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Protecting Older People from Fraud (Wales)

Volume 568: debated on Tuesday 15 October 2013

I am glad to be serving under your Celtic chairmanship, Mr Weir. I am sure that you understand that some of the issues in today’s debate are very much relevant to the whole of the United Kingdom. I am also grateful to the Minister, whom we look forward to hearing from later.

A few statistics will show the extent of scams just in Wales, and how they affect all of us who represent Welsh constituencies. Between February 2012 and February 2013, 2,500 scams were reported, but it is reckoned that only 5% of scams that occur are reported to the authorities, so the total number could be as high as 50,000. There were 958 doorstep complaints, with 19 prosecutions, and 1,658 post, e-mail and telephone scams, with only two prosecutions. Those figures are revealing, not least because the majority of the victims of those scams were probably people, such as myself, over the age of 60. Those who are affected by such crooks and gangsters, who prey on our old people, are, I fear, vulnerable, physically and mentally. On average, older people lose £1,200 per person when swindled, although they can lose an awful lot more—their dignity, their self-esteem and, tragically and occasionally, their very will to live.

Recent examples of scams in Wales include one that involved the distinguished correspondent for BBC Wales, David Cornock. His elderly mother was swindled out of £270,000 by fraudsters, eventually leading to her premature death. In addition, a man in my constituency sent money to a non-existent lottery, the so-called European Lottery Guild, while a woman in Wales sent nearly all her money to a clairvoyant in Switzerland. Those examples are only the tip of the iceberg, which is why Age Cymru—a fine organisation—is now campaigning on the issue, led by Gerry Keighley, who used to be the editor of my local evening paper, the South Wales Argus. They are all doing a great job.

The Bryn estate in Pontllanfraith in my constituency has been plagued by doorstep scammers, rogue traders and their ilk for a number of years. Thanks to the Bryn residents’ association, a “no cold calling” zone has been introduced, which has had a huge and beneficial effect. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such schemes require further sight by the Government and endorsement throughout the country?

Indeed I do, and I shall come on to that matter in one of my recommendations to the Minister. My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, however, about the role of neighbours. When someone is aware that an older person or couple, vulnerable as they are, lives nearby, neighbours, as well as friends and family, have a huge role to play in deterring such terrible things, as do citizens advice bureaux and our local authorities’ trading standards departments, all of which are aware of the issues.

I want to bring to the attention of Members a new sharp practice—that is what I shall call it at this stage—resulting from the so-called green companies exploiting the Government’s affordable warmth scheme and the green deal. Those schemes are, in themselves, good; they seek to give vulnerable people, such as those on benefits or who are older, help towards reducing their energy bills, whether through insulation or whatever. I am in no way criticising such excellent schemes, which are funded by the United Kingdom Government, not the Welsh Government, although of course they operate in Wales as well as throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.

Such phone-in companies call older people and try to persuade them to register for advice and assistance, for which they are charged. In reality, those who wish to take advantage of the Government schemes can simply go to the authorities, official help lines, citizens advice bureaux or trading standards departments and ask for advice on what they should do. As everyone in the Chamber knows, however, people are often caught by a person calling on the telephone, and they are susceptible and more vulnerable to such activity.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his work with Age Cymru, which I hope will help people in future. I, too, have seen a huge increase in my constituency of companies using the green deal to scam older people—cowboy practices. Recent cases have now been referred to trading standards, but they are clearly the tip of the iceberg. Does he agree that this seems to be a particular problem in south Wales, as reported by Which? recently? We should investigate that issue more fully.

Indeed. I did not come across that until constituents came to me with their problems. I shall give three examples—there are many—of this sort of practice. Eco Green Deal Solutions has now shut down, I am delighted to say, after the consumer watchdog programme, “X-Ray” on BBC Wales found that several customers who were not eligible were charged up to £249 for arrangement and assessment fees. Another is Cornerstone Green Solutions, which took £99 from an elderly and vulnerable lady in my constituency. I understand that another company, Diversity Network Ltd, which is totally independent of the other two, has tried to arrange a refund.

The company that has caused most concern throughout south Wales, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency, is Becoming Green. It has caused great distress to some constituents who came to see me, and among other things, it caused me to raise the matter in Parliament. It is charging older people £299 for what it calls its advice service, and when it is challenged, my constituents are unable to get their money back. One of its customers—interestingly, bearing in mind the earlier debate, he lives in Torquay—recently wrote to a national newspaper, whose reporter contacted the company 17 times before getting beyond an electronic switchboard, which cut him off. I also had great trouble getting through to the company, as did my constituents.

