[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I thank Mr Speaker for allowing us the opportunity of having this debate on scam mail and postal fraud, which impacts on the lives of hundreds of thousands of the country’s most vulnerable people. The elderly and those in debt are among those who are deliberately targeted by fraudsters because they are seen as a soft target and easy to con.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) who has been championing the issue for some time. If her ten-minute rule Bill had received Royal Assent, it would have gone a considerable way to eradicating the issue, by empowering the Royal Mail to take definitive action against those engaging in postal fraud. Regrettably, she is on parliamentary business elsewhere and cannot attend this debate. None the less, I am deeply grateful to her for the input and support of her office.
Let me outline the nature and scale of the problem before making some suggestions as to how the issue might be easily resolved. For the avoidance of doubt, when I use the words “scam mail” I am not talking about the perfectly legal mail shots that legitimate companies send out to advertise lawful services or the sale of genuine goods.
I wish to focus on mail shots which are sent for the sole intention of obtaining money through deception—fraud. Such scams include fake lotteries, fake lawyers promising transfers of large sums of cash, so-called boiler-room share purchasing scams, and even threats of curses put on recipients if they do not send back money to the originators. The scams have many different guises, but, none the less, end up with vulnerable people parting with their cash.
The scale of this largely unreported problem is vast, costing some £3.5 billion a year and growing. Some 50% of the population will be targeted, and nearly 7% will be duped by scam mail, which is carefully crafted to maximise the potential of deceiving the victim. Once the scam comes to light, the victim or, in many cases, the victim’s family, experience a large range of emotions, including anger, shame and upset. In some cases where the loss has been so big, they might even have suicidal thoughts. Indeed, as we heard on the television today, there were five suicides as a result of this matter last year alone.
Sadly, the experience of my constituent Mrs Smith is like that of many others. Her father, a former Gurkha, spends a considerable amount of his weekly pension on these scams. He looks on the payments as his “investments”. He lives in total denial, but believes unwaveringly that one day one of these investments will pay off. He has even told friends and bank managers that his investments abroad are about to mature. Of course Mrs Smith’s father will not admit what he is doing, but everyone knows about it, including his long-suffering wife and daughters. The growing piles of envelopes from the scammer arrive daily and are overtaking the bedroom, and now the summer house is full of scam mail, too, providing clear evidence of the scale of his obsession.
The local post office and coffee shop know him well, because of his routine visits, almost every day, to register post containing the money. He sends up to £150 a week to these criminals. He insists on making copies of letters so that he has proof should he need it. Of course the people in the post office cannot stop an elderly man from sending post. His family feel powerless. They have tried to make him watch BBC exposés, look at the Think Jessica website, and read leaflets and posters. They have tried to get him help from independent financial advisers; orchestrated visits from Derbyshire police officers; and even arranged a personal visit by Marilyn Baldwin from Think Jessica, who tried her hardest to convince him but to no avail. All attempts were met with the response, “That’s not me” or “Nothing I didn’t know already.”
Marilyn Baldwin is passionate about getting “Jessica’s scam syndrome” recognised as a mental health condition. Those referred to as having such a syndrome would be people trapped in the delusional world created by the scammer. Mrs Baldwin feels passionately that calling individuals obsessed with scam mail “victims” or “addicts” is not enough, as it does not explain their behaviour adequately or the torment faced by those trying to protect them.
Scam mail has the potential to make people mentally ill, as it opens up a delusional world that goes deeper than any other addiction or obsession. This inability to get some victims to see the reality of their victimisation and delusions has led some people to ask whether psychiatrists should consider the existence of some form of psychological or mental health condition that drives people to be repeated victims of scams. I strongly suspect that the addictive and irrational behaviours from which many of these victims suffer might be well known to psychiatrists. Perhaps we should consider how existing powers under the Mental Health Act 1983 could be used to empower families and those with safeguarding responsibilities to intervene and save victims, such as Mrs Smith’s father, from their own delusions.
Mrs Smith’s family feel so strongly that they have set up their own action group called “The Fight To Stop SAPCO”—scams and prize cheque offences—which already has a small army of people behind it, including a consumer affairs lawyer from Nottingham, an EU lawyer from London who is aware of international frauds of this type, a private investigator working internationally uncovering perpetrators of international finance crimes and fraud, Derbyshire trading standards, Marilyn Baldwin of Think Jessica, and DC Jim Egley of Operation Sterling at the Serious Fraud Office.
What is most galling, especially to the families of the victims, is that these scams take place with the full awareness of the Royal Mail, which often handles envelopes full of cash that it knows have been fraudulently obtained. Although the Royal Mail is able to recognise when such scams are happening, it remains powerless to intervene, which is a source of intense frustration among postal workers.
Let me turn to the current difficulties in tackling this issue. The nub of the matter is simple. First, there is confusion over the law and what it permits the various organisations involved in detecting and prosecuting these frauds to do. Secondly, there is a patchwork quilt of legislation derived from various Acts of Parliament, which creates a lack of clarity in this area. Thirdly, there is an overly burdensome demand to protect mail in transmission, which means postal workers often observe the scams happening, but are either powerless, or believe themselves to be powerless, to intervene. The result is that the fraudsters continue to profit while the authorities are unable to do anything definitive for fear of acting beyond their legal powers. In effect, no one knows what they can do when a scam is detected, even though they know what they would do if they could.
The law needs clarifying, responsibilities need redefining and powers of intervention need enhancing.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on this important, but under-reported, issue. It is clear that the purpose of this debate is to discuss postal mail scams, but I hope that she agrees that internet e-mailing scams are also an important problem. When looking to clarify the law over postal mail scamming, attention should also be paid to the consequence of e-mail scamming.
The hon. Lady is of course right. If she would like to apply for a Westminster Hall debate on that issue, I would gladly support her. I think the internet may be one byte too many for my 25-minute speech, but I am sure that the Minister, with her breadth of knowledge, will come on to that.
One Bill to amend the three relevant Acts could cover the issue. There is no doubt which organisation is best placed to detect scam marketing—Royal Mail, which says that scam mail is easy to identify both before and when the scam takes place. It wants to be able to pass on the details of suspected victims to trading standards, but its staff feel duty bound, even while observing the scams happening, to observe the Data Protection Act 1998, the Postal Services Act 2000 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, and not intervene and report the names and addresses of those they believe are being scammed. Those three Acts place obligations on the Royal Mail that, although well intentioned, often run contrary to the detection and prevention of fraud.
