Nuisance Calls

Bangladesh – in the House of Commons at 2:18 pm on 16th January 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

[Relevant document: Fourth Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Nuisance Calls, HC 636.]

Photo of Michael Crockart Michael Crockart Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West 2:22 pm, 16th January 2014

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered nuisance calls.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this important debate. Many Members who would like to have been here for this debate are unable to be with us for various reasons, including constituency commitments, debates in Westminster Hall and, sadly, the funeral of our friend, Paul Goggins. Our thoughts are with the friends and family of that departed Member.

I would like to use this opportunity to say that my thoughts are with the family of a three-year-old in my constituency who went missing from his home overnight last night. We all fervently hope for Mikaeel Kular’s safe return as soon as is possible.

It has been a long and hard road to get to this point. When I started my campaign 18 months ago, I did not for the life of me think that it would grow to the size that it now is. I must thank some people and institutions for their help. I thank The Sunday Post and Which? for their support and their campaigns. They have both launched petitions over the past 18 months. There are now more than 130,000 signatures from members of the public urging action on this issue.

In response to that, I set up the all-party parliamentary group on nuisance calls in July last year to look into the unsolicited marketing industry and the issue of nuisance calls in particular. It is made up of Members of all parties and I especially thank Alun Cairns for his support in co-chairing and running the group. Unfortunately, he cannot be present today because of a constituency commitment. The all-party parliamentary group has completed an inquiry and a report, which I will rely on for many of my remarks.

I will set the scene by defining some of the concepts that we will discuss, because this is a complex area. Nuisance means different things to different people. The term “nuisance call” is used to capture a wide range of types of calls from silent calls to live marketing calls and from harassment to financial scams. By definition, nuisance calls are a problem for consumers. They interrupt family meal times or are received wearily after a hard day’s work. They often demand that elderly or vulnerable people answer the phone when it is an effort to do so. For some people they are a mere irritation, but for others they cause significant harm or distress, and they can even make people feel intimidated when answering their phone. Not all nuisance calls are illegal. Consumers sometimes term legitimate contact a nuisance, for example if a call comes at an awkward time of the day. Nuisance is often in the eye of the beholder.

For the purposes of this debate, we will focus on marketing calls, whether silent or live and whether over a fixed line or a mobile, that are made without the consumer’s consent. We will also consider the problem of nuisance spam texts, although the consent mechanism differs. Marketing calls operate on an opt-out basis. Until a person says explicitly that they do not wish to receive marketing calls, companies that are engaged in direct marketing are able legally to contact them by telephone. In contrast, marketing texts operate on an opt-in basis. They can be sent legally only if a consumer states that they are happy to receive them.

The definitions of terms such as live marketing calls and marketing text messages follow those that are used by the main regulators, which are Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office. The definitions focus on the type of call and do not cover situations in which, although the individual call may be legal, the pattern, frequency or time of the call should classify it as a nuisance.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman wholeheartedly on securing this debate and on the campaign that has been running. Does he accept that the fundamental problem that our constituents complain to us about is that there are frequently multiple calls and that calls are often made at night time? I have had constituents complaining of more than 15 calls in a day and dozens of constituents have complained that people call them at 1, 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, which is particularly alarming to members of the public.

Photo of Michael Crockart Michael Crockart Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. My right hon. Friend Sir Alan Beith, who is unable to be here, outlined a very worrying set of circumstances to me, which may well have affected the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. In the last week, a large number of automated calls have been made at those sorts of times in the morning, starting with the phrase, “The Government want you to know that—”. The time at which the calls are made indicate that it will almost inevitably be bad news. Those calls can be very worrying and cause immense distress.

Unfortunately, the regulatory framework for nuisance calls is complex. That is partly because it has emerged through historical accident, rather than by design. Ofcom regulates silent and abandoned calls. The regulations state that when using automatic dialler equipment, which must have been used in the cases that I have just outlined, no more than 3% of answered call attempts should be abandoned because no live agent is available at the call centre. That means that if 1 million calls are made, 30,000 nuisance calls can be made legally.

The Information Commissioner’s Office is responsible for enforcing data protection regulations, including the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, which I will call PECR from now on. Under PECR, the Information Commissioner’s Office is responsible for enforcement for live calls, which includes recorded calls and spam texts.

Alongside the two main regulators, a number of other organisations, with or without regulatory powers, have an interest. Claims management companies, which are responsible for the vast share of calls, are regulated by the claims management regulator. The Financial Conduct Authority will shortly regulate debt management and payday lending companies. The National Fraud Authority and the police have a role to play when nuisance calls pertain to fraud, scams or other forms of illegal activity. PhonepayPlus regulates premium rate phone numbers and services in the UK. That is by no means a full list.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

I endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the missing three-year-old boy from his constituency, on the border of mine in Edinburgh. Like him, I hope that he is soon found safe and brought back to his home.

Is not one problem nuisance calls that purport to come from outside the UK, which by definition are particularly difficult to deal with? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must at least try to deal with that aspect of the problem, which people are unsurprisingly concerned about?

Photo of Michael Crockart Michael Crockart Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and there are two issues raised. Of course, the vast majority of calls coming from outside the UK are made on behalf of companies operating within the UK, so they should be covered by the regulators. The difficulty is that there are all sorts of problems with identifying where those calls have come from and getting the calling line identity to ensure that they can be traced. I hope that the Minister will have something to say later about how he is looking to deal with the various difficulties.

The complexity of the regulation leads to a lack of focus and, therefore, to a lack of action. I welcome the Minister’s involvement, however, which has helped to deal with the first. We will see shortly whether it is helping to deal with the second, as well.

In the all-party group’s inquiry, we made a number of attempts to come to a final assessment of the scale of the problem, but the vast array of inconsistent data makes that difficult. The regulators receive about 6,000 complaints a month about nuisance calls. Ofcom reports that it receives about 3,000 relating to silent calls, and since setting up its online reporting tool in March 2012, the Information Commissioner’s Office has received about 240,000 complaints about unsolicited calls and texts. There is no evidence that the problem is decreasing. The ICO, Ofcom and the Telephone Preference Service all report an overall growth in the number of complaints over the past three years, but complaints data alone fail to tell us the full story. As part of its “Calling Time” campaign, Which? set up a web portal to direct consumer complaints to the relevant regulator.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

The hon. Gentleman may recall that when BT gave evidence to the all-party group, it said that its complaints and nuisance calls line received some 65,000 calls a month—from memory, I think that was the figure. If so many calls are coming in but so few are going to the regulator, that suggests that there is a serious problem and that there is no confidence that the regulator will do much about them.

Photo of Michael Crockart Michael Crockart Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, although I am not sure whether it is just a lack of confidence. Part of it may well be a lack of knowledge and a lack of willingness to commit time to go through the process of making a complaint. However, I was about to make the point that he raises.

Data from the portal that Which? set up showed that only about half the people who used it went on to make a full complaint to the regulators. As the hon. Gentleman says, the number of nuisance calls received far exceeds the number of official complaints. BT estimates that its nuisance call bureau receives about 50,000 calls a month— that is the figure I have, which is bad enough. There are also nuisance texts, and in the evidence that the all-party group received, the technology company Pinesoft estimated that about 8.7 million are sent every day.

Ofcom’s omnibus survey is generally considered to produce the most accurate estimate of the number of nuisance calls that people receive, because it involves people making a diary of the calls that they receive for a certain period. It has resulted in an estimate that consumers who experience unwanted calls receive an average of about two a week, with four out of five participants receiving at least one nuisance call during the four-week research period. About a quarter of people recalled receiving more than 10 calls in a four-week period. However one calculates it, the annual number of unwanted calls is almost certainly more than 1 billion.

Another recent piece of research was commissioned by StepChange, a debt charity, and conducted by YouGov. It found that more than 3.2 million British adults who had received an unsolicited marketing call or text had been left afraid to answer the phone as a result of those communications.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

On that point about the fear factor, the result is that the telephone is taken out of the use of people who would otherwise regard it as a normal service in their home. It is manifestly clear on any interpretation that such texts and calls are increasing, and that the Government need to do more to give the regulator and others teeth, so that we can stop them.

Photo of Michael Crockart Michael Crockart Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

Absolutely. That is a good point, and that fear is concentrated among certain groups, such as the elderly, who are at home during the day more, and those who, as StepChange found, are hounded by companies encouraging them to take out payday loans and so on. Just over 26.3 million British adults have been offered high-interest credit such as payday loans via unsolicited marketing calls or messages, and 83% of British adults feel that consumers need greater protection from them.