The problem is that admirable schemes have been undermined by the activities of companies that are jumping on the bandwagon simply to make a big profit. I have contacted trading standards offices. Torfaen has an excellent trading standards office, which in recent weeks has received 62 complaints about such companies, 44 of which trade in becoming green, almost wholly from people over 60. The companies that I mentioned operated in Cardiff, where trading standards have received many complaints. Both authorities, and probably Newport and Caerphilly, are looking closely into the activities of those companies and others, and investigating them.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in many instances such companies come up with ideas that are totally inappropriate for the householders they meet. I know of people living in terraced houses who use coal to heat their homes but are being told all sorts of nonsense about new gas boilers when they are not on mains gas? Much of the scammers’ advice is hot air, and we must ensure that we get rid of them.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The companies often confuse older people by offering opportunities that may never occur. They may refer to loans as grants, and confuse the people they are talking to.

This is not the Minister’s direct responsibility, but will he liaise on this matter particularly—I will come to other recommendations—with his counterpart in the Welsh Assembly Government and Welsh local authorities to publicise as much as possible the activities that we have all condemned today, so that our constituents are aware of them and can report them to the proper authorities? The Torfaen newspaper, which goes through every letter box in the valley, has highlighted the issue, so that people are made aware of it. That is the sort of thing that we must do.

I turn to more general points, which are important and on which the Government could help. First, will the Minister liaise with Royal Mail so that protocols are changed to allow staff to offer advice and to report suspicious mail? Postal companies should be empowered to refuse to deliver misleading, dishonest or scam mail in which promises and guarantees of large sums of money to the recipients are visible on the envelope. That might require the law to be amended, but it is worth considering. Age Cymru has heard of older people receiving up to 70 letters a day from companies encouraging them to take part in various scams. Secondly, will he work with the telephone companies to offer more protection against phone calls, especially from abroad, and to close down offenders’ lines? Thirdly, will he work with internet providers to increase protection by blocking access to known offenders?

My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) referred to increasing the number of “no cold calling” zones throughout Wales. There are 14 in my constituency, and they are located specifically in areas where people are more elderly and vulnerable. They have been particularly successful in Torfaen, but they exist in other constituencies, and they should be encouraged. I hope that the Minister will liaise with Welsh local government to ensure that the matter is taken up.

It is the collective job of the United Kingdom Government, the Welsh Assembly Government and councils in Wales to protect the most vulnerable people in society from the activities of the unscrupulous rogues who plague us and prey on older people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I pay tribute to and congratulate the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), a distinguished former Secretary of State for Wales, on securing this debate on the importance of protecting older people in Wales from fraud and scams. I am aware of the specific companies and cases he raised, and I hope to provide some reassurance on how they are being investigated and what the UK Government are doing, working with the Welsh Assembly Government and Welsh local authorities, to make progress.

I confirm that officials in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are in contact with trading standards colleagues in Cardiff and at the National Trading Standards Board about the three companies he mentioned. They are under active investigation. I understand that the Cardiff trading standards team and the Welsh scambusters team are investigating the issues raised by the right hon. Gentleman and they have been outlined in the BBC television programme he mentioned.

More broadly, I pay tribute to Age Cymru and its research on the matter. I met its representatives back in April to talk about the issue, and I know that many other Welsh Members of Parliament from all parties have also met people from the organisation. I pay tribute to it for its excellent work to help to protect and support vulnerable elderly people, to enable them to live their lives in comfort.

I hope that hon. Members will be interested to know that my noble friend Baroness Randerson, the other Under-Secretary at the Wales Office, will be holding a round table meeting at the Wales Office next month to support Age Cymru’s work. As part of that, we are bringing together organisations from across Wales, including enforcement and consumer protection agencies, Royal Mail, BT and Ofcom, to discuss how we can work together to reduce older people’s exposure to such scams.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that the cross-party group on older people and ageing at the National Assembly for Wales met only last week to discuss the issue and took evidence from a variety of stakeholders. We have invited the chair of the group to participate in our round table next month, which I hope will join up the discussions that are happening in Cardiff with the issues that we are focusing on at UK level.