The seemingly simple approach of Royal Mail reporting suspicious mail to trading standards officers is particularly hampered because there is some disagreement as to whether disclosure of the victim’s details by Royal Mail is permissible under section 29 of the Data Protection Act 1998. The legal advice received by trading standards is that disclosure of potential scam victims’ details by the Royal Mail is already permitted under section 29 of the Data Protection Act 1998, which says that information can be released if it is in connection with
“the prevention or detection of crime”
“the apprehension or prosecution of offenders”.
However, the legal advice obtained by Royal Mail itself contradicts that view, which reminds me of a friend’s quip that if someone asks 10 lawyers a question they will get 20 different answers.
Royal Mail states that it would be a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 to release details of suspected victims to a trading standards officer, and therefore it does not do so. Consequently, there is complete confusion about what powers Royal Mail has to report suspected scams to the body that is best placed to investigate. However, a Bill could be brought forward to introduce an amendment to the Postal Services Act 2000 and to the Data Protection Act 1998, in order to provide a legal gateway for the release of that information and for Parliament to enable Royal Mail to act against scam mail.
That brings me to the third issue, which is enhanced powers of interception. At the moment, in order to intercept and report scam mail, the Royal Mail, the police or those officials seeking to investigate scams or enforce existing legislation must secure a warrant from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to intercept post in the course of its transmission. To issue a warrant, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would need to be satisfied that it was necessary for the purposes of detecting serious crime, which would need substantial proof. That is understandable given the need to protect privacy, data and even human rights. However, the almost sacrosanct nature that post in transmission enjoys is also a charter for the scammer to carry on defrauding.
Like the legislative patchwork quilt, that burdensome approach is well intentioned but it also works against consumer interests. Again, it could be tackled by an Act of Parliament that gives new powers of interception. However, enhancing powers of interception naturally raises questions about protection of privacy and data. If interception powers were to be introduced without the need for a warrant, there would have to be appropriate safeguards against breaches of human rights. Such powers would need to be controlled using the existing authorisation process, but perhaps with the final power of decision resting at a sufficiently high level to ensure that the tests of necessity and proportionality are satisfied, without needing to trouble my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. After all, should she not be dealing with matters of national security, defeating terrorism and managing our law enforcement agencies?
Exactly; I thank my hon. Friend for that. As I was saying, should my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary not be dealing with matters of national security rather than being asked if a postal worker can report the name and address of someone who he or she has genuine reason to believe is a victim of scam mail?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and I join others in congratulating her on securing this timely debate. On the issue of powers of interception, does she agree that very often, and particularly in rural areas, the local postman or postwoman, who has very distinct and detailed local knowledge of people who may have been victims of scam mail in the past, could readily and usefully deploy that knowledge in identifying scam mail before it reaches its intended target?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; he is absolutely spot on. One issue that has come to light is the complete frustration of postal workers. They know that they cannot stop this scam mail because they are being told by their bosses that they are not allowed to stop it. It is interesting that we genuinely feel that there must be sufficient safeguards in place to protect both the addressee’s right to privacy and their data, but we also feel that there is a sensible, proportionate way around the issue.
What can be done to resolve this issue? Who is best placed to deal with it? Who should detect and investigate such scams? As I have said, the Royal Mail is best placed to detect many of the scams, and then either the police or trading standards officers can investigate and prosecute those involved. In many cases, trading standards officers remain the best first port of call. That is the current situation and in my opinion it does not need to change. There is no need for new bodies or agencies, but merely for existing powers to be clarified and improved and for existing bodies to be enabled to do the job with which we charge them.
That prompts the question whether there are already sufficient powers of investigation in place; if there are, there is no need for new powers. Could an amendment to an existing Act close the loopholes? The answer is, “Very possibly and—frankly—very easily.”
Exactly two years ago, in January 2011, my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North presented to the House the Consumer Protection (Postal Marketing) Bill. It aimed to regulate postal mass marketing, which my hon. Friend rightly defined as the unsolicited sending of mail shots and letters to UK residents. She noted that, although in the majority of cases it is perfectly legal marketing of goods and services, in many cases it is used for fraudulent purposes—so-called “scam mail”.
The purpose and spirit of my hon. Friend’s Bill was not to prevent legal and legitimate marketing, but to augment the existing legislation and to close the very loopholes that I have just mentioned. It also intended to clarify the legal position of the Royal Mail and trading standards officers, and to give Royal Mail the powers that it and trading standards agree it needs to act decisively against such frauds. Therefore, this Bill is a great place to start, offering a road map for resolving the issue.
The main pieces of legislation that my hon. Friend’s Bill sought to augment were not the Acts that I mentioned earlier, but the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and the Fraud Act 2006. Those two pieces of legislation have some use in dealing with scam mail, but crucially they are limited in their application because they only deal with scams originating in the UK and can only be enforced once a scam has been committed. My hon. Friend’s Bill would have enacted new powers and made a genuine difference in the detection and prevention of these frauds, wherever they come from.
My hon. Friend’s Bill would have been a very welcome piece of legislation, and was regarded as such by Royal Mail, trading standards and the National Fraud Authority. Those bodies all supported it and hoped that it would be given Government time. I echo that call now, particularly if the Bill could be resurrected and amended to deal with the issues relating to the need for a warrant from the Home Secretary, and if it could clarify what powers Royal Mail actually has.
As I said, sadly my hon. Friend’s Bill did not secure Government time and Parliament lost a real opportunity to produce a genuinely worthy piece of legislation that would have undoubtedly secured both cross-party support and the support of the general public. As a result, the scammers continue to profit in the face of Government inaction, which is greatly to be regretted.
I brought the case of Mrs Smith to the attention of the Minister of State, Home Department, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), who is the Minister with responsibility for crime prevention. However, I was disappointed with his response. Although he drew my attention to a number of Government initiatives aimed at tackling fraud in a general sense, his response fell short of proposing legislation to close the loopholes that allow scammers to continue to thrive.
We are legislators, are we not? We are elected to propose, scrutinise and enact legislation, and we should not be afraid of using the privileges of our office to enact laws that are required to enable bodies to carry out their statutory duties. Indeed, to fail to propose such legislation is a dereliction of our duty to our constituents and a betrayal of their trust in this House. To quote the former Member for Wendover, the great Whig philosopher Edmund Burke,
“All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”
I hope, therefore, that the Minister will do something. I believe that we have done nothing definitive to tackle this issue, and as a result evil continues to prevail and my constituents continue to fall victim to these most wicked of frauds.
Trading standards and the Royal Mail have identified a loophole and proposed a mechanism for closing it. Legislation is needed, so why can the Government not find time for a non-contentious Bill, which commands cross-party support, to protect the most vulnerable people in society, some of whom live in every single one of our constituencies across the country? Indeed, I will quote to the House the words that the Minister with responsibility for crime prevention wrote to me in his response to the case of Mrs Smith:
“It is clear that for some time the response to fraud has not been good enough and criminals have exploited this. The response has been too fragmented, not enough use is made of intelligence or advanced investigation techniques, and there is not a strong enough focus on prevention”.