As I said, people who get a high number of nuisance calls tend to be elderly, and a recent trial of call-blocking technology by trading standards in Angus, in Scotland, found that about 40% of phone calls received by elderly and vulnerable residents were nuisance calls. It also found that older people were the victims of 40% of all nuisance calls. As I said, that is partly because of the timing of nuisance calls, with 78% being made between 8 am and 6 pm, when most people are at work. The trial found that without call-blocking technology, participants were extremely concerned about scams, the risk of a fall when answering the phone, feeling helpless to stop calls and feeling intimidated by callers. Once call-blocking technology was installed, all those concerns were reduced considerably.

I decided to carry out a trial in my constituency by installing call-blocking technology in the homes of two constituents who were being particularly bothered by nuisance calls. The results were quite shocking and bore out what has been found elsewhere. Mrs Moffat is a constituent who is deaf and has to use a textphone, and her husband suffers from early dementia. Since 27 August, 65% of her incoming calls have been nuisance calls. Since 11 September another constituent, Mrs Manchester, has received 212 calls, a third of which have been nuisance calls. Interestingly, the figure is down from 43% two months ago, which seems to indicate that the use of call-barring technology alone is reducing their instance.

The argument is strengthened by examining StepChange’s research. A particular problem is nuisance calls targeted at indebted people, which are causing tangible stress and anxiety. Some 65% of respondents to a website poll said that they were afraid to answer the phone as a result of nuisance calls or texts. That stress and anxiety risks exacerbating existing mental health difficulties. According to the World Health Organisation, the more debt people hold, the more likely they are to suffer from mental health problems. That further serves to illustrate why it is essential to ensure better protection for financially vulnerable consumers from the potential harm of nuisance calls or messages. Yet there is clear evidence that those people are being targeted.

More than 26.3 million British adults say that they have been offered high-interest credit via unsolicited marketing calls. For those who do not need it, that is annoying, but it is easy enough just to delete messages. However, financial difficulties can lead to poor economic choices, and 6% of respondents said that as a result of a nuisance call or message, they had taken out a financial service or product that actually worsened their financial position. The lure of a no-questions-asked loan is difficult to pass up when someone can justify to themselves that it is only for a week until they get back on their feet.

The problem of protecting vulnerable consumers is the most pressing, since that is where consumer detriment is most significant. Whatever actions are taken to address the problem of nuisance calls in the longer term, that issue must be dealt with now using whatever available means.

The difficulty of coming up with an agreed figure for nuisance calls is not merely academic, because it reveals two issues that go to the heart of the problem. First, it suggests a lack of coherence in information and data about nuisance calls. Data are being generated and collected, or discarded, over a large number of organisations and are not effectively shared or centrally stored. For example, the all-party group was surprised to learn in its inquiry that BT does not share with the regulator data generated by its nuisance calls services. Similarly, trueCall, a manufacturer of call-blocking technology, reported that it had not been able to interest the regulators in the data generated through the use of its products. In addition, the TPS does not share data with the Direct Marketing Commission, but both are arms of the Direct Marketing Association.

The discrepancy between the number of initial reports received by consumer-facing organisations such as Which? and BT, and the final number of complaints received by the regulators, suggests that not all consumers who receive nuisance calls follow through the reporting structure. That could be for a number of reasons, but the most likely are that the complaints mechanisms are too onerous; the complainant lacks the necessary information to make a complaint, such as the name of the company or its telephone number; or, as has been said, people believe there is little point in making a complaint. The result is that we see only part of the picture at any one time, which makes it all the more important for us to act.

On the economics of nuisance calls, I am not saying that we must ban all direct marketing. The direct marketing industry undoubtedly contributes financially to the UK economy. Call centres alone employ more than 1 million people in the UK. Direct marketing techniques are used by a huge number of companies from a wide range of sectors to generate business. At its best, direct marketing can be informative and useful to consumers, helping them to find the best deal and the most suitable product for their needs.

On the other hand, nuisance calls cause such a high level of irritation that it is easy to forget that there is a market for them. They are made to generate sales. Their continued existence means that we can assume only that they are at times successful. The claims management industry is consistently responsible for the largest share of complaints, but nuisance calls originate from a wide cross-section of industries. In live calls, the top topics of communication are payment protection insurance reclaim, accident claims and energy. The top topics for automated calls are, similarly, debt management, PPI and energy. Other topics include research and surveys; so-called sugging, when the caller pretends to be from a legitimate market research organisation; Government grants, such as for loft insulation; and insurance and telecoms.

The inquiry heard evidence that an outbound live marketing call can be made for as little as 20p—the cost drops to just 1p for automatic dialler equipment. The average PPI claim is for around £2,700, with claims management companies receiving, on average, around 25% of that. The economics of the industry are clear: a single win can cover the cost of 3,125 live calls or 62,500 automated calls. That helps to explain the market in lead generation. We do not know the underlying figures, but it seems reasonable to assume that a significant proportion of calls are made by lead-generation companies, which work to collect data and potential leads for other companies, which then make the final sales call.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

The hon. Gentleman is dealing eloquently with the economics of the process. Does he accept the proposition that the likelihood of our constituents taking calls between 9 o’clock at night and 6 o’clock in the morning is very limited? Does he agree that the Government could regulate against night-time calls, which are a waste of money for those companies, even if they put the auto-dial on and leave the building?

Photo of Michael Crockart Michael Crockart Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. I will go on to deal with the Information Commissioner’s Office guidance that covers exactly that problem.

The inquiry heard evidence that the low cost of making those calls means that there is no economic driver to undertake any initial targeting or research. Calls are so cheap that it is economically effective simply to dial telephone numbers in sequence. In comparison, with direct mail marketing there is a cost for delivering and returning badly targeted mail.

Having established the terrifying scale of the problem, it is clear that major reform is required, by Government and regulators, and by the telecoms and direct marketing industries. There is a need for major change, but there is also a danger of being paralysed by the necessary strategies, consultations, proposals and counter-proposals.

The all-party parliamentary group report published in October contains 16 recommendations. Ministers have a copy of it, but I should like to make the case for four areas in which urgent action is both necessary and possible, the first of which is a basic one relating to consent to receive calls and TPS registration. There are around 25 million land-lines in the UK, of which 19 million, which is around three quarters, are registered with the TPS. There are 71 million mobile phones—more than the number of people in the UK—and many are similarly registered with the TPS. Each and every day, however, there are more than 2 million nuisance calls and texts.

First-party consent should override TPS registration. Maintaining a direct relationship with customers is key to any company and is valued by many of those customers. Nothing in the report seeks to limit contact when it benefits both sides and is properly consented to. However, third-party consent is a grey area. It is commonly referred to as, “Carefully selected third parties or trusted partners,” which could just as easily mean, “Any company that is willing to pay for your details”. Sometimes, if people say, “I am TPS registered,” it is enough to end the calls. Even then, a breach of the regulations has happened. However, companies often argue that people have given permission at some point in the dim and distant past. In all conscience, who can ever say completely confidently that that cannot be true?

I am sure the Minister will argue that the ICO guidance is in place, so action is not needed. If every company adhered to the excellent guidance, he would be right, but they do not.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if every company is well behaved, we would not need a regulatory system at all? The point of the regulator is to deal with those who are unscrupulous or careless.

Photo of Michael Crockart Michael Crockart Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

I agree entirely, and I am glad my hon. Friend used the word “careless”, because carelessness and the ease of making calls without having to think too closely about the regulations cause much of the problem.

The regulations are in place and the guidance is excellent. A document issued by the ICO tells companies what to do. It states:

“Organisations can make live unsolicited marketing calls, but must not call any number registered with the TPS unless the subscriber (ie the person who gets the telephone bill) has specifically told them that they do not object to their calls.”

“Specifically” is the word, and the guidance seems straightforward. Hon. Members might think that it makes it clear that companies should not make calls in those circumstances.

The document also provides a checklist with an example of best practice, which states:

“Make sure your privacy notice is clear, honest and will be understood by the people it is aimed at. Avoid confusing mixtures of ‘opt-ins’ and ‘opt-outs’. Do not pre-tick consent boxes.”

Not only small, fly-by-night fraudulent companies ignore that guidance. I did a small survey yesterday of some well known companies. Unfortunately, as expected, the reality is very different. Companies ask us in a multitude of ways to give our consent to be contacted. TalkTalk has a pre-ticked box for giving first-party consent, but there is an unticked box, which is better, for giving third-party consent. Virgin Media is confusing because its question combines first and third-party consent in one box, which defaults automatically to opt-in. As hon. Members would expect, John Lewis is much better. It excellently uses plain language on all its boxes and there is a separate box for each type of contact—e-mail, mobile or land-line. Unfortunately, all the boxes are defaulted to opt-in.