The right hon. Gentleman has raised a particular type of scam affecting Wales. A constituent, Mr Davies—I call him that because it is his name—responded to persistent attempts to get money out of him for carbon credit and eventually sent £3,000, which he has not seen again. Local police say that they cannot investigate because it is too complicated, and the Serious Fraud Office says it is below its threshold. Will the Minister take that on board, and perhaps talk to me afterwards to look for a way forward to ensure that people receive justice?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that case. Without more detail, I cannot comment further, but I would be very disappointed if Dyfed-Powys police or the Serious Fraud Office were not able to investigate. Let us see the detail, and hopefully we can raise that issue and get some progress on it.

We know that more than 3.2 million people—nearly 7% of the entire UK population—fall victim to scams each year, and that fraud and scams generate more than £9 billion of individual losses each year. That figure is truly staggering. We can all say that we are in complete agreement in this room this afternoon about the need to protect all sections of society, and especially the elderly, against the harm caused by scams.

I take on board the point made by the right hon. Gentleman about the level of prosecutions concerning reported scams. It is important to recognise and put on record that it is notoriously difficult to investigate phone and e-mail scams and to pursue the culprits behind them, because so often the scams originate overseas. The solution, therefore, cannot just be one of enforcement, and that is where prevention comes in, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.

In Cardiff, for example, the trading standards team recognise that prevention is key to reducing such crimes. Last year, they set up monthly victim support meetings with South Wales police and other partners, such as Age UK, Age Cymru, Victim Support, and Care & Repair. They work to identify victims of scams and doorstep crime and provide further support, advice and education. As a result, they report that they are seeing the number of cases raised at meetings decline. Through making people aware of how to spot and avoid scams and by utilising telephone and mailing preference services, we can reduce exposure to scams and the likelihood that someone will be taken in.

The Government provide for advice on scams through various agencies—particularly through the citizens advice service, which provides clear and practical guidance to consumers over the phone and on websites. As a Government, we are also taking steps to ensure that people are aware of scams and know what to do if they suspect a scam.

The Minister will be aware that the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) proposed a ten-minute rule Bill. Will he comment on whether the Government have any plans to implement the meat of that Bill, which was to allow, with safeguards, postal workers to intervene when they saw a huge number of envelopes with those fancy prizes on the front going to one address?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point. I shall come to Royal Mail a bit later and hopefully the information that I shall provide will suffice. If not, I can follow that up in writing.

The “Think Jessica” campaign and representative bodies such as Age UK and citizens advice bureaux work to raise awareness of the devastating impact that scams and fraud can have on those who fall victim—especially the elderly—and on victims’ families. The National Trading Standards Board has also provided funding to trading standards in Wales for a national doorstep crime project. That project has a number of actions to undertake and that includes working alongside the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales, the Welsh Assembly and other Government Departments.

The Consumer Protection Partnership, which is made up of partners from the enforcement community, as well as Citizens Advice and other Government bodies, has teamed up with fraud and scam experts, such as the Serious Organised Crime Agency and Action Fraud, to implement a more holistic and joined-up approach to tackling scammers. As part of that, the citizens advice service and the Trading Standards Institute launched a scam awareness campaign in May this year, which was endorsed by the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson)—the consumer Minister—to raise awareness and to help empower consumers to take firm action against scams. Through a renewed focus on prevention, there is an opportunity to try to protect some of the most vulnerable members of society from falling victim to unscrupulous people.

I will now mention some ways in which consumers can report scams and fraud. The Government have established Action Fraud to allow for the reporting of scams. Scams can be reported to Action Fraud by phone or by completing an online fraud report. It is a simple and quick process, and most importantly, it alerts the most appropriate authority to a potential scam. If someone believes that they have been the victim of a scam, or if they need help about how to advise someone whom they believe is the victim, they can also contact the Citizens Advice consumer helpline, which provides clear, practical help for consumers on what they should do.

Where Citizens Advice identifies a breach of consumer protection law, it can alert local authority trading standards enforcement. I encourage anyone who wishes to do so to make use of schemes such as the telephone preference service and the mailing preference service, which will stop addressed mail, and the “Your Choice” preference service, which will stop unaddressed mailings.