I could not agree with him more. There has not been “enough focus on prevention” and therefore powers to prevent postal marketing scams that could easily be enacted should be enacted. We demand a lot of our statutory bodies, and when they ask for the powers to do their job, it is in the public interest to grant them.
I urge the Government to think again about the confusion in the current legislative framework, reconsider the position of Royal Mail and trading standards, and rather than call for greater public awareness, new bodies or new initiatives, do what the experts ask, which is to find Government time for a Bill that will close the loopholes that enable fraudsters to continue to scam innocent victims. Such a Bill exists. I urge the Government to look again at the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North introduced two years ago, find Government time for it, and act decisively to empower Royal Mail to act to stop mass marketing scams.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) on securing the debate. I have worked closely with her on a number of issues, and we sat together on the Communities and Local Government Committee. She is a passionate defender of her constituents’ interests. I readily admit that my expertise in this area is not the same as hers, and I certainly will not go into the issues in such depth, but a number of my constituents have been hit by mail scams and it is important to attempt to do something about them.
According to Office of Fair Trading research, 48% of the UK population has been targeted, and 3.2 million people fall victim to scam mailings every year, particularly the most vulnerable in our society.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) on securing this important debate. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) agree that it is often the elderly who are targeted and victimised by the scams? There are many different forms of what I call snail mail marketing, and the scams get lost in the middle of that. They are well hidden, and in my experience the elderly are particularly vulnerable.
That is plainly the case. In my experience, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire also made this clear, it tends to be the older and less mentally robust who are scammed and are subjected to repeat versions of the same thing. Their names get on a list and they are targeted again and again.
The estimated annual cost of scam mailings to the economy is some £3.5 billion. The citizens advice bureau in Bishop’s Waltham in my constituency has brought a number of such scams to my attention, and one of them, involving missed delivery cards, caught my eye. The scam is not of the same nature as one that says, “You will send in a cheque,” or one that asks someone to send money directly back. This one is allegedly from a well-known delivery company, and it asks people to confirm that they want the delivery to be remade by calling a particular number. On the card, rather than an address from which to pick up the parcel, there is a telephone number. It turns out to be a premium rate number of a telephone company in Belize, which someone would be charged £315 for the pleasure of calling. Many of the scams are so sophisticated that they are extremely easy to fall for, especially for someone who does not get out or read the newspapers often and is not aware that such things exist. That case highlights one of the biggest challenges in stopping mail scams: the majority originate abroad, and it is nigh on impossible to prosecute or stop them as there is no UK-based business to have a go at.
There is a great deal of work taking place. Hampshire county council has concentrated on the matter, hence the involvement of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). The council has established a special trading standards safeguarding unit, which works closely with its partner agencies to help protect vulnerable adults, provide flexible support to victims of fraud and raise awareness through information designed to educate, support and guard against further financial abuse. It has raised awareness through working closely with the media and community groups, and by drafting articles for newsletters, newspapers and generally circulated public communications. Extra training has been given to all staff in adult services and other agencies so that, for example, when staff visit a home and are greeted with a mountain of post they can consider whether the person there might be the victim of scam mailing.
Working in that way has enabled Hampshire county council and adult services to identify several chronic scam victims. This is not something that only Royal Mail or the Government can deal with; local authorities can have a positive input. The council also works closely with a local business that provides a mail and package forwarding service to consumers and businesses outside the UK. The business raised concerns with trading standards after large amounts of mail were returned to it undelivered. With that help, more than 200 envelopes full of cash and cheques from the US were discovered, which helped to end an American mailing scam. Hampshire trading standards has a good working relationship with money supply bureaux, and it highlights concerns about individuals who regularly make overseas transfers to unknown individuals or organisations. There is by no means a single point of contact or a single solution; many different hands can get involved.
I absolutely believe that the Government take the matter seriously. The Prime Minister answered a question during Prime Minister’s Question Time from my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North on, I think, 11 November, and he has announced a series of changes designed to get to grips with the problem. The Office of Fair Trading has invested £7.5 million to create scambuster teams and run awareness campaigns, and the Government are also in the process of creating a dedicated team within the National Crime Agency, when it is established, aimed at tackling the problem. The work is therefore ongoing, but I believe we have a responsibility to look even more closely at the matter and consider whether there is anything more that we can do to target the problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire has covered many of the solutions that Hampshire county council would like to employ, but let me repeat them anyway. The council believes that we need additional protections in law to help to safeguard potential victims, and my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North introduced a private Member’s Bill in January 2011, which unfortunately ran out of time. For colleagues who have not seen that Bill, she argued that the police, customs officers or the National Fraud Authority should be able to intercept mail if they believe it is scam mail. The county council also believes that Royal Mail should disclose the details of potential scam victims to trading standards so that proper support can be offered to financially abused and vulnerable people.
Further questions arise: how do we stop scam mailing and not direct marketing? Can the issue more effectively be tackled by changes made by Royal Mail rather than the Government? Are there data protection issues that need to be considered? Are changes in the law required? I wonder whether it is possible to beef up the existing mail preference service, or whether Royal Mail can improve its safeguards to address the problem better. A moment or two ago, it occurred to me that it might be possible for families and/or vulnerable adults to have some sort of opt-in system, so that they give permission for their mail to be examined. That might be one of the easiest ways forward, to have a permissive regime under which potential scam victims can say, “I don’t mind my mail being looked at.”
I appreciate that this is a tough issue and one that is very difficult to resolve, but I do have some questions for the Minister. Is there a lead person in Government who is pulling together the key actions designed to address the problem better? Is the Government’s view that it is Royal Mail that needs to put a renewed emphasis on reducing the problem, or is it essentially a Home Office issue? How do we stop the problem falling between two stools in government? If there is not one person with whom responsibility sits, we run the risk of the issue being forgotten about and its dropping through the cracks in the floor.
I appreciate that this is strictly outside the Minister’s portfolio, but when the Prime Minister spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North about the issue back in November, he said that a team was being created at the National Crime Agency to deal with it. Is the Minister able to update us on the plans to create that dedicated team? I understand that it is not directly within her portfolio, but if she has any news I would gratefully receive it. What I do know for sure is that the message needs to go out loud and clear that scamming vulnerable people for cash is deeply cruel. There is more that we can and must do about it, and we must do it soon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) on securing this debate, on an issue that can have such a devastating impact on so many people across the country. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), I do not profess to have gone into the matter in as much depth as our hon. Friend has, but I would like to bring some insights from my constituency to the discussion.
