.

Order. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point of order, but having made it he must not go on and start debating the matter. The selection of amendments is made by Mr. Speaker, and is not open for questioning in the House. Hon. Members will have every opportunity to discuss these matters when we embark—[Hon. Members: “When?”] Order. During the course of the debate.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I share the dismay of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). What guidance can you give me on how we can secure—if not today, at some point during the remaining stages of the Bill—the opportunity to debate the issue that many Members want debated and many members of the public want debated: our future membership of the EU?

Order. I have made the situation quite clear to hon. Members. I am sorry if they do not accept it—

No, there can be no further point of order. We must now get on with the debate.

I have raised procedural questions about the Bill with Mr. Speaker and other occupants of the Chair. I have asked for guidance from Officers of the House on the drafting of amendments that will be selectable—generally, on the Bill, not just on this issue. I have been told that we must see the Clerks. My colleagues have been to see the Clerks and have taken advice from them. They have submitted amendments that the Clerks have told them are in order. Please will you tell me and those other colleagues who have made points of order on the Bill what more we have to do to have a point of order accepted that allows an amendment to be debated in the House on an issue that a quarter of the British people represented here want to be debated and many people regularly tell us ought to be debated? What else do we have to do, because we have followed the rules that we have been given?

All the hon. Gentleman has done is to confirm how carefully this matter has been studied by everybody concerned. Following that careful study, Mr. Speaker has made his selection of amendments for today; that must be the end of it for today.

Order. We are simply wasting time. I am not prepared to take any more points of order on the selection of amendments for today.

On a separate point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, relating to the scope of the Bill. It is clear that the Bill is making

“provision in connection with the Treaty of Lisbon Amending the Treaty on European Union”.

In that context, I simply say that the treaty has been described by the European Scrutiny Committee, on which I sit, as “substantially equivalent” to the original constitution. The Liberal Democrats have broken their promises.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is a very experienced Member of this House and knows that we are not at this point in time discussing the Bill. We are discussing the motion before the House. I suggest that we now start on that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am grateful for your granting me this point of order. This is an outrage to the House—[Interruption.]

Order. The outrage to the House is in danger of being the hon. Gentleman’s attitude to the Chair—[Interruption.] Order. He has made his point. I have told him already how matters stand. There will be opportunities to discuss these matters—[Hon. Members: “When?”] There will be opportunities to discuss these matters at a different time.

If the hon. Gentleman persists in arguing with Mr. Speaker’s selection for amendments today, I shall be extremely annoyed. He has made his point; everybody has understood it. It is firmly on the record. Now I must insist that we get on with the debate. I call Mr. Jim Murphy.

Order—[Interruption.] Order. I am afraid that I am now going to have to warn the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) about his conduct. If he persists, stronger measures will have to be taken. Having made his point, he really is now abusing his position.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We need to know when we can debate this issue. It is a debate that the British people want. It is unfair not to allow it.

Order—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman fails to appreciate that that is not something that I can deal with at this point in time.

Order. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman must understand that I am not prepared to allow this matter to be pursued any further. As I have said, he has made his point firmly this afternoon. It is on the record in the way he sought to make it. If he wishes to pursue it after this afternoon, he can explore other ways of doing things. I cannot do anything other than abide by the selection for this afternoon’s business, which Mr. Speaker has made in accordance with the rules of the House. As I have already explained, it is not open to being questioned in the way the hon. Gentleman is seeking to. I call Mr. Jim Murphy.

Order. I warn the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton that unless he obeys the authority of the Chair, I shall have no alternative but to order him to withdraw from the House. That means that the hon. Gentleman will have to leave the precincts of the Palace of Westminster and that he will not be able to vote for the rest of the day.

Order. I think that I have made the position entirely clear to the hon. Gentleman. I repeat to him that he has had every opportunity to make the point that he sought to make, and I think that we should now move on to the debate.

Order. I have had enough. I would be grateful if the Minister got to his feet to start the debate.


The hon. Member, having conducted himself in a grossly disorderly manner, was ordered by Mr. Deputy Speaker, pursuant to Standing Order No. 43 (Disorderly conduct), to withdraw immediately from the House during the remainder of this day’s sitting, and he withdrew accordingly.