I went to BT’s site and looked at buying a phone. Unfortunately, BT had nothing relating to first-party consent—there was no box to opt out or to opt in. The third-party consent option was defaulted to blank, meaning it was not defaulted to opt-in. I wondered about that, so I followed an obscure-looking link to its privacy policy, which states:

“Unless you tell us not to we assume we have your permission to tell you about BT products and services we think you might be interested in, we won’t send you marketing messages if you tell us not to.”

The way that one has to tell them not to, however, is by opting out when one receives them

“so you can opt out when we call you as part of a telemarketing campaign, you can opt out when we email you as part of a email marketing campaign, or you can write to a freepost address.”

That is absolutely not in tune with the guidance issued by the ICO. With such a confusing range of options, it is no wonder that consumers do not know what to tick or what they have consented to.

I will turn now to the level of proof expected by the ICO when presenting cases relating to nuisance texts. This should not take long, as the Government recently announced their willingness to lower the threshold, although they have not specified what the new level of detriment will be or when the change will be implemented. By reducing the level of detriment from “substantial damage or substantial distress” to “annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety”, it would align the threshold with that expected of Ofcom in silent call cases.

The recent decision by an appeals court judge to overturn the fine that ICO issued to Tetrus late last year demonstrates exactly why this section is crucial. Tetrus had been engaged in sending unwanted text messages on an industrial scale, sending hundreds of thousands of texts every week from unregistered SIM cards that seek out potential claims for mis-selling of PPI or accidents. Tetrus did not make any effort to show that the recipients had given consent, or that they retained records of consent. It did not even register with ICO under the Data Protection Act 1998 as a controller of data.

For 10 years, it has been unlawful to use text messages for direct marketing unless the recipient has either asked for, or consented to, the communication. While the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 gave ICO the power to impose monetary penalties of up to £500,000, there are certain preconditions. First, the contravention must be serious and it must also be

“of a kind likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress.”

The appeals judge unfortunately decided to overturn the £140,000 penalty, as there were problems with the words “likely” and “substantial distress”. The judge ruled that the effect of the text messages was likely to cause

“widespread irritation but not widespread distress.”

That is an extremely worrying judgment that effectively gives a green light to any spam texter to send thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of unsolicited texts, as long as they are careful not to use distressing wording. That seems to be the only point in the judgment on which there is a point of debate. If nothing else I say today is accepted, movement on this issue would be welcome.

My next point is on industry action and on those industries involved in making calls. Many of the calls sent by Tetrus were attempting to generate leads for claims management companies. Those companies are now regulated by the claims management regulator. I mention that only to point out that it is a good example to follow. Claims management texts are on the wane and there is a reason for that. As a condition of the authorisation of a claims management company, they must:

“comply with the Conduct of Authorised Persons Rules 2013.”

I have a copy here and I need only read 30 words from this excellent document, because they say:

“Cold calling in person is prohibited. Any other cold calling, by telephone, email, fax or text, shall be in accordance with the direct marketing associations’ direct marketing code of practice.”

Those 30 words will hopefully have effectively dealt with texts from CMCs, because if their registration depends on abiding by the rules, it is amazing how the mind can be focused. That is why, when the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills was writing a report into payday lenders, I managed to sneak a recommendation into it. It said:

“We recommend that the FCA…discusses with the Information Commissioners Office…to establish the extent of bad practice”— in the area of direct marketing.

“We…recommend that the FCA devises and issues a guidance note for payday lenders along similar lines to that established by the Claims Management Regulator in its Marketing and Advertising Guidance.”

The problem here is that we should not have to do it piecemeal—bit by bit, for each sector of industry. We should be able to set that at ICO level, where we are dealing with the method of making those calls.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Just before the hon. Gentleman progresses, I should gently point out to him that he has spoken for over half an hour and, while the House appreciates the importance and intricacy of the points he is making, I know that he will bear in mind that several other Members would like to speak this afternoon. While I do not urge him to conclude his remarks immediately, he might be thinking about drawing to a conclusion in due course.

Photo of Michael Crockart Michael Crockart Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

I thank you for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am heading towards to my last few points, I promise.

The reason for slipping in that recommendation is that when we took evidence from payday lenders I had put them on the spot and asked them whether they engaged in this sort of direct marketing. They said, “Oh no, of course not. We wouldn’t do that.” I went back through my texts, therefore, and found nine directing me to a website offering payday loans:—don’t go there! On that website, I filled in details asking for a £200 loan over a month and pressed the button, “Get your cash”—not “Apply”, but “Get your cash”—expecting to be quoted a £50 charge, as advertised on the payday lender sites. Instead, I was directed to the QuickQuid website, which was one of the companies that gave evidence, where I was offered £400 over three months at a total cost of £754.

I left it at that, because I did not think it was a particularly good deal—I did not even press any buttons on the second website—but I then received e-mails and texts as follows: Tuesday 5 November, 1.16 pm, an e-mail saying there was one more step to take; same day and time, an e-mail giving me pre-contract information; half an hour later, a text urging me to sign the contract; 15 minutes later, a call from America urging me to sign up, which I declined; 20 minutes later, another e-mail giving me pre-contract information; the next day, at 6.32 am, an e-mail saying, “Hurry, application expiring soon”; at 7.59 am, another e-mail with pre-contract information; at 12.9 pm, another e-mail with account log-in information. That was worrying enough, but I then thought, “Well, is this website just a front for QuickQuid?” so I went on again, only this time I made up details. I called myself Boris Peep and made a further application. I put in my constituency address and immediately started getting texts saying “Hi, Boris. Your application has been approved.” So a made-up person ended up being approved for a payday loan. It is very worrying and needs urgent action.

The telecoms industry also needs to take action. It is time that some of them stopped looking on themselves almost as delivery companies—“As long as you pay the postage, you can send any old rubbish you like. In fact, the more the better, as we will charge you for each packet.” The industry needs to take responsibility for the nuisance calls it is delivering daily, and some have decided to do exactly that, which is welcome. In mobile circles, if someone receives a spam text, they can forward it using the short code 7726, and the date is aggregated and forwarded to the Information Commissioner’s Office. I want that model replicated for landlines. In our evidence session, we asked Warren Buckley from BT whether we could have it, and he said:

“From our point of view first of all I would have to set up a whole new service” and

“work out where I’m going to hold that data… I’m not suggesting we can’t do it, and I’m not suggesting that we won’t do it,” but

“it’s extremely difficult for us to do.”

I went on to BT’s website and found a helpful BT calling features user guide, which told me about its “choose to refuse” service, which lets people choose who gets through:

“Choose to Refuse lets you put a stop to nuisance or unwanted calls by stopping them from getting through to you. You can block up to ten numbers.”

To do this, customers dial 14258**, and the number is added to a database. That does not sound too onerous or difficult.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the telephone companies are receiving the revenue from 1 billion nuisance calls a year, there is little incentive for them to throttle that profitable supply of calls?

Photo of Michael Crockart Michael Crockart Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

I believe the expression is: you might suggest that, but I could not possibly comment.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

May I comment? [Laughter.]

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

Is not the point that the customer is effectively being charged and required to take action that the company should be taking without such a charge?

Photo of Michael Crockart Michael Crockart Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

That is an excellent point, and one I will come to very shortly, as my final point, I promise.

Returning to Warren Buckley’s comments, I presumed it was difficult because other companies did different things, making it harder to ensure consistency, so I looked at what TalkTalk did. It has a product called “last caller barring”. To use it, the customer dials 1425, and confirms by dialling **, after the number they want to block has called. It sounded remarkably similar to BT, so I went to Sky where its calls feature summary says that Sky has last caller barring, but it costs £3.55 a month. To bar a number following a call, one has to dial—gosh!—14258 followed by **. Exactly what I want is already here; it is just that the telecoms companies are doing it independently and charging for it. It should not be that difficult to take this issue forward. I say to Ministers that some in the industry will say that doing this is too difficult, too technical and too costly, but I hope they that will not be distracted or dissuaded. The companies are doing this already, but charging for it. They should not be allowed to get away with it.