The Office of Fair Trading has warned us that, during difficult economic times, not only will the number and incidence of scams rise, but the range of scams will be much greater. We therefore need to be much more vigilant and sceptical about what comes through our letterboxes and who telephones our homes. I appreciate that the debate is confined to the postal service, but as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) mentioned, the growing use of the internet is critical, too.
My local police in Dyfed-Powys tell me that the type of scams they are dealing with have changed a lot in the past few years. There was more of an emphasis on postal fraud, but now Dyfed-Powys police are seeing more innovative attempts, often online. That is to be expected, given the advances in technology and in the psyche of the scammers, who are looking for more cost-effective ways to perpetrate their criminality.
In 2011, Citizens Advice conducted a survey asking what are the 10 most common scams and frauds. Of the 558 people in Wales who were surveyed, the biggest concern, identified by 62% of respondents, was switching: being offered money-saving deals to switch energy or phone suppliers that result in paying more money. Also high on the list, identified by 45% of respondents, were bogus debt advice companies that claim to help manage people’s debt, subject to fees, but once those fees are paid, the debt advice is not forthcoming. The third highest, with 44% of respondents, was—we have already heard a lot about this—those elusive prizes: timeshares, wonderful cars and huge amounts of cash. The local citizens advice bureau in Aberystwyth in my Ceredigion constituency alerted me to the case of an elderly gentleman who received a letter from a company informing him that he had won the magical £50,000, and in order to claim, of course, he had to buy £25 of goods from a catalogue.
There is a technical discussion to be had about the inadequacies or otherwise of legislation, as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire alluded to in her speech, but this debate also serves the important purpose—there have been debates in this House on such matters before—of shedding the light of publicity, because educating and informing people is a critical tool in defying the scammers.
Dyfed-Powys police inform me that the “receive £50,000 if you pay £25” type of scam has recently grown considerably, and the scam not only means the elderly person who replies loses money, but it allows the potential for their details to be passed on and on. Once bank details are passed on, the whole thing spirals in an unimaginably large way. The global dimension must not be lost either.
Members may have read the case, not a Welsh case, of Mr Paul Kiely from Suffolk, who discovered after his mother’s death that she had spent up to £20,000 responding to scams. On going through her paperwork, the extent to which she was being bombarded by post, often three or four letters every day, became clear. The more people respond, the more likely they are to be a target; it is a vicious cycle, particularly for the vulnerable and elderly in our society.
I have a case from my surgery, and other Members have also alluded to such cases, of a constituent who paid money for goods by bank transfer from what he believed to be a reputable website. When the goods did not materialise, the consumer returned to complain, only to discover the website had disappeared.
We are aware of the dangers of scam phone calls, and Ceredigion citizens advice bureau has informed me of cold calls from agencies claiming to be Citizens Advice, National Debtline, the consumer credit counselling service or the Office of Fair Trading and seeking payment for debt management assistance, often persuading consumers to part with their bank details.
Parliament is not immune from the scammers. In December last year a constituent of mine, a prominent farmer and butcher, received a letter from the “Office of Parliamentary Research” stating that it would like to use the details of my constituent’s business in its work, but, of course, it would cost him a fee. Suspecting from the outset that that was not what it seemed, my constituent got in touch with my office. A member of my staff rang the parliamentary switchboard and asked to be put through to the department the letter claimed to have been sent from, which did not exist in the same name. When the operator put my staff member through to the department with the closest-sounding name and asked for the person who had signed the letter, she was unsurprisingly told that no such person worked there. When my staff member explained why she was calling, she was advised that the call was not the first of its kind and the letter had nothing to do with Parliament; it was a bogus request for money. The letter was cleverly worded to get through the law, and, of course, our advice was to steer well clear. I have had two or three similar cases in my constituency, and I am sure people across the country have been approached. The sad reality is that many may have complied with the request for money, given the name on the letterhead.
So how do we address that problem? I have learnt a great deal from the hon. Members for South Derbyshire and for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on the specifics of the Royal Mail. Education and awareness are critical, In my Ceredigion constituency we have had some excellent campaigns over the years involving trading standards and the voluntary sector, with Scambusters being the latest, We must promote to our constituents the value of protecting private details until they know who they are dealing with and treating all mail, e-mails and cold callers with acute caution. If something sounds too good to be true, the sad reality is that it probably is.
Dyfed-Powys police have talked glowingly of Action Fraud, the national campaign in which they have participated since December 2012. The scheme is run by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau in conjunction with City of London police with the intention of gathering a range of cases from across the country and collecting information on incidents and reports into a central database. The information is collated and analysed before being fed back to the police force in the area where the scam may have originated. Since Dyfed-Powys police went live with the scheme in December, they have received three such packages in only two months. They tell me that they find that method helpful in dealing with perpetrators. Last year, in Newtown in mid-Wales, five or six people were arrested in connection with a scam involving the online purchase of iPads and iPhones—payment was made, but the product never arrived. The work at the centre to collect that information and feed it through to Dyfed-Powys police meant that the perpetrators could be dealt with.
Consumer Focus has also done good work on scam mail, and its “Stay Private” website should be commended for helping people who sign up to reduce the amount of unwanted mail and sales calls they receive by bringing various marketing opt-out services together. The site is popular, with some 60,000 people signing up so far, which gives a small indication of the scale of the problem.
I cannot commend my local trading standards strongly enough, although it has limited resources. Above all else, trading standards need to hear from people who have been subjected to scams, but often people, particularly elderly people, are embarrassed. There is an issue with the addictive nature of scam mail, to which the hon. Member for South Derbyshire alluded, but sometimes people are embarrassed that they have been fooled or taken in for so long, and they, too, need support and encouragement to come forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution, because I did not give notice of my intention to speak. I came to listen, but I have heard one or two things on which I would like briefly to comment.
Many of us have had people in our surgeries with scam mail problems. I want to address scratchcards and premium-rate numbers, which have already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery). Those things have at the bottom, “Phone this number for untold riches.” Telephone numbers are changing. At one time, people could spot an STD—a subscriber trunk dialling—code, and if they were a bit sad like me, they could remember the places the codes were for. Now codes begin with 09 or 08 and people never know what they will be charged. The elderly and the vulnerable see things that say, “Phone this number to claim your prize. There are six prizes. One is a car, and one is a holiday.” As has been said, they are suddenly through to a phone number halfway round the world and they get a phone bill of £300, £400 or £500 many weeks later. That is a real problem. It is not only mail fraud that is becoming more prevalent, but e-mail fraud too.
