Fraud Bill

During a speech in a House of Commons debate on the Fraud Bill, Charles Walker widely supports the bill but calls for longer sentencing in fraud cases in recognition of the impact of fraud on victims lives.

6.8 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak last, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am the tail-end Charlie in this important debate. Given the closeness of the debate, I feel that I am among old friends. At its best attended point, there were 15 Members in the Chamber, and that included Madam Deputy Speaker. However, it has been a good debate, and it is getting better. Or it was until I stood up. Certain parts of it were fairly sterile, but the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) started to inject the subject of people into it and talked about how fraud impacts on the ordinary people—real people—who come through our surgeries every week.

To use a well-worn cliché that I have heard on a few occasions this afternoon, fraud is not victimless. It is not some sterile concept. Fraud is theft. It is clear and simple theft, committed by very undesirable people. If I may use unparliamentary language, Mr. Deputy Speaker, fraud is, in the main, committed by absolute toe-rags—nasty, unpleasant, self-interested, self-motivated people.

It is easy to talk about fraud as something that is large scale—something to do, perhaps, with Asil Nadir and Polly Peck, The Mirror pension fund or the BCCI scandal of many years ago. By and large, though, fraud is often small scale. As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, it is committed against ordinary people, who might suddenly find £3,000 taken out of their bank account, not only their £1,000 worth of savings but another £2,000 overdraft on top. It is frightening and, once one gets caught up in the fraud web, it is extremely difficult to unravel it. It can take months or years to get one’s life back on track.

Fraudsters tend to be indiscriminate and opportunistic. In my constituency, there is a group of fraudsters who use fake ID to gain entrance to old people’s homes. Some come in the guise of police officers, others as council officers or workers for local utility—gas or electricity—companies. That is an obnoxious and obscene form of fraud, an absolute abuse of trust and a misrepresentation of the worst kind. I hope that, when the Bill becomes an Act, it will ensure that people who use fake ID or credentials to gain access to people’s homes feel the full force of the law. Ten years may not be long enough.

I met a local vicar earlier today, a minister of Rosedale church, whose mother had someone on her doorstep claiming to be a police officer and gaining access to her home in that way. She is an extremely clued-up woman. She quickly realised that something was wrong, she led him into a room that happened to be her garage and she locked him in it. It was 8.30 at night, so she thought that the police would not be interested in coming to arrest him and left making the phone call until the following morning. She thought that she would let this young man contemplate the error of his ways in her garage. Unfortunately, when the police turned up the next morning, he had found a way out of the garage. That may sound like an amusing anecdote, but it was only her presence of mind that allowed her to navigate her way out of that unfortunate situation. Many elderly people find their trust being abused and pay a huge cost for it, not only financially, but in their mental well-being.

As well as people who gain access fraudulently, there are the so-called rogue traders who use fake qualifications to gain people’s trust——“I am from the federation of master builders; I know what I am talking about.” All of a sudden, the vulnerable find themselves paying out vast sums of money for work that did not need doing to complete crooks who have used fake qualifications to con their way into a position of trust in order to abuse it. Once again, I hope that the Bill will cover those sort of fraudulent acts.

We must also understand that we have a responsibility and we need to be vigilant against fraud as well. That is the real meaning of responsibility. The hon. Member for Rhondda spoke about phishing schemes in which e-mails are sent claiming to be from the Halifax, advising people that they need to update their bank accounts. People are still falling for that con. I believe that it has been running for three or four years, yet I still find that some of my constituents are falling for it, giving out their financial details and losing vast sums of money in consequence. We, collectively as politicians, the Government, the financial services industry and local authorities need to educate people to be on their guard.

Why are we still throwing out our bank and credit card statements in the general rubbish, providing a rich source of opportunity? Some of us have bought shredding machines, but then we hear about armies of people sitting in darkened backrooms, putting together what we have shredded so that they can still read our bank account numbers. That is happening— [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda looks bemused, but I can assure him that this is absolutely the case. In fact, Frank Abagnale, one of the world’s top authorities on fraud, visited the country only a couple of weeks ago and said, “For crying out loud, people, don’t just get something that shreds vertically. Get a proper criss-cross shredder, so there is absolutely no chance of the information being reconstituted and used to defraud people.”

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does my hon. Friend believe that magistrates take a suitably robust approach to the obnoxious practice, prevalent in my constituency and across the country, of distraction burglaries, which are particularly aimed at older people, the most vulnerable in our community?

Mr. Walker: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Nothing upsets the police more than the fact that, when they actually catch an individual who has been preying on the elderly and vulnerable and he is brought before the magistrates courts or even the Crown court, he is given a one or two-year suspended sentence or a bit of community service. That individual then goes back to doing what he was doing very well before—ripping people off. People like that should be locked up and if the Solicitor-General can lock them up not for three or four years but for 10, good on him.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is making a case to show how the world of fraud has changed in recent years, but is not the truth of the matter or the real nub the very ancient problem that, as Shakespeare put it:

“There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”?