Over the past two years, the Government have better equipped trading standards to hit scammers hard by transferring responsibility for cross-cutting leadership and co-ordination of enforcement activity from the Office of Fair Trading to the National Trading Standards Board. The NTSB funds and directs specialist scambuster teams in England and Wales to enable trading standards to take a cross-regional approach to tackling scams and rogue-trading practices. Scambusters currently have five ongoing serious investigations into scams targeting older people in Wales, and I will highlight a couple of their successes shortly.

On the green deal, I strongly share the concerns of the right hon. Gentleman about rogue traders claiming to be associated with the green deal. We have seen that previously with double-glazing salesmen, with households being targeted for inappropriate investments in conservatories, and a few years ago, with the boom in solar panels.

As constituency MPs, we have all had experience of people coming to our surgeries reporting bad practice. The green deal is just another opportunity for some of these hardcore scammers and fraudsters to target vulnerable households. In April this year, I visited the British Gas training academy in Tredegar, where proper qualified green deal assessors received their training and qualifications. Those are the people whom households should trust for green deal assessments, and not the rogue companies that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.

The Consumer Protection Partnership is collating emerging consumer issues around the green deal and has held discussions with the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The CPP aims to ensure that initiatives from all Government Departments—but especially on the green deal—take account of potential real harm to consumers through fraud and misrepresentation.

Both trading standards and the Green Deal Oversight and Registration Body naturally take a very serious view of rogue traders and will pursue them with the full force of the law. While instances of abuse under the green deal are only just starting to emerge, it is worth putting on record that scambusters have notched up a couple of impressive wins against other vultures who prey on the vulnerable in Wales. That serves as an example of what fraudsters operating under the green deal banner can expect to receive.

For example, one criminal was a cold-calling rogue trader builder, operating in the local authorities of south-west and mid-Wales. A scambuster investigation identified 21 victims of the man; they had paid more than £150,000 to him. The scambusters team was able to contact and offer support to a number of victims through dedicated specialists. The investigation resulted in the man being sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment, suspended for two years, for using aggressive commercial practices against vulnerable people. I could point to other examples as well, but time is against us. In order to build further on successes such as that, and to continue to limit the real damage caused by rogue traders in Wales, the NTSB has allocated a budget of £325,000 for its Welsh scambuster team this year.

In summary, the fraudsters’ goal is a simple one: to cheat as many people as possible out of their money by making false promises. Fraud and scams hit the elderly particularly hard; on becoming victims of a scam, they often lose a disproportionate amount of money in relation to other victims. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate this afternoon how, as a UK Government, we are taking action to combat the issues—particularly in Wales, where we are working alongside local authorities and the Welsh Government. We will keep that in sight, and if the right hon. Gentleman wants to follow up in the weeks and months ahead, I will be very happy to continue the discussion.

I come back to a couple of specific questions that have been raised by hon. Members. We were asked about cold doorstep-calling and whether we would welcome a ban, or an increased number of cold-calling “notspots”, where people are prevented from doing so. As a Government, we are certainly not against such initiatives when they are genuinely community-led. When specific communities are being targeted by fraudsters and there is a demand in the community for such an arrangement, we certainly do not wish to do anything against that. However, it is worth putting on the record that neither do we want to harm genuine entrepreneurs, who make a living legitimately, providing a legitimate service and business to households on their doorsteps. There is a balance to be struck, but where there are vulnerable communities who have suffered repeated targeting, perhaps that is one of the solutions that can be community led.

The hon. Member for Llanelli asked about Royal Mail, which currently takes steps to raise awareness of the problem of scam mail among its staff. It has put in place an internal reporting facility that allows customers, including relatives or friends of suspected victims, to report concerns to postal workers or directly to a Royal Mail helpline, which allows advice to be issued and information to be passed on to an appropriate body—the police, trading standards or a support body—for action. The company has been working with the police on identifying possible victims and postage accounts suspected of being used to send scam mail. Again, I am happy to follow up with the hon. Lady if she wants further information about what Royal Mail is doing to prevent scam mail.

The right hon. Gentleman described the people who perpetrate such crimes as crooks and gangsters. That is probably some of the more polite language that we could use to describe such people. We absolutely want to prevent them from operating. They are at times notoriously difficult to investigate and track down, but we as a Government take the issue extremely seriously. We want to provide resources to local trading standards departments and to the cross-cutting partnerships to ensure that there is enforcement and action at the local and Welsh national levels, right across the UK and internationally where possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.