Scratchcards are also an issue. They come in the post and in magazines. People look at them, and they seem wonderful, but I always try to find the flaw in them. If someone is aware, they can see that these things are a scam, but many people just see them and think, “This is fantastic.” I completely agree with what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said: if it looks too good to be true, it is. That is what I always say to my constituents, but, unfortunately, by the time they come to see me it is too late, because they have the bill and it has to be paid. It is a real problem.
The other scam I have started to see—it is done more by e-mail—is a message that someone has a package waiting. On the face of it, it looks like a completely legitimate courier has a package for the recipient. I had one of these e-mails once when, ironically, I was actually waiting for a package. The e-mail dropped into my spam folder, however, so I knew that it was not about my package. That is another way that these people are digging into the vulnerable in our society and the people who cannot afford these things. It is wrong whether the person has the money or not, but the people who are being targeted can ill afford to pay out these fraudulently demanded sums.
I have seen people affected by the problem, and their first emotion is anger that they have lost the money. Then they move on to a sense of shame and foolishness. People who have been done this way feel somewhat foolish and do not tell other people, because it makes them feel a little more foolish. Consequently, word does not go around to watch out for the scam. It is great that my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), who is a near neighbour, has secured this debate, because it gives the issue publicity and lets people know that if they have been conned, they are not on their own. They should not feel ashamed or foolish. They should tell us and tell other people, because the more oxygen of publicity we can give the problem, the better chance we have of fighting it without bringing in legislation to stop it. This is a terrible and wicked crime that preys, as I have said, on the most vulnerable. If the Government can bring forward anything to stop it, they should look to do so as soon as possible.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Sheridan. It is always a great pleasure to be in your company.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) on securing this Westminster Hall debate. She is a good campaigner in the House, and today has emphasised how good a campaigner she is. Hopefully the debate will kick-start a process that will achieve some results on this serious issue. It is distressing not only for the victims and their families but for everyone concerned. I share the concerns that the hon. Lady expressed in her opening remarks.
As all those who have spoken have said, we have all had constituents who have been affected. Some of us have had personal experience of this problem. I was scammed when booking a holiday not too long ago. It looked as though it was a legitimate holiday company registered with the air travel organisers’ license scheme, but it was merely an online scam. It can be difficult to unwind such a process.
Many hon. Members will remember the 2008 survey conducted by Age UK and Barclays, which revealed that seven out of 10 older people in Britain—that is roughly 7 million people—are targeted by scams every month, either by telephone or letter. It is worth reflecting on what the Office of Fair Trading survey said. The hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) mentioned the £3.5 billion that is lost to scams every year, which equates to £70 for every adult in the UK. That is a massive amount, particularly considering family budgets. The average detriment in a scam is well over £1,000—about £1,200—which shows the scale of the problem.
The OFT survey in 2010 found that around one in 11 —just over 4 million—people said that they had responded to a scam at some time in their life, nearly a third of whom lost money. One in 25, or about 2 million people, had responded to a scam in the previous 12 months. Around half of those scammed have lost more than £50 in total, with 5% claiming to have lost more than £5,000. Three in 10 adults who responded to a scam received further correspondence from the scammer, with more than half being asked to send money and more than a third being asked to send personal information. Those statistics are pretty stark. They show the sheer scale of the problem and the effect it has across every constituency.
Of course, it is not a new practice. I thought I would reflect on the issue in the way the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) would and take us back to when we first find any information on scamming. The first mail fraud dates back to 1660, when King Charles II of England first issued orders regarding postal carriers. Some corrupt letter carriers had taken to pocketing the money that was supposed to pay for the letter’s transport and then delivering the letter anyway, because that was what they were supposed to be doing. Mail scams are nothing new, and I hope the Minister can give us some hope, 400 years later, that we have seen the end of the mail scamming system.
In the present day, as well as sending scam mail by post, scammers are taking to new methods to target people young and old, including phishing e-mails and scam adverts on social networking sites. I know the debate is on scam mail, but it is worth reflecting that the scammers are becoming more sophisticated. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire asked us to look at mail in particular, but we need to update the legislation on social networking and the internet. The work that has been done by the Think Jessica campaign on that deserves great tribute.
Once someone is drawn in by a scam mail, they are often put on a “suckers list”. We have seen some of those suckers lists when scammers have been caught. The language used in scam mail is enticing, saying, “You are a guaranteed winner”, “This is a time-sensitive document”, or, “Reply immediately to release your award”. Various other slogans and logos are also used to entice people in for the first time. The scammers are looking for the first indication that someone may be capable of being scammed. They are not interested in the person who throws the message in the bin or puts it in the junk e-mail box. They are interested in grabbing that little bit of hope that they can take the scam forward.
The hon. Member for Meon Valley mentioned bogus prize draws, lotteries and premium-rate prize promotions. Many of those promotions come with some of our national and local newspapers, as the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) said. Perhaps we should tell the editors of those newspapers that we do not accept that.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The newspaper supplements come in a plastic bag for the simple reason that when the bag is opened and its contents are given a shake, a cascade of different things fall out. Many of them are legitimate, but among them are these scratchcards with super-premium-rate phone numbers.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, which emphasises part of the problem. I have experimented with a few Sunday newspapers by scratching off all the cards to see if I have ever not won. Given that the chances of winning the national lottery are 14.5 million to one, it is quite exceptional to pick up a Sunday newspaper and win on every single premium-rate scratchcard. That shows how people can be drawn in.
When Labour was in government, we recognised that the consumer regime needed to be more effective at stopping rogues, criminals and those who deliberately set out to defraud consumers, especially the elderly and vulnerable, through scam mailing. I am sure the Minister will respond positively to the patchwork of legislation that the hon. Member for South Derbyshire has laid out.
In government, Labour invested £7.5 million to create scambuster teams across the UK. Those specialist trading standards teams work hard with local police and others across local authority boundaries to come down hard on the worst scammers. The cross-boundary aspect of those teams’ work is absolutely essential, because trading standards teams generally find it difficult to work across local authority boundaries. Since 2006, the project has uncovered £55 million in fraud, saved consumers £23 million, seized £16.5 million in criminal assets and jailed 58 mail scammers for a total of 75 years. That is a good record, but not good enough, and the massive increase in scams, and the things that we have heard today, show that more is needed.
We strengthened the powers of the Office of Fair Trading, and of trading standards, with the implementation of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. Those regulations banned all types of unfair selling and marketing methods, and, crucially, are enforceable through both criminal and civil courts, to ensure that appropriate action is taken against prolific scammers and to serve as a deterrent. However, as we have heard, the regulations are not really serving as a deterrent, given the stories that have emerged since this debate was announced about people moving on to new scams when one is closed down.
