I join the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry) on a confident and excellent maiden speech. I remember how nervous I was when I made my own. I admire my hon. Friend for seeming not to have a care in the world, but no doubt a great deal of fluttering was going on inside.
I was grateful that my hon. Friend paid a particular tribute to Spencer Le Marchant, who was one of the most generous people ever to sit in the House. It was brave of my hon. Friend to reveal that he had worked for a pittance for one of my Scottish hon. Friends, and for nothing at all for my noble and learned Friend the Lord Advocate. When we debate the subject of people living on small incomes, no doubt my hon. Friend will be able to speak with experience. The people of High Peak made a good choice when they elected him as their Member of Parliament in April. I am sure that he will receive congratulations from every right hon. and hon. Member who heard his maiden speech.
Ticket touting is a serious problem, which must be tackled sooner rather than later. Touts operate in various forms—as private individuals, as organised groups on the streets outside theatres and sports venues and masquerading as ticket agents by operating from apparently authentic premises. The latter present a particular danger in the west end. They have the semblance of respectability. By displaying publicity material for various shows, they give the impression that they are genuine agencies, such as the Keith Prowse chain which collapsed a few years ago. The public are taken in because they believe that they are using a respectable business.
All too often, however, an unsuspecting tourist will find that he has paid well over the odds. Touting can mislead and defraud the public, who may pay an extortionate price that is way above a ticket's face value. It often transpires that the seats purchased have a restricted view, contrary to assurances given at the time of purchase. If one goes to a theatre box office, one will be told if the seats offered are located behind a pillar or at the back of the stalls. It is disgraceful to pay an agency a great deal of money for a ticket, only to find that one's view of the stage is obstructed.
It has also been known for people arriving at a theatre to collect their pre-paid tickets to discover that they are not available because the agency has gone out of business or has moved to unknown premises.
The Society of West End Theatre produced a dossier of cases. Two German tourists paid £75 each to see "The Phantom of the Opera", when the ticket's face value was £8·50. Two Norwegian tourists paid £50 for tickets for "Starlight Express", only to find that their seats offered a restricted view from the back row. A tourist from Essex paid an agency £54 for a ticket that had a face value of £7·50. Tennis fans have paid as much as £650 for finals day tickets having a face value of £36. Football supporters have paid £250 for FA cup final tickets with a face value of £35. I can only imagine that they had more money than sense to pay such prices. Such practices do a great deal to harm the British tourist industry and to deter tourists from patronising certain events.
Touts also enjoy substantial profits without making any contribution to the state in the form of income tax or value added tax.
In February, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) made a widely reported speech at Brunel university in his capacity as Under-Secretary of State for Consumer Affairs and Small Firms. He announced plans to give consumers more protection and greater redress, including a proposal to ensure that when agencies resell tickets for theatres and other public events, they disclose the location, face value and other relevant information to the prospective buyer. I shall be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will say when that commitment will be implemented.
Urgent action is needed if London is to avoid the description of ticket tout capital of the world. Of course we must acknowledge market principles, and I know that one of my hon. Friends is in favour of ticket touts. Everyone is entitled to his opinion—but the market mechanism is free and fair only if the buyer of goods or services has full knowledge of the proper market price and can be confident that the vendor is authorised to sell.
Why cannot the code of practice in the Consumer Protection Act 1987 be made statutory so that it becomes a definite offence to deface the face value of a ticket, and amended in such a way that it is legally clear and easier to enforce? Ticket agencies should also be licensed so that tickets can be bought only from authorised establish-ments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment should have powers to make regulations allowing local authorities to license ticket sellers and third parties to sell tickets on closely controlled terms. All other sales to the public would become illegal. Licensing must be the ultimate long-term objective.
We can learn from the experience of another great theatre city—New York. There was a time when touting in that city was creating enormous problems, so the state legislature introduced laws forbidding it. New York ticket sellers are required to be licensed, submit a bond of $1,000, print the mark-up on the ticket, display their licence in a public place and keep a record of all their transactions. If such arrangements are possible in New York, why are they not in London and other parts of the United Kingdom?
Most right hon. and hon. Members regard touting as morally reprehensible. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, when Minister of State, Home Office, described the practice as obnoxious. I would never buy from a ticket tout. Some years ago, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jnr. and Liza Minnelli starred at a concert in the Royal Albert hall, for which tickets were at a premium. My wife and I very much wanted to attend the last night, but could not obtain tickets anywhere. Someone suggested that I should stand outside the hall with cash in my pocket, because the chances were that just as the show was due to start, the touts would sharply reduce their asking prices. I would rather that they burnt their fingers by being left with unsold tickets and making a loss on their transactions.
Tourism is important to our economy, and tourists are a particular target for the touts. A few years ago, Westminster city council—which covers most of the west end theatres—undertook an investigation that confirmed that foreign visitors were the most likely to be overcharged. The report stated:
This has important implications for tourism. Why should tourists pay more for the same product?
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will inform the Department of Trade and Industry's consumer affairs division that many people, including myself, are impatient for the pledge that was given on 20 February by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle to be implemented. I hope that an announcement will be made before the summer recess.