Finally, let me deal with helping our most vulnerable consumers. Right now in the UK, 100,000 people are being targeted over and over again by fraudsters. Their names and numbers appear on a “suckers list”, which is sold at premium rates among the criminal community. If criminals were repeatedly targeting these people by breaking into their homes, there would rightly be an outcry, and action would surely follow. Because they are being targeted by phone, however, we seem content to stand by and make excuses—excuses such as “All moneys collected from fines must be returned to the Treasury Consolidated Fund”—that means £2.36 million since 2010—or “We do not have the authority to establish a fund or a direct industry to do this”, or “Spending is severely restricted across Departments”.

As I mentioned, pilot schemes on trading standards in Angus, East Dunbartonshire and East Renfrewshire council areas saw call-blocking technology installed on vulnerable consumers’ domestic phone lines. The results of the trial show that up to 98% of nuisance calls were blocked, giving those people significantly better control over their lives and their safety. In its report, “Mind the Gap”, Age Scotland has called for this scheme to be rolled out nationwide, and I agree. We are not talking about a huge number of people or a huge sum of money, so I issue a challenge today— and not just to Government, but to local authorities, telecoms providers and manufacturers of call-blocking technology. Surely together, we can find the resources to protect these most vulnerable people in our society. I can always press delete or hang up for another few months until regulations are tightened or behaviour is improved, but unless we act, someone’s mother or grandfather will lose their life savings tomorrow.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 3:02 pm, 16th January 2014

I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate. I congratulate Mike Crockart on bringing the matter forward so comprehensively, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for arranging the debate.

I have some sympathy for Ministers—I do not often say that—because this issue is undoubtedly a complex one that covers many areas and for which there is no simple solution. As has been said, the scale of the problem is huge and the data appear to be contradictory. The regulators told the all-party group that they receive 6,000 complaints a month, yet BT told us that it receives—the hon. Gentleman corrected the figure I cited in an intervention—about 50,000 calls a month to its nuisance calls bureau, so clearly there is a disconnect. The reason why people are calling BT but not the regulators might be that many still identify BT as the national phone operator, or it might be that the regulators have failed to get the message across that they are responsible for dealing with the problem. The situation is further complicated by the fact that there are two regulators for different aspects of the issue, although their websites direct to each other’s as required. Part of the problem is that this situation has gone on for so long that people have simply got fed up and no longer trust the regulator to deal with it. That is serious, because we need the regulators to work with the Government and get things done.

Politicians should be slightly careful when talking about this matter because it is not unknown for political parties to use telephone canvassing. What we may see as democracy others might view as nuisance calls. Indeed, I received a telephone call during the 2010 election on behalf of a Conservative candidate asking me whether I would prefer the current Prime Minister or the previous Prime Minister to be in charge of the UK. I leave it to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to imagine my response, but suffice it to say there was no box to tick for “a plague on both your houses”. That illustrates that those calling may have done little or no research into who their victims are.

I have been approached by many constituents who have been on the receiving end of nuisance calls. They are often keen to describe the adverse effect that those calls have had on them. All of us are victims. Like many, I have been registered with the Telephone Preference Service for years, but I still receive many nuisance calls, which are clearly targeted at specific times. In my house, we usually receive them in the early evening. Often the person who has made the call will start by uttering the immortal words, “We are not trying to sell you anything,” to which the appropriate response is to say, “Aye, right,” before putting down the receiver. Sometimes, however, we receive so many calls in quick succession that we do not answer the phone and leave the answering machine to pick up the calls.

I got so fed up that I invested in one of BT’s fancy phones that allow people to screen out such calls, but they are only a partial solution, because they can screen out only certain types of call or specific numbers. For example, it is possible to block all international calls or calls with no caller identification, but that obviously presents difficulties, as many organisations—including Parliament—withhold numbers automatically, and many of my constituents have friends or family members overseas and therefore cannot use the international facility. The only other option is to block individual telephone numbers, but the number that can be entered is very limited, so given the volume of calls that can be received, that will not deal with the problem. It is also difficult to find out what callers’ numbers are without caller line identification, and many of the numbers appear to be bogus in any event. Increasingly often, the CLI number turns out to be bogus, especially if voice over internet protocol is used to generate a false number.

Of particular concern is the number of elderly people who receive such calls. Many of those who contact me feel that they are being specifically targeted. That might well be true, although it is also possible that they receive more calls because they are in during the day. A recent trial of call-blocking technology by my local authority, Angus council, found that 40% of calls received by the elderly were nuisance calls. There is a serious problem that many elderly people who receive such calls are persuaded to sign up for specific services or contracts. In some cases, elderly people have signed up to numerous contracts to insure the same washing machine, for instance, and found themselves in a very difficult position.

Elderly people are especially upset by silent or abandoned calls—when they answer the telephone and no one is there. Unlike marketing calls, which are the responsibility of the Information Commissioner, those kinds of calls are the responsibility of Ofcom. Many elderly people feel threatened and fearful when they receive such calls because they do not understand that they are simply a marketing device. Regulations under the Communications Act 2003 were intended to limit the number of calls that are abandoned because no live agent is available to answer them. They set out that a recorded message must be delivered when that happens, but my experience of receiving such calls is that the line often simply goes dead, with no recorded message, which is a clear breach of regulations. Given that most nuisance calls are made during the day, elderly people are more likely to receive silent calls. The 3% limit for which the regulations provide still allows a huge number of calls to be received by the elderly so that needs to be tackled.

Elderly people may experience more specific problems. One of my elderly constituents who had difficulty with her hearing received a call that she thought was her energy company offering the renewal of a contract involving her gas boiler. She was persuaded to provide her bank details, and it was only later, when she thought about it, that the call seemed a bit strange to her. A check with her energy company confirmed that it had not made the call—indeed, it said that it never made such calls—and my constituent had to go to the trouble of rearranging her bank account to ensure that she was not a victim of a scam. Luckily, no money left the account on that occasion, but many people may be taken in by such calls.

I used to receive regular scam calls—emanating, I think, from overseas—in which an agitated individual claimed that he was from Microsoft. He said that my computer was sending a message that it was under attack from a virus and urged me to enter codes to stop it. I would not claim to be especially computer literate, but I am not that daft, so the caller was given short shrift, but again it was impossible to get details of who was actually phoning. That sort of scam might well take in people who are not confident with computers but use them for things such as internet shopping.

The fact that such a call originated from overseas illustrates one of the huge difficulties with this issue. Guy Opperman talked about calls coming in during the early hours of the morning, and I wonder if the real reason is that an automated caller from overseas has not correctly accounted for the time difference, because no one in their right mind would try to sell something at 1 am. Whatever Ofcom and the Government might do in this area, it is unlikely to have much impact unless they can get co-operation and action from other Governments and regulators.

When the all-party group asked BT whether it could block overseas nuisance calls, it said that the vast majority of such calls do not carry caller line identification, so it would not know what to block. It apparently can block all calls without CLI, but it made the point that many overseas networks do not support CLI, meaning that it would be blocking all calls from certain parts of the world, which would clearly be impractical.

As the hon. Member for Edinburgh West pointed out, many UK companies operate overseas call centres that phone into the UK, which adds another dimension to the problem of blocking overseas calls. These companies must take some responsibility for the overseas call centres that they operate—or, more likely, to which they give business, as in some jurisdictions there are huge call centres that work for many companies. Companies must have some responsibility to look at who they are employing and to ensure that they are complying with regulations.

Such a huge international dimension can be dealt with only through international agreement and action, so I will be interested to hear from the Minister what progress is being made to tackle the problem, and especially about what discussions have been undertaken with the Governments and regulators in overseas countries such as India, which host many of these call centres.

The all-party group also made it abundantly clear to BT that we thought that it was inappropriate, to put it mildly, that it was in the process of introducing a charge for its caller line identification service, which had previously been free to many users. Of course it is true that some companies, such as TalkTalk, do not charge, so consumers may wish to consider that when they are arranging a service. However, it is also the case that BT, through Openreach, operates far and away the largest part of the network, and it probably still has the majority of customers. What discussions has the Minister had with BT about that issue and what pressure he can put on it to reconsider its decision? As has been said, telephone companies can generate a great deal of revenue from this practice, so some responsibility on their part would not go amiss.

I think that many of us were quite surprised about some of the evidence about the TPS. Clearly many people, including some members of the all-party group, did not fully understand the terms of the system, especially the fact that if someone ticks a box saying that they will be happy to receive information from a company—or, indeed, that that company may pass information on to other companies—that is treated as overriding the terms of the TPS and can, it seems, open a huge new range of companies that can legitimately telephone people. Clearly some companies were using that loophole which, it seems to me, brings the whole of the TPS into disrepute.

Indeed, it appears that many companies are acting as phishing agents by operating specifically for the purpose of obtaining information that can be sold on to other companies—so-called lead generation. That is an abuse of the regulations. We recommend action to clean up that part of the industry through an accreditation scheme, but I feel that we need to look at the situation much more closely and, in particular, at how information about what will be done with the details gathered is given to those targeted by such companies. Again, people who take on services should be given a clear statement. The hon. Member for Edinburgh West pointed out the difficulties about wording, but a statement saying simply, “If you tick this box, your data will be passed on and you may receive marketing calls,” would make it clear to people what they were signing up to or not opting out of, which would be a great step forward. Much of the problem could be dealt with by giving people such clear statements.

I also believe that any consent should be given for only a limited period. It has been pointed out that when people give consent, it seems to last for ever. Why should it not have to be renewed at regular intervals? Someone might not remember ticking—or failing to tick—a box when buying something on the internet in the distant past. They might not realise that they had given their consent, and they will continue to receive calls without realising why. We should reverse the system to ensure that that consent had to be actively renewed. I wonder how many people would do that, having received such calls for a year.

I know that the Minister has been working on a strategy to deal with the problem, and I would be interested to know what action the Government are considering. I said at the outset that I had some sympathy with him. I would not like to be the one who had to come up a system that we could all work with and that satisfied everyone in the Chamber and in the industry. However, this issue of huge concern to our constituents needs to be tackled. Like the hon. Member for Edinburgh West, I appreciate that an economic argument is involved. Some of my constituents work in call centres. We have to strike a balance but, at the moment, the balance seems to go against the people receiving the calls, rather than those who are making them, and that needs to be addressed.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Vice-Chair, Conservative 1922 Committee 3:16 pm, 16th January 2014

I congratulate Mike Crockart on securing the debate. This matter is clearly the cause of great annoyance and anger, and it results in complaints from a large number of people. I suspect that Members of Parliament are no different from any other member of the public in this regard. I started getting calls some time ago asking me whether I wanted to make a claim for having been mis-sold payment protection insurance. I found that a little puzzling as I had never had PPI, but I then discovered that the calls were made indiscriminately and bore no relation to whether the recipients had actually bought the product. That is probably the most common kind of nuisance call, although it is not exceptional.

I also want to congratulate Which?It has been very effective in raising awareness of this issue and has mounted a good campaign. I went on to Radio 5 Live to debate the issue with some of the main regulators, and the extent of the problem and the strength of feeling about it became apparent from the calls to the programme. It was then that I suggested the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport might investigate it. The hon. Member for Edinburgh West and my hon. Friend Alun Cairns also founded the all-party parliamentary group on nuisance calls, which has held its inquiry in parallel with ours. All those investigations have contributed to the recommendations that we will be debating.

It is important to point out that there are perfectly legitimate reasons why, in principle, there should be cold calling. Some people have said that we should just ban it, but, early in our inquiry, the National Autistic Society pleaded with us not to do that, saying that cold calling was one of its most effective fundraising methods. There are legitimate reasons for cold calling, including fundraising and using it for political purposes. We had an interesting debate in the Select Committee when Mr Bradshaw, who cannot be here today, told us that about once a week he rang up a number of his constituents at random to ask them their views and to discuss whatever was going on at the time. We debated whether that came under the definition of nuisance calling, and we decided that it did not, because it was part of the job of a Member of Parliament to keep in touch with his constituents. There are reasons why people should make unsolicited calls, and I certainly would not want to ban them.

One also has to assume that it is of some benefit to some people that they receive calls to ask whether they have been mis-sold payment protection insurance. One has to assume that these companies would not be making these calls unless some people said, “I am so glad you rang. Yes, I was mis-sold PPI and I would like you to help me.” If these companies had got no custom and simply annoyed every person they called, the exercise would seem fairly pointless. One therefore has to assume that some people will welcome these calls, but that does not justify the scattergun approach whereby these companies appear to be calling millions of people across the population and identifying perhaps one in 1,000 who welcome the call.

My Committee was presented with compelling evidence—the hon. Member for Edinburgh West referred to some of it—about the scale of the problem: 85% of the population had received a cold call in the previous month, with the average number of calls being about seven a month. That is an enormous amount, and it is not surprising that the number of complaints about this issue has increased dramatically in the past few years. Some 62% of the unsolicited calls relate to PPI, so that specific driver has led to a large number of the complaints.

I do not want to repeat the hon. Gentleman’s comprehensive speech, as he went through the various component parts of the problem and possible solutions in detail. The Committee concluded that there was no single magic bullet to deal with the problem; it could be broken down into a number of different parts and in each case there was an argument for strengthening the regulation and increasing the protection available to consumers. I will briefly go through the four relevant areas, which have been covered by him and by Mr Weir.

Like the hon. Member for Angus, I understand why people who have gone to the trouble of registering with the telephone preference service, having been told that by doing so they will be sending a message that they do wish to receive calls, are deeply irritated when they go on receiving them. We were concerned to be told that even though somebody may register with the TPS, that expression of their wish can somehow be deemed to have been overruled because they happen to have ticked a box at another time, often when they are buying a completely different product and are asked whether or not they wish to receive marketing calls relating to products from that producer or, indeed, from third parties. I was interested to hear the results of the research that the hon. Member for Edinburgh West had done on various companies’ practices as to whether the default is to say that people want these things. That is part of the problem: people register with the TPS, think that they have made sure that they will not get any of these calls and then tick a box, perhaps a few days or weeks later, which results in the expression of their wish expressed through the TPS being overruled and in their starting to get these calls again.

One thing we talked to the Information Commissioner’s Office about was the extent to which companies should be able to claim that a TPS preference had been overruled by a subsequent action. The ICO has already begun to take on cases relating to that area, arguing that the consumer’s wish has been improperly overlooked. There may be scope to do more, particularly through the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, which I am sure the Minister will mention. The Committee also looked at whether there should be an expiry time: where someone gives consent to say they are happy to receive these calls, is that for time immemorial or should a renewal be required after six months?

The Committee thought that the simplest solution, which I would like to see applied more widely, is that where a complaint is made against a company for making unsolicited calls, that company should be required to show the consent—it should show why it has called that individual. The company should be able to produce evidence to show that the individual had given consent to be called, particularly if they were registered under the TPS. That would be a simple requirement for the ICO to enforce to deal with some of this confusion over whether consent had or had not been given.

The next component is the technological opportunity to obtain information about who is calling or to block people making calls. Ofcom published a useful table that goes through all the various services offered by different operators, such as caller display, incoming call blocking, anonymous call rejection and last-caller identification. It also shows whether the major providers offer those services and whether they do so free or charge for them. As this has become such a matter of public controversy and concern, it is healthy that operators are now beginning to compete, as part of their own marketing, by telling consumers the protections they offer.

Yesterday, TalkTalk announced that it is to become the first and only internet service provider to make all landline privacy calling features completely free. There may be some argument over whether other operators offer free services or charge for them, but the fact that TalkTalk clearly thinks it is in its interests to market its services by offering such protections free to its customers can only be a good thing. We were concerned when BT, having told us about the services that it offers, particularly caller line identification, announced that it was changing the terms of its contract and that some people would be required to pay for that feature. That seemed a retrograde step. Although it is a matter for BT, we none the less expressed a very strong view that BT and all other telecoms providers should provide that kind of service to their customers free, and that there are clear market advantages in so doing.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh West also talked about the ease with which it is possible to report a nuisance telephone call to one’s telephone service provider. As it happens, I got one yesterday by text message and I used the 7726 service, which is easy to use on a mobile telephone. It was suggested to us, as it was to the hon. Gentleman, that that was much more difficult to do with landline calls, but, as he said, similar services are already available. For example, people can dial a number as soon as they have received a call to ensure that it is blocked next time. A reporting system of that kind should be relatively simple to operate. I accept that there may be greater and different challenges as we move towards more internet protocol telephony, but I have every confidence that the telecommunications companies in this country have the ability to overcome the challenges and develop protections should they choose to do so.

The Committee also looked at the confusion that undoubtedly exists over where responsibility lies. There are different bodies, all of which have some role in accepting complaints and enforcing regulations. Although we did not agree with some people who said that there should be a single regulator, we did think that there should be a single point of entry for the consumer, so that the consumer does not have to sit down and think, “Should I ring up Ofcom or go to the Information Commissioner’s Office or the telephone preference service?” There should be a single front-facing telephone number for consumers, so that if they get a nuisance call, they can report it and then the people at the other end of the phone can work out which is the appropriate body to pursue the complaint.

Finally, there is the question of enforcement. It may well be that more resources are needed to deal with the sheer volume of complaints. I agree with the hon. Member for Angus that the number of people who bother to make a complaint are a small fraction of those who suffer nuisance calls. For every person who complains, there are at least another 10 who feel that this is one of the irritations of life that they can do nothing about, and so do not bother to make a complaint. There is a case for Ofcom and the ICO to concentrate more on this area and to deploy more resources. To help them, it may also be necessary for us to lower the threshold for enforcement action. It has been suggested that rather than having a threshold that requires substantial damage and distress to be proven, all that should be required is the ability to show that it has caused annoyance, inconvenience and anxiety. Once that has been demonstrated, perhaps there should be higher penalties. When there are repeat offenders, repeat penalties should be imposed.

A large number of different measures can be taken. No single one will sort the problem out, but taken together they should have a real impact. They were set out, very well, in the report by the all-party group. That suggestion was repeated by my Select Committee, which made a number of similar recommendations and one or two different ones. I hope that both reports will have helped to inform the Government and we look forward with keen anticipation to the Minister’s response, who will, I hope, set out what the Government intend to do.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 3:30 pm, 16th January 2014

Let me begin by apologising to the House, as I will have to leave at 4 o’clock to go to a parents’ evening. I cannot depute that to my husband because he is in hospital this week.

I congratulate Mike Crockart on the excellent campaign he has run and on his work on the all-party group on nuisance calls, which I was pleased to support and contribute to, albeit in a minor capacity. He has done well to bring the matter to the attention of colleagues and it is also good that the Backbench Business Committee understood how many complaints Members on both sides of the House were receiving.

The report by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is also extremely useful and I congratulate the Chair of the Committee, Mr Whittingdale. Outside this House, excellent work has been done by Which?,by David Hickson and by Ofcom. We debated the issue about a year ago in Westminster Hall, but this afternoon’s debate is better informed because of all the work that has been done.

The Chair of the Select Committee is, of course, right that marketing calls are a necessary means of reaching consumers in the modern world, but the number of nuisance calls has exploded and seems to be up threefold since 2010. The calls range from irritating spam texts to distressing hard-sell calls for so-called services such as payday loans. As Mr Speaker might say, the public do not like it. Which? has secured 109,000 signatures in support of its campaign. Such calls are the No. 1 complaint received by Ofcom and, as hon. Members have said, are a particular issue for pensioners.

Ofcom’s survey found that 80% of people were affected by the problem and more than half the people who sign up to the Telephone Preference Service continue to receive nuisance calls. That brings into question the effectiveness of the TPS. This is the sort of practical issue that any competent Government ought to be able to sort out. There are no big political issues here. It is a shame that the Government have not introduced the communications Bill that they have been talking about for more than three years, which could have dealt with the issue speedily, and I am pleased that the House is taking a lead this afternoon.

One of the key underlying issues is the Government’s failure to take seriously the privacy of individual citizens and the protection of personal data. Let me quote the second paragraph of the Select Committee’s report, which expresses this extremely well. It states:

“A significant underlying feature giving rise to nuisance calls is the unfair processing of personal data, something that is proscribed by the Data Protection Act 1998. Such processing includes obtaining a customer’s ‘consent’ to receive unsolicited marketing calls in ways that are at best opaque and at worst dishonest. It also includes trading personal data with companies lacking in scruples.”

The problem runs far wider than nuisance phone calls. A key modern marketing tool is the collection, use and selling on of personal data. The Minister and I have debated that previously, because the Government are currently resisting European Union proposals to give people more effective control over their personal data. We still have not had a proper explanation. Are they adopting a Eurosceptic posture, or are they being lobbied heavily by big business? Neelie Kroes, the commissioner responsible, proposes that an individual must give their explicit consent for the use of personal data. It is significant that the Select Committee has now reported that the current law is being evaded and that new legislation is needed.

The Secretary of State for Justice described the EU proposals as “mad”. I would like to ask the Minister whether the Government have yet changed their mind and whether they will commit to new legislation on the matter. It was good to see Simon Hughes, who has just been appointed as a Justice Minister, here earlier. I have corresponded with his predecessors on the matter but, frankly, found that rather unsatisfactory. I hope that the officials in the Box will draw that correspondence to his attention and ask him to look at the matter again. I have high hopes that he will take a fresh look at it and place greater emphasis on the importance of protecting people’s personal data.

We believe that new legislation is needed for explicit consent on a wider definition of personal data, and we are attracted to the idea, put forward by Which?, that there should be a time limit beyond which that consent expires. Three months might be a little on the short side, but I think that some sort of time limit would be a good idea. In the meantime, as the Select Committee has said, the Information Commissioner should use his existing powers more energetically.

A key tool for people to make complaints and to protect themselves by not answering unwanted calls is calling line identification. The privacy package introduced by TalkTalk this week shows some of what is possible. Furthermore, both the Select Committee and the all-party group were right to criticise BT’s introduction of charges on 1571 calls and on caller display. At a time when the public are facing a cost of living crisis, a monthly charge of £1.75 for CLI is just another bill that people cannot afford. A bill of £21 a year is quite unjustified. During the all-party group’s evidence sessions, I asked what the cost of doing that across the board would be, and the industry was unable to tell us. I have since learnt that, depending on the technology, costs might range between zero and a one-off set-up cost of £1. For BT, therefore, it could not possibly cost more than 0.4% of its total annual profits of £2.5 billion.

Mike Crockart pointed out the full range of charges currently being made by all the companies, from £3 for this to £4 for that, and the numbers really add up. Will the Government now act to require the provision of calling line identification for free? We support the recommendation of the Select Committee and the all-party group to do that.

Prevention is better than cure. Currently, the marketing sector is incentivised to exceed the 3% abandoned calls rule and the withholding of caller ID, even though that is part of the Direct Marketing Association’s code of practice. The Select Committee recommends putting that code into legislation. Will the Government now commit to doing that?

In our previous debate, we discussed the need for one single complaints portal and a seamless operation, with data sharing between the ICO and Ofcom. When will the Minister bring forward legislation to facilitate such information-sharing between the two regulators? For the public, there must be a one-stop shop, and obviously this must not be solely an online service. It could be based on the co-regulatory model, funded by industry, as proposed by the all-party group and the Select Committee, not least because co-operation among the telephone companies would facilitate the tracing of more calls. It would also be sensible to lower the threshold for action from “substantial damage and distress” to

“nuisance, annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety”, as recommended by the Information Commissioner. It is also worth ensuring that fines are imposed on and paid by those exceeding the 3% abandoned calls limit—and, as the Select Committee has said, persistent offenders should be repeatedly hit.

It is absolutely clear from this debate that nuisance calls are a very serious problem, especially for vulnerable and elderly people living at home alone. People are upset to be offered so-called services they do not and hope never to need, such as accident claims. They cause anxiety and distress. Simple solutions that do not add to bills and the cost of living crisis are needed. There seems to be an emerging consensus that the Government need to toughen up the legislation. DCMS Ministers have delayed in bringing forward a Bill, and I hope that the Minister will now commit to doing so. The time for research and reflection has been fulfilled; the time for action is now.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester 3:42 pm, 16th January 2014

Everybody has their favourite moment in terms of nuisance calls. Mine came one new year’s day in the late 1980s, when, as duty officer at the British high commission in Nairobi, I was woken at 3 am by a gentleman on a crackling line from the Indian ocean coast assuring me that he had a vital issue on which he needed my help—he wanted to know the result of the previous day’s Liverpool-Manchester United game, on which he had a small bet with a neighbour.

This debate is about an issue that concerns Members in all parts of the House. Helen Goodman, in an otherwise interesting speech containing two ideas on which I share her views, had a brief go at trying to make it a party political debate, but it is not that. Nor is it only a Scottish matter, as was somewhat suggested by Mike Crockart being swiftly followed by Mr Weir; it happens in all parts of the country. I want to highlight a couple of specific issues and then outline three or four recommendations, at least one of which has already been mentioned, for the Minister to mull over during this important debate.

In November, one of my constituents, Mrs Jill Smith, wrote to me saying,

“As you know we changed our number in the summer & have listed 9 such calls since the 16th Sep. on our new number. It never stops & is worse for the elderly at home all the time.”

Sadly, as all hon. Members will know, the issues that Jill Smith raised with me after she changed her telephone number and registered with the Telephone Preference Service by no means represent an isolated case. If we quantify her problem around the country, we see that it has increased enormously. Statistics revealed by a written question to the Minister at the end of last year show that the number of calls where a recorded voice was heard increased from 1,640 in 2009 to 59,447 in 2013-14, and that the number of calls where a consumer spoke to a person increased from 1,735 to 40,231. The increases in both cases were very similar and there was an enormous, gigantic increase—a big leap forward—in the leap year of 2012-13.

The situation has got worse and the hon. Member for Edinburgh West, whom I congratulate on securing the debate, has highlighted that regulators receive about 6,000 complaints a month. BT estimates that it receives about 50,000 calls a month to its nuisance calls bureau, including, no doubt, a large number of nuisance-like calls complaining about significant nuisance calls, so the number of nuisance calls and nuisance calls about nuisance calls becomes an increasingly circular frustration and irritation for all involved. We all agree that the worst affected are the elderly and the vulnerable. When it comes to dealing with nuisance calls, the Ofcom online guide will not necessarily help many of those worst affected, because they are not online.

During the course of my research for this debate, I discovered—I am sure many other Members found this, too—that regulatory responsibilities are split between several agencies: Ofcom is responsible for taking action on abandoned and silent calls and for maintaining the TPS; the Information Commissioner’s Office takes action against companies that breach the TPS and follows up on consumer complaints; the claims management regulator has a responsibility, because the vast majority of calls are from claims management companies; the Office of Fair Trading regulates debt management companies; the National Fraud Authority and/or the police are responsible for taking action on scams and fraudulent activities; and PhoneplayPlus is responsible for premium rate numbers.

One cannot help reaching the tentative conclusion that six different bodies—seven, if one includes the TPS—is too many. It is time for the Government to consider who is ultimately responsible for tackling the problem, which is a problem of practical politics rather than party politics. It relates to implementation and reducing the number of people who have some responsibility to a much smaller number with complete responsibility. That is my first point, having looked into the business of nuisance calls.

My second point relates to the TPS, which, in concept, is a brilliant idea. There are 19.5 million numbers registered with the TPS and it is free. It has to be a good thing, but the question is whether it is still fit for purpose. The June edition of Which? said that the TPS is failing to cut off nuisance calls—we all know that that is true: Jill Smith’s letter makes that clear—which leaves 57% of those registered with the service unhappy. The head of the TPS, John Mitchison, told The Guardian last year:

“It has eradicated lots of unwelcome calls…But the rules are complex, have loopholes, are split between agencies, tend to lag technology advances, and have been low priority.”

Numbers registered with the TPS have to wait 28 days before a breach counts, which raises a practical question: could not the TPS be updated in real time? On market research, perhaps it does not behove a politician to suggest that it should be banned—legitimate opinion pollsters have a role to play—but there is an issue.

An ICO review of the TPS was due this spring, but Ofcom has said that it will now be released this summer. The definition of summer sometimes stretches out during the course of a year, so the Minister will no doubt want to comment on when he expects the review to be delivered. It is important and I think it will lead to other opportunities, which I will touch on in a moment.

Another point is about possible conflicts of interest. BT, which is keen to block persistent offenders, is concerned about being in breach of the universal service agreement. That area could perhaps be tightened up.

I turn now to the whole business of trying to make recommendations about how things could be improved. First, we can all agree that there are too many nuisance calls and that the number ought to be reduced. We know that our constituents want them to be eliminated or reduced as much as possible.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh West referred to the fact that some telephone companies charge for services that ban numbers from ringing us, particularly at home, which is disconcerting. I am encouraged, however, by the fact that my hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale mentioned a change in policy by TalkTalk, which suggests that it may lead the way to other telephone companies recognising that such services should be provided to consumers free of charge.

Secondly, on rationalisation of the regulators, there are too many bodies with different responsibilities, and there is a need to simplify and clarify the system. Thirdly, there is a particular opportunity to look at whether the TPS should be a separate organisation or effectively merged with the ICO. Fourthly, as a couple of speakers have mentioned, the ICO currently has the ability to fine offenders, but the reality is that one was fined in 2012 and three in 2013. I think that we all therefore want the threshold to be lowered. Whether the change is a legal or a practical one, nuisance callers should be fined on the basis of anxiety and stress as defined by the consumer. That gives the Minister four opportunities on which to respond.

I conclude by returning to Mrs Jill Smith. The Minister kindly replied to my letter, stating that

“we believe in greater enforcement and robust action rather than sweeping changes to the regulatory framework”.

In an answer to a written question, he promised an action plan early in the new year. Today, we are indeed early-ish in the new year.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

It is indeed time for action. I very much look forward to hearing more from the Minister about a robust action plan—I know that he cares and that he wants to solve this problem—so that Mrs Jill Smith and many others like her can look forward to a new year free from nuisance calls.

Photo of Pat Glass Pat Glass Labour, North West Durham 3:52 pm, 16th January 2014

Nuisance calls are probably the thing about which I receive most complaints over the year. If I look at the number of contacts I get from my constituents, I probably get more calls only in relation to badgers. Every time I go to a luncheon club or a supported living scheme, or anything where elderly people gather together, it seems as though getting nuisance calls is the No. 1 thing that they want to talk about. Two elderly constituents contacted me this week to tell me that they get such calls on average about once an hour.

We heard earlier about the very worrying trend of calls that are made during the night. I do not know what it is like in other Members’ houses, but at 10 o’clock at night, if I am not in the Chamber for a debate or to vote, I am in bed. I am an early riser, and I like to be in bed at 10 o’clock. If I get a call after 10 o’clock, I am alarmed—I think, “Oh, what’s wrong? It’s my mother. It’s the grandkids.” That is how most of us feel if we get calls after 10 o’clock, so calls at 2.30 or 3.30 am involve an alarm factor. We have also heard about elderly constituents’ concerns about being confused or perhaps subject to falls after getting up in the middle of the night, so if people are getting calls at that time, it represents a worrying trend.

My elderly constituents tell me that they do not like marketing calls or unsolicited texts, but that it is the silent calls that cause them the greatest alarm. Quite honestly, if people are living alone, such calls frighten them. I have received one or two silent calls myself and they are not pleasant.

I sympathise with the Minister because the legislation is extremely complex, although I did not realise quite how complex it was until I heard the detailed speech made by Mike Crockart. I thought that I had a reasonable attention span, but I could not follow his description through to its conclusion. I intend to get hold of Hansard tomorrow because his contribution was incredibly helpful, not least because he gave the numbers to which people can report these matters. He gave a masterclass in how to take the House through a complex area of legislation and regulation. Until today, I was not entirely clear about who people should complain to.

When I have asked constituents to get hold of a phone number so that I can refer it on, they often tell me that it is withheld. We also have to remember that people have incredibly busy lives. The Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Mr Whittingdale, said that for everybody who makes a complaint, there will be 10 people who do not have the time to do so, but I think that the figure is probably closer to 50. When I receive these texts and get irritated by them, I think to myself that I will complain, but then life piles in and I find that I do not have the time.

There appear to be problems involving enforcement and deterrence. Sir Andrew Stunell said that the people who commission nuisance calls are “careless”. He was absolutely right, as they could not care less, but they are not stupid, so they are clearly making a profit out of the practice. Even if the calls are illegal, they could not care less, because they continue to make profits. There does not seem to be any deterrent or enforcement that will make them stop.

We have heard good suggestions of what the Government could do to deal with this problem, including from the Chair of the Select Committee and my neighbour, my hon. Friend Helen Goodman. However, I do not think that the problem will stop, so if it does not, we simply have to hit the companies hard in the pocket. We could name and shame companies. We saw what happened to companies such as Starbucks when the public heard about their attitude to paying tax in this country: people simply walked past and bought their coffee somewhere else. Naming and shaming companies in a way that would have an impact on their profits might be how to deal with the problem. If this is to be taken seriously, we need to hit the people at the top of these organisations and make an example of them.

The current situation is complex and what we are doing is not working. Our constituents are being harassed on a daily basis. I am encouraged by the body language of the Minister because he is indicating that he will do something—that the time for talking is over and now is the time for action. I hope that the debate will give the Government the impetus they need to take action to prevent nuisance calls and protect our constituents, especially our elderly constituents.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove 3:58 pm, 16th January 2014

I apologise to the House for arriving a few minutes late at the start of the debate and to my hon. Friend Mike Crockart for missing a few minutes of his tour de force. I did catch the final 35 minutes, however, so I hope that I got the essence of it.

I got out of my hon. Friend’s contribution and those of other Members that some of the stock responses and deflection tactics that are being used by different parts of the industry do not stand up to detailed inspection. The Minister has a duty to the House, when he responds to the debate, to say clearly and firmly that the Government acknowledge that and are prepared to take action.

This is a troubling issue for my constituents. When my hon. Friend Mark Hunter, my neighbour in Stockport, started to deal with this matter for his constituents, he asked me whether we could have a combined approach to support our constituents. We both organised petitions for residents of our constituencies to make their case to us, and the response that we got was overwhelming. People were fed up with nuisance calls—whether automated recordings, calls from foreign calls centres or silent calls. Whatever time of day or night they come, they are overwhelmingly unpopular. They create trouble and difficulty, and my goodness me, our constituents in Cheadle and Hazel Grove were ready to tell us about it.

Last autumn, my hon. Friend and I presented to the Prime Minister at No. 10 a petition from the two constituencies asking for action to be taken. I understand that it is in the gift of No. 10 as to whether the Government will make a statement. I do not know whether the Minister will disclose that decision to us today, but I hope that the petition that we submitted will contribute to a positive answer from No. 10 very shortly.

I wish to give the House a brief illustration of how pervasive nuisance calls are. During the conference season, I was away from home for five days. When I returned, my answer machine had 17 calls on it. On examination, 16 of them were nuisance calls—silent and pre-recorded calls. Some had a calling line identification, but universally, if there was CLI, it was a spoof or incorrect. Half those 16 calls were silent, and I can well understand that for people more vulnerable than I am, such as older people for whom the telephone is still something of a new contraption, such calls must be a really frightening experience. The Minister needs to take account of the evidence that exists, both anecdotal and in surveys.

The all-party group’s report—I perhaps should declare that I was a member of the working party that produced it—said that, looking at all the evidence, there could not be fewer than 1 billion nuisance phone calls each year. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West cited another figure: according to the evidence that we received, 1 million people are employed in call centres. Taking those figures together, it means that each call centre operative makes 1,000 nuisance calls a year, which is a very small number—20 a week. I cannot believe that any call centre employs people to make only 20 calls a week, which prompts the question of whether that figure of 1 billion nuisance calls is right and how many calls made from such centres are not described as nuisance calls but instead produce a good result.

When the group took evidence in our inquiry, I had the opportunity to speak to a representative of one of the major network operators, who offered me his estimate that at some times of day, a quarter of all the traffic carried on his network consisted of nuisance calls. I have no way of knowing the validity of that information, but it gives some idea of the industrial scale of what is going on and the impact that it can have on our constituents. It certainly has a big impact on the elderly and on my constituents, who have been keen to say so.

In case it has not already become evident to the Minister, I want to tell him that there is a huge gap between best practice and normal practice. For instance, the rulebook states that if a silent call has inadvertently been made to a number, no subsequent silent call should be made to that number for another 72 hours. I do not believe for a moment that any call centre operates that 72-hour ban. It is incredible that they can, bearing in mind how many silent calls people receive on the same day, one after another. Silent calls are supposed to be not more than 3% of the total calls made by operators or call centres. It is difficult to believe that that is being complied with. If all call centres operated the 3% rule, 97% of calls would not be silent, but that is transparently not the case. The 72-hour rule and the 3% rule are not being obeyed.

Calling line identification is verging on useless. Some companies phone with no identification and some have spoof identifications. I have had endless calls on my phone from 012345, 00000 and so on. Clearly, the system is not working in that respect.

As other hon. Members have said, reporting problems is a nightmare. There is no simple system and there are multiple ways to complain. Who people phone up and what they are supposed to do depends on what kind of call they have suffered. Understandably, my constituents either do not know who they should call or have no confidence that anything will happen if they call. In evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, ICO staff said pretty much that there was little likelihood of an individual complaint resulting in any action against an operator.

Several hon. Members have mentioned problems with TPS, which is widely bypassed and ignored by those who phone up. It is certainly not effective. I am on TPS, but that did not prevent the calls I received in that conference week. Essentially, it is a commercial service run by the Direct Marketing Association that operates on the basis of trust, without any practical teeth that will produce an outcome. It is also based on extremely old-fashioned technology, which means that it takes 28 days for the system to click and become effective after people have registered. That does not help large numbers of people, even assuming that the system works properly when it is activated.

By way of conclusion, I want Government action. I want to see the action plan in spring—in civil service terminology, it is due shortly. When I was a Minister, I once asked for the definition of “shortly”. It took the civil servants several minutes to get over the laughter. I would enjoy hearing from the Minister, when he responds to the debate, when we can expect the action plan.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

May I quickly give the right hon. Gentleman my definition of “spring”? I have learned as a Minister that the definition of “spring” in Whitehall is February to November.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove

The Minister, for whom I have the greatest respect, has been sucked into the machine to an even greater extent than I had feared.

I hope that, when we have the action plan, the Minister will say something about bringing the regulators together. The all-party group report makes the point that we could waste quite a lot of time physically uniting them in one organisation, but we need a joined-up regulatory system, with all the sources of information going into one place and with one group of people looking at whether there is a pattern in an area of activity so that we do not have the current fragmentation at the operating end of the regulatory system.

I want the Government to say that the CLI service should be provided by all operators for free. I also want the Minister to say that Ofcom will be permitted to allow the blocking of rogue numbers by telecoms firms. That seems to me to be how to teach those people a lesson. The industry can get TPS working properly and quickly. There does not seem to be any reason why some of the better technological solutions should not be in place very quickly and working well. We also need a short code that will allow consumers—my constituents—to report nuisance calls of all kinds very quickly.

I think that the Minister has got my point. I press him to go well beyond good intentions and to give us some serious delivery on a nagging problem that is driving my constituents mad. They are getting irritated; they are disturbed and angry. Some of them are vulnerable, and they are looking to this House and this Government to do something to relieve their concerns.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury) 4:10 pm, 16th January 2014

It is a pleasure to follow a number of excellent speeches. I was interested to hear the Minister give his definition of what “shortly” might mean. When I was a Minister in Scotland, I remember a civil servant telling me that “shortly” was “sooner than in due course”, but he was not prepared to commit to anything more than that.

I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on enabling the debate to take place. I congratulate Mike Crockart on his excellent contribution, which provided all the technical detail and information on this important issue. Perhaps unusually for me, I will not be having a go at the Minister on this occasion. He has been helpful in bringing together the different organisations and the different parts of the regulatory system to try to deal with the issue.

I was prompted to speak largely because of correspondence from constituents—I have taken an interest in the issue since arriving in this place because many constituents have made complaints to me—but also because of the excellent campaign run by The Sunday Post, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The wonders of modern technology are such that during the course of the debate I have been able to follow, via a Twitter feed, the views of The Sunday Post,andI am sure that many people will have taken a great interest in what hon. Members have said.

Many people have asked why we cannot just have a simple mechanism—pressing a button or sending a text back—to deal with nuisance calls. Surely the wonders of technology that give us such excellent Twitter feeds should enable me simply to press the appropriate button if I decide—and heaven forfend that I should; this would never be the case—to block The Sunday Postand to hear no more from it. I therefore find it difficult to believe that there is not a way for people who do not want to receive nuisance calls to deal with them more efficiently and effectively.

We have heard that many elderly people are often the victims of silent calls or nuisance calls, and they can be the people most distressed by them. The work undertaken by Age Concern Scotland, which was referred to, is important, as is the work of local authorities. We should expand on that work. However, it is not only elderly and vulnerable people who have to deal with nuisance calls, texts and faxes—for those who still operate fax machines. They are also a problem for business.

The hon. Gentleman referred to calls which say that the Government want the business to know something. Those types of calls give real concern to the individuals receiving them, because they may not be sure whether they are a scam or something actually relating to Government policy. For example, energy efficiency is often talked about. Businesses will receive a text, fax or other form of information that implies that it is somehow linked to the Government when that is not the case.

By way of illustration—this does not relate specifically to the debate, but I might come back to it at another time—a businessman in my constituency recently contacted me to say he had received something that looked like a Government publication giving him information on how to apply for grants, but when he signed up and paid almost £400, it turned out simply to be information he could have received from me, the business gateway or someone in the local authority’s economic development department, without parting with any cash. In such cases, as when elderly people and others sign up for things over the phone, when people discover it is a scam, they are often embarrassed to admit to it, and so do not come forward. I am sure there are many examples of businesses responding to these things and then discovering they were not what they purported to be.

We have heard about the extreme complexity of the regulatory framework, and I want to mention offshore calls. I have recently answered, or attempted to answer, the phone in my home and either discovered that the number or information relates to a company operating in the UK but calling from offshore, or made that assumption because no information has