The Government’s commitment to further scambusters funding in December 2010 was welcome, but teams in the south-eastern region, which includes London and East Anglia, have been disbanded. Has the Minister assessed the effect of that on the ability to tackle scams and scam mailing? It would be interesting if she would explain whether scambusters funding will continue.
Sadly, people involved in scam mailing have never had it so good. The economic backdrop of stagnant wages and rising prices has made consumers more anxious to save every penny or earn more money. Sometimes, that has resulted in an explosion of money-making scams and sharp practices disguised as sources of help. In addition, we cannot deny that the Government have squeezed funding on consumer protection, and particularly trading standards, with an average 19% cut in overall local authority funding from central Government. The Trading Standards Institute has done an analysis of the aggregate amount of funding for consumer protection through trading standards. The projections are that from £250 million in 2010, the aggregate throughout the country will fall to £140 million by 2014. That significant drop gives scammers the opportunity to enter markets where they may not have been before.
It is important to consider the restructuring of the consumer landscape, which the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) mentioned. The consumer protection powers of Consumer Focus have been passed to Citizens Advice, and there is a worry that that transfer to an organisation of a different kind, with different philosophies and a different set-up, might undermine some of the great work that Consumer Focus did on the issue. The OFT operated an awareness campaign called Scamnesty in partnership with 129 local authority trading standards services. That was to increase consumer awareness of mass market scams and provide consumers with practical advice on how to avoid being scammed.
Perhaps that is one of the most important things that is needed as a result of the debate. Yes, there are legislative and parliamentary responses, but awareness is also needed of ways in which consumers can protect themselves in the first place, and how they can recognise scam mailings or phishing e-mails if they receive them. I received one such e-mail yesterday, apparently from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which said I was due a tax rebate. I know that that is not true, but the temptation to click on the link and get money back from the Chancellor of the Exchequer was incredibly tempting. The fact that Departments are being shadowed for the sending out of scam e-mails is a great worry, particularly at a time of year when people are filling out tax returns and may expect e-mails or correspondence from Departments, and particularly HMRC. The amount was only £194.70, if anyone is interested—but far better it should be in my pocket than the Chancellor’s.
It is important for people to be on their guard, and to know that help is available. Scams can bring misery to victims, and we need to remind constituents of several things that the OFT highlighted in its report. It is worth reading them, to raise awareness:
“Stop, think and be sceptical. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Do not be rushed into sending off money to someone you do not know, however plausible they might sound and even where an approach is personalised.
Ask yourself how likely it is that you have been especially chosen for this offer—thousands of other people will probably have received the same offer.
Think about how much money you could lose from replying to a potential scam—it’s not a gamble worth taking.”
It is also worth reflecting on the constituency case raised by the hon. Member for South Derbyshire about a gentleman who became addicted, and how that issue might fit into legislative change. The data protection issues, and requirement for the Home Secretary to obtain a warrant, are valid only if the individual in receipt of the mail would not complain that their rights were infringed. I wonder if in the hon. Lady’s example the poor old gentleman would complain that he wanted to receive the mailings—what he called his investments. They might be costly, but perhaps he was willing to do it for entertainment.
It is worth highlighting the mailing preference service, which the hon. Member for Meon Valley mentioned, by which constituents can have their details removed from mailing lists to reduce the amount of addressed advertising literature that they receive. The MPS does not cover unaddressed mailings, of course and I suppose that the real problem with it is that people who are willing to scam completely forget it exists, so that all it does is remove legitimate people who want to send mail. However, if someone is registered with the MPS and receives mail that they think is a scam, their awareness may be heightened.
The Royal Mail door-to-door opt-out scheme includes unaddressed mail. Has the Minister reflected on the matter, and will she embark on an awareness campaign in conjunction with Royal Mail? The Foreign Secretary has just said in the House that we do not spend money on advertising these days, and he is probably right to say so, but I wonder whether there is any way in which Royal Mail could help with the process.
I want to touch briefly on the matter of e-mail scams. Surveys show that 73% of adults in the UK have received a scam e-mail in the past year. I think probably everyone in the Chamber has received one in the past week—from people who want to send us bequests, or to tell us that people have died, and so on. That is followed by scams via a letter, at 21%, and text messages at 12%. Social media sites appear to be emerging as a new route for scammers, with 9% of adults having received an approach in that way in the past year. It is not just older people who are the targets, although I appreciate that they are the targets of the physical mail. Young people, with the developments in smartphone technology, and now that many of them have their own bank accounts, are becoming susceptible to scams. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) will secure a debate on that, because it would be interesting.
I have some information about phishing e-mails to Wonga customers, and about how people are being sucked in, but it is probably best to leave that for a debate about online phishing. Perhaps the Minister could expand on what the Government are doing to make the public aware of the problems, particularly when they relate to departments such as HMRC. The hon. Member for High Peak raised the issue of such departments being made to look as if they are sending information to constituents, and what we could do to tackle that.
As for mail that is posted, Royal Mail must deliver it. That is not its fault; it is governed by law, and it must do so. I believe we all recognise the importance of strong legislation of that kind, to give Royal Mail the backing needed to deliver its mail door to door. However, could the Government and consumer organisations do more, working with Royal Mail and its union, the Communication Workers Union, and postal workers? Perhaps, while there is an obligation to deliver mail, it would be possible to pick up signs—increased loads, or telltale envelopes—that someone on a particular round is at risk from scam mail, and at the very least deliver an information leaflet, or make the recipient aware. It might be very difficult for the House to change the law on intervening, or intercepting mail, and that is probably right, but there is nothing to prevent the Royal Mail or the postman from putting an information leaflet on scam mailing through the door if it is felt that such mailings are going to that address.
Once scam mail has entered the UK postal system, Royal Mail has a legal obligation to deliver it. However, there has been some criticism in connection with Royal Mail’s “local look” service offered by Spring Global Mail and Royal Mail, whereby letters from abroad bear the Royal Mail postmark and have no trace of their overseas origins. There are concerns about that giving credence to scam mail entering the country. Will the Minister reflect on whether enough is being done at Royal Mail to protect its brand, particularly in connection with organisations such as Spring Global Mail, so that at least those overseas issues can be dealt with?
I want to finish by reflecting on the BBC programme “Inside Out” broadcast a few weeks ago. The programme reported on one company called Emery Ltd, a mail handling company based in Hampshire, which willingly acts as a conduit for European mail scammers. Footage obtained by the BBC programme shows company staff throwing letters from scam victims in the bin. The show’s reporter reads one letter detailing that the victim is 90 years old and in a wheelchair, has had two heart attacks and is diabetic, and querying why they have not received their prize yet. Such letters of complaint were just going in the bin.
It will be crucial to continue to educate and empower consumers to recognise and resist scams. That can be done by key stakeholders working together, and some of the key changes in the consumer landscape that we have discussed will have an impact.
Finally, what is being done to simplify and clarify the law, as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire mentioned at the start of her speech? I conclude back where I started, Mr Sheridan: not by congratulating you on being in the Chair, but by congratulating the hon. Lady on securing this important debate about a problem that blights so many of our constituents.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship Mr Sheridan, and to respond to this debate on an important issue that has been well highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler). I congratulate her not only on securing this debate but on how eloquently she has taken up the issue, prompted by the appalling experiences of her constituent, Mrs Smith.
It is worth recognising the great campaigning work done on the issue by a range of individuals, including the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), and organisations such as Age UK, Citizens Advice and the Think Jessica campaign. It is hugely important for raising awareness, a matter that I will address shortly. I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) that it is an important part of tackling the problem.
Although we are mainly discussing postal scams, it is important to recognise that scams operate in a range of different ways, and that the people perpetrating such scams do not necessarily stick exclusively with one particular avenue. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) mentioned internet scams, which as e-mail users we are all familiar with. Premium telephone line prize scams have also been a great cause for concern, although the latter have at least decreased slightly in number since the new guidance from the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services was put in place.
It is important to recognise, as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire did when introducing this debate, that the vast majority of direct mail delivered to our doors is legitimate advertising material. The industry is important to the economy, generating about £16 billion in sales each year, and is a linchpin of the postal service model in this country. We would not want to jeopardise that industry, as it ensures that we have a universal postal service and that we do not pay prohibitively expensive prices when we go to post a letter. I will come to preference services, as they are important, but the real villains of this case are the fraudsters. Their goal is simple: to cheat as many people as possible out of their money by making false promises.
It is worth noting that we are all potential victims. About 3.2 million people a year are victims of such scams, and the losses incurred total about £3.5 billion. Various Members have stated that it is particularly an issue for the vulnerable and elderly. We want to ensure that we protect such individuals, but it is easy to fall into a slightly superior sense that it could not happen to us: “I am a very savvy consumer, and this would never happen to me; it’s something that only happens to vulnerable elderly people.” I was certainly surprised to find when I looked at the research that the age group most likely to fall victim to postal scams is not elderly people—over-65s make up 13% of victims—but people between the ages of 35 and 44. More than a quarter of scams affect people in that age group. It is worth bearing that in mind.
We are discussing scams that are often cleverly customised. Some involve the prospect of a tax rebate, and are often sent around the time at which tax deadlines approach. Some use information about individuals to imitate interactions with banks of which they might be customers. That is how the perpetrators of such horrible crimes try to dupe people out of their money. It is true, however, that older victims tend to lose more money—about £1,200 per scam, almost double other age groups—so we must ensure that everyone is protected.
I was interested in the different types of scam. The most common are bogus holiday clubs, then high-risk investments, which are little more than pyramid or chain-letter scams. Foreign lottery scams also lead to £260 million in losses, whereas the figure for bogus holiday clubs is about £1.17 billion. A range of different scams exist.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South discussed awareness of the issue, which is crucial. A variety of organisations, from the Office of Fair Trading to the Trading Standards Institute and Citizens Advice, try to get the message out so that people are aware of the problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said and many Members in this debate have repeated—it is a good mantra—if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. We must have a healthy scepticism about things that come to us through the post, via e-mail, over the telephone or by other methods, and ensure that people know what sort of thing to watch out for.
Age UK has produced a helpful checklist of things to consider. Was the offer unsolicited? Is it necessary to respond quickly? Why the rush? Is it necessary to pay for a prize or free gift, or ring a premium rate number that starts with 09? Are recipients being asked for any bank or credit card details? Is the business reluctant to give its address or contact details? Is the recipient being asked to keep it confidential or secret? Those are all healthy questions to ask. It is not just parts of Government, independent agencies or charities that have a role to play in raising awareness; all of us as Members can do our bit in our constituencies as well.
Beyond awareness, enforcement is clearly a key part of the action that the Government can take. In 2010, the National Fraud Authority produced a comprehensive strategy to confront mass marketing fraud, which includes postal scams and other types of fraud. The strategy was set up under the banner of Action Fraud, and the Metropolitan police and the NFA have been working on it with a range of partners—from local government to central Government bodies and stakeholder groups—to build a cohesive response to tackling postal scams. That includes engaging with Royal Mail and other postal operators and mailing operations. Royal Mail is aware that the nature of the service that it provides—universal access to all users—makes it vulnerable to being used for scams. In recognition of that, Royal Mail is working with the police and other enforcement bodies to prevent scam mail from getting into the system at the beginning of the process. I will return to that point later.
A public trigger is also important. If people suspect a scam, they should be able to do something to trigger a response. That is why awareness will always be important. The first step in stopping a scam is knowing what a scam looks like, but it is not always straightforward, as I have said. There is a range of advice on scams and clear and practical guidance to consumers about what they can do, and I will outline some of what is available.
If someone thinks that they have been the victim of a scam or would like to know how to advise a loved one who might be the victim of a scam, the Citizens Advice consumer helpline is a good first port of call. It is open during office hours on 0845 404 0506, and it gives consumers clear, practical advice on what to do. Action Fraud is the place to go to report the scams; its website is actionfraud.police.uk and its telephone line is 0300 123 2040. The process is simple and quick. If people are worried, they can go online or telephone and quickly make a report, then the appropriate authority will be alerted so that it can take action. It might not happen overnight, but action will be pursued.
Trading standards can take action locally or it can refer matters to national and international enforcement bodies, if required, depending on the nature of the scam that has been uncovered. Trading standards services and Scambusters can investigate scams under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which carry criminal sanctions.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South mentioned Scambusters and what the Government are doing. In respect of the consumer landscape changes, we are giving trading standards greater responsibility for consumer law enforcement, by transferring central Government funding to co-ordinate enforcement activity from the OFT to the new National Trading Standards Board. He rightly highlighted the success of Scambusters, mentioning figures for what it has done in the six years from 2006 to March 2012. It may be helpful for colleagues if I say that, since 2012, that work has continued and is now being co-ordinated more centrally as a result of that more national approach. The National Trading Standards Board is now responsible for the Scambusters teams and has matched previous funding levels, which is important recognition of how vital we think this issue is, particularly in the context of difficult economic circumstances. That central co-ordination will continue in 2013. I hope that I have provided hon. Members with some reassurance.
The snappily titled strategic intelligence, prevention and enforcement partnership, despite being in need of a new name, co-ordinates nationally between trading standards and the National Trading Standards Board and liaises over the border into Scotland, with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and agencies there, and co-ordinates with external stakeholder organisations. It is also heavily involved in other activities, particularly in considering whether consumer or business education and awareness campaigns might be able to deal with some of the detriment caused.
Various ideas have been advanced in the debate about what could be done to tackle these scams. It was either the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) or the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) who suggested an opt-in system, whereby people could say, “I’m worried about this. Can I opt in to extra help?” There is merit in thinking about that idea, but it relies on the individual recognising that there is a problem and wanting support. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire discussed scenarios involving vulnerable people who do not realise what is going on and will not be open to such action. That said, it is worth setting out what people can do if they are worried about this, and worth doing for the many who have not, thankfully, been victims of a scam and do not want to be.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South mentioned things that people can do. I should like to elaborate on that. The Direct Marketing Association has two different opt-out mechanisms. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the mailing preference service, under which people can sign up to opt out of addressed direct mail, but rightly made the point that that does not include unaddressed direct mail. However, that association has a second service, which is called “Your Choice”, through which people can opt out of unaddressed direct mail. It has both services because some people might be happy to receive one type but not the other, so people have that option. Details of those opt-out schemes are available at dma.org.uk. The Royal Mail opt-out, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, stops about a quarter of unaddressed direct mail delivered by Royal Mail directly through its bulk mailing system, although that does not apply to other items in the postal system.
If people sign up to all three mechanisms, that will generally stop about 95% of direct mail. Of course, if people are freely breaking the law and trying to scam innocent people out of money, they are probably not going to be too bothered about following the rules of the mailing preference service. However, the point was rightly made that, if much less direct mail is coming in, it may be easier to spot something that is fraudulent or a scam. These services can give people a little bit more peace of mind. I recommend that individuals who would like an opt-in mechanism take that action.
There is a desire in some quarters for legislation as a solution—the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North has introduced a private Member’s Bill, and the hon. Member for South Derbyshire mentioned legislation—which I understand. However, there are significant drawbacks in reaching for such a solution. On the legal point, amending the Postal Services Act 2000 would not create the effect sought by the proponents of this approach, because the rules on not intercepting the post are contained not just in that Act; they are also in the Police Act 1997 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, both of which, for good reason, limit intercepts and set down the process for which warrants are required. A simple amendment to the Postal Services Act would not achieve the aim, and if those other Acts were amended the unintended consequences would be significant.
There are consequences relating to privacy of individuals who want their mail to be delivered without it being opened by somebody else: I think that is the vast majority of people. I do not like to say it would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, because this is a significant problem, but given the total number of items going through the mail—60 million items a day through Royal Mail, for example, making 21.9 billion a year—and even taking into account the 3 million people a year who are victims, trying to identify which items are causing the problems is like looking for a needle in a haystack. They do not have a big stamp on the front of the envelope saying, “This is scam mail”.
The Minister mentioned my opt-in suggestion. My thinking was that there could be an option for people to sign into, such that their mail could be intercepted by their local post office worker. We have heard about postal workers’ frustration about not being able to get involved. If somebody could opt in, giving a postal worker the right to intercept at the door, there might be some scope for that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his suggestion. I will mention Royal Mail’s response and what we could do to enhance that.
Volume is just one issue that we face. It is not easy to tell which letters are scam mail, because they can arrive in plain envelopes. Indeed, the people designing scams try to stay one step ahead of any regime.
I take the hon. Lady’s point that some may be obvious. I do not think that all of them are. We are talking about 3.2 million victims of scams a year, so there will be a wide range.
If we begin to give people licence to intercept mail, that creates a fundamental change in the postal workers’ role. There is a related issue—a genuine operational issue—about feasibility and the resource required. The postal service is universal and is welcomed and valued. We need to think about the resource impact, given the 60 million items of mail a day.
There are, however, things that Royal Mail can do, given the communication channel in which it operates. Hon. Members have mentioned Royal Mail employees feeling frustrated because they want to ensure that they can help. That is often because the local posties will have a pleasant chat and pass the time of day with people, or say hello to them, in particular someone who is housebound or in during the day. They are frequently the people who notice if someone has had a fall or been ill, because the mail is piling up at the door, and many of them take a real interest as upstanding members of the community. There is no reason why they should not be part of the solution, and that is why there is specific awareness among postal workers of such issues—general awareness in the population is vital, but such front-line workers have particular access to individuals, where things are happening.
Such awareness has already started to develop. The hon. Member for Edinburgh South mentioned the lack of funds for advertising campaigns, which is right, but there are other ways of communicating and getting information out there. For example, Royal Mail has an employee magazine, in which the Think Jessica campaign has been publicised, including contact details and its aims. If postal workers are concerned about someone on their regular round, they have a way of being able to pass on those complaints to Action Fraud to ensure that the police and the authorities can deal with the issues. That is important.
At the other end—not the mail delivery end, but at the beginning, trying to stop things before they get into the postal system—Royal Mail is working alongside the police and the UK Border Agency to identify some of the scam mailing houses. Royal Mail has the ability to cancel contracts, and it has done so with particular bulk mailing houses if they are found to have been used to facilitate scams. Such action in the early stages is important, as is the role of that trusted individual with access as a conduit for good advice.
One idea was that postal workers could have an information leaflet to give out, which would be less intrusive than a power to open mail—I have outlined some of the problems with that proposal. Royal Mail does not leaflet at the moment, but I am happy to go away and take up the idea with Royal Mail, to see if it is feasible and useful. In the scenarios outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire—I can imagine the brandishing of the envelopes that were pretty obvious—a leaflet could provide targeted and useful information without being intrusive or invading privacy. With awareness and enforcement, we can ensure that people understand the risks and can clamp down hard on the people who are abusing the system and conning innocent people out of money, causing a great deal of distress. That is vital.
I accept that my response is slightly disappointing for my hon. Friend, because I cannot say that the Government will support the proposed legislative change. I can, however, say that the Government are sympathetic to the problem she has rightly outlined. The victims of such scams are people who should not be conned out of their money. The practice is unacceptable and, to use a word used earlier, cruel. I disagree that we should deal with it by putting the onus on Royal Mail front-line staff and giving them an extra responsibility to identify things, then intercept and open the mail. Such an approach would be heavy-handed and there would be a raft of unintended consequences.
Another general principle is that legislation is a last resort. Some good ideas have been proposed in the debate today, and we can take those forward to see whether they can have a further impact. Indeed, excellent work is already going on, started through Scambusters under the previous Government, continued under this Government, to ensure awareness and that proper enforcement is followed up. Trading standards, Citizens Advice, individual MPs, UKBA and the police all have an important role to play in raising awareness, in improving enforcement and in putting a stop to this unacceptable practice.