Protection of Elderly People (Unsolicited Mail)

Bill Presented — Personal Responsibility – in the House of Commons at 1:26 pm on 15th July 2009.

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Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons) 1:33 pm, 15th July 2009

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the sending of unsolicited mail to elderly people;
and for connected purposes.

By chance, we have a debate later today on care for the elderly, so I am particularly pleased to introduce this ten-minute Bill. A Government Green Paper on paying for care for the elderly was also published yesterday. I want to consider another way in which the House should care for elderly people, however, because I believe that we can judge a society by how it looks after its old people.

I want to consider the all-too-common situation facing some old people. They will probably live alone. Typically, they may be old women, who are possibly widowed. Through their doors, piles of mail pour daily-I have such a pile here-to be read by a person who was raised in a gentler and more honest society than ours. Of course, many old people are busy and active with friends, and understand what to do with junk mail-namely, throw it away. However, others are lonely and perhaps confused and bored. They have time to read the junk mail, and an industry has been created that preys on them.

A constituent first alerted me to the problem. Since then, the personal experience of my 89-year-old mother has revealed the problem in all its detail-and she is registered with the Mailing Preference Service. However, I am not making a personal plea. Only today, I spoke to a journalist who had the exactly the same experience with his old father before he died, and I have also read a three-year-old article from The Guardian, which believed in September 2006 that the Office of Fair Trading would introduce a solution.

The problem has two sides. The first is less serious and involves mail from charities, many of which have laudable aims. Mailshots are an accepted and possibly important way in which to raise to money, and many people are employed by charities to do mailshots. I am sure that that raises money for what one hopes are good causes. However, I suggest that all charities examine their consciences and the aims of their work and consider whether they should target old, confused and lonely people, tugging at their heartstrings to get money out of them. Let me give a few examples. I have a pile of letters from animal charities, including Animals in Crisis; the Dogs Trust; Compassion in World Farming; Spana, which is about animals in Spain; World Horse Welfare; Network for Animals; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. I also have letters from human charities, including St. Christopher's Fellowship; VSO; St. Mungo's; Feed My People; Medical Mission International; Ethiopia Aid; Christian Blind Mission and-most perversely-Help the Aged. All those begging letters arrived in one month. Indeed, Help the Aged wrote to an 89-year-old woman, pointing out that she had cancelled her direct debit and asking if she would like to reinstate it. Such a charity could have applied a little common sense.

I do not doubt the good intentions of many of those charities, if not all of them, but I question whether they should bombard elderly people in that manner. I suggest, first, that charities should have a box that over-75s might tick to indicate their age, and then a voluntary code, providing that they will not send further begging letters to over-75s. I also suggest that they employ common sense. If an elderly person is subjected to constant direct mail, the charities should be somewhat ashamed of themselves. The worst example is from IFAW. I have several letters that suggest that an elderly person has won £20,000. We all know that that is not true, but IFAW and its chief executive, Mr. Fred O'Regan, send elderly people letters, which say that all they need to do is register to be entered into a fantastic prize draw: "Red Hot Cash Payout-£35,000 of prizes to be won." It states that if people follow the rules, cash prize funds will be paid to winners. IFAW should be ashamed of itself.

However, the second element is much more pernicious, and there is nothing laudable in the motives of those responsible. Direct mail is being sent to elderly people-and, I suspect, others-pretending that the recipient has won money. All the recipient has to do is buy something useless and worthless or send money to receive a huge cash prize. I have here a large pile-too large to hold in one hand-of one month's largely unopened junk mail. Some letters come from something called "Our Life" in Greenford. There is another from the "Department of Information", again in Greenford, which states: "You have won £20,500". A letter from Biotonic, also in Greenford, states exactly the same thing, except that some Biotonic and Star Shopping letters say:

"You have won £15,500-your winning status is certified-congratulations".

Interestingly, all those documents state that people cannot write to Greenford but have to send their money to Anderlecht in Belgium or somewhere else in the European Union. I can see that the post office in Greenford is extremely busy. Spookily, most of the entities have the same postcode.

There is also something called the "Skills Testing Unit", which tells elderly people that they have an official cheque for £34,000 waiting. Better yet is the prize of £9.492 million, which will be paid directly to the person who responds. All people have to do is register for the Australian lottery. I suggest that there is only a small difference in scale between that and the e-mails that we have all received, usually from Africa, telling us that if we help Mr. X get his £20 million out of some dodgy country, he will split it with us 50:50. Riches beyond the dreams of avarice apparently await us: we need only send the details of our bank accounts-many people each year do send them-and we will be set up for life. It sounds too good to be true; and, of course, it is too good to be true-it is fraudulent and criminal.

The question that I would like to ask about the sort of letters to which I have referred is this: why are those people not prosecuted for fraudulently trying to obtain money from vulnerable people? Surely the people who send such letters are behaving in a manner that should require, at the very least, questions to be asked by the Office of Fair Trading, the police, trading standards or others. What loopholes are those people exploiting? Why do the Government or another authority not close those loopholes and pursue such companies?

A ten-minute Bill, as everybody here knows, is just a way of raising an issue. I am not, in fact, proposing new laws or even new regulations. Instead, I am calling on the conscience of charities, and for them to work on a simple code of conduct, so that they do not exploit the elderly to help their causes, which may or may not be deserving. At the same time, the Government, the police and other authorities should give serious attention to preventing fraudsters and near-fraudsters from sending unsolicited mail to elderly people and taking their money on a dishonest premise. Such people are making the elderly, for whom we all share responsibility, the victims of blatant scams.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr. Andrew Robathan present the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Robathan accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 October and to be printed (Bill 135).