Mr. Walker: I must confess that the hon. Gentleman has foxed me with that intervention. Being a man of limited intellect, I was never a great student of Shakespeare, but perhaps we can meet afterwards to talk it through. I am sure that he is talking perfect sense and thank him for that intervention.

I shall now deal with particular provisions, starting with clause 2, which the hon. Member for Rhondda also spoke about. We have seen the promotion of fraud conducted over computers through e-mail and the internet. The hon. Member for Rhondda and others mentioned phishing, but there are also the K-scams, largely from Nigeria, where people are told that they will receive a large sum of money from a relative of the former deposed king or local warlord who has $55 million to launder. People are asked to send £20,000 so that they can have the whole lot. Unbelievably, people are still falling for it. We have to go with the adage: if it sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true. In plain and simple, non-Shakespearean English, if it looks too good to be true, ignore it and walk to the other side of the street. How will the Bill deal with international scams, as phishing and K-scams are run from Africa, by and large, or from parts of the former Soviet Union that are not yet in the European Union?

Clause 3 deals with failure to disclose information. A classic example would be the estate agent who visits an elderly or young person’s home and says, “I have looked at your very nice home and you should put it on the market for £165,000.” Lo and behold, a buyer turns up the next day and offers to buy it for that sum. The seller is extremely happy and the deal goes through, but he then discovers that the home was really worth £220,000 and that the estate agent undervalued it so that one of his mates could buy it, only to put it straight back on the market with the two splitting the profit. That is a classic example of fraud, which I hope the Bill addresses.

Clause 4 deals with fraud by abuse of position. Before I entered Parliament, I worked in recruitment businesses and what went on in some of our offices was phenomenal. Nice young men or women would be hired and given a computer at their desk. They would work away, but a year later, we might find out that they were running a completely parallel business from that desk. They might have downloaded all the company’s information on its candidates and clients, crossed it over to their computers and run two businesses. If they were caught, they would be fired, but they would often leave with all the data and set up business down the road—another classic example. I congratulate the Government on introducing legislation to deal with that sort of fraud. I am in a very congratulatory mood today.

One part of the Bill causes me some concern and I am sure that someone will say that I am making a fatuous point about clause 11, which deals with obtaining services dishonestly. It strikes me that the rights to cover test matches at the Oval are owned jointly by Sky and the England and Wales Cricket Board. Fair enough. Will the clause be used against the hundreds of people who like to dangle out of windows or sit on the roofs of the houses around the Oval, watching the cricket? The point is not necessarily fatuous and it is worth raising. People could get a knock on the door from Sky or the England and Wales Cricket Board, who then ask them what they are doing accessing the match. They might say, “You haven’t paid to access the match, so please remove yourselves from the windows or roofs.”

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman makes a poor point, but a better point is that many people deliberately buy Sky boxes and take them to Spain, France, Germany or Italy, so that they can use UK rights, which they had not bought, to watch in other countries.

Mr. Walker: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I hope that my point is not as poor as he thinks and that the Minister will respond to it here or in Committee.

My final concern relates to the decision to retain the offence of conspiracy to defraud. I understand some of the Government’s reasons for doing so, but clause 7, on the making or supplying of articles for use in frauds, would cover that, by and large. We have talked about people walking around with crowbars. Of course, it is debateable whether someone is taking a crowbar to lever open a door or to lever off a manhole cover and go about his business if he is a plumber. However, if someone is caught walking around with a cash machine keypad recording device, it is very difficult to argue that that person did not know what it was for; they are specific machinery manufactured only to defraud. I hope that clause 7 will cover a large amount of what is still viewed as conspiracy to defraud, but the Government have a slightly different view.

Mr. Jackson: My hon. Friend referred to Frank Abagnale, one of the world’s leading experts on fraud. On counterfeit measures, does my hon. Friend agree that Frank Abagnale has stated that most modern identification cards can be counterfeited at least within 18 months and, possibly, two years?

Mr. Walker: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and to the Solicitor-General’s credit, he did not talk about ID cards in his opening remarks. Some people say that ID cards will help to reduce fraud, but many people think that they will worsen the problem. Fraudsters will get hold of ID cards and manufacture them, and they will find them an effective way to win people’s trust and take their money. We already see that with passports and there is no reason why it should not apply to ID cards.

The Solicitor-General said that he was very much in favour of police forces merging, so that they could pool their resources in tackling fraud. May I say for the record that I am totally opposed to the merger of police forces? I believe that most Conservative Members and some Labour Members share that view. Most of my constituents would not buy the argument that one needs to merge police forces to tackle fraud better. Most of them believe that the police are doing a pretty good job and that, when caught, fraudsters need to spend more time in prison and less time on the streets.

In conclusion, I broadly welcome this Government Bill. I have greatly enjoyed speaking in the debate and the interventions from the hon. Member for Rhondda and my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

6.22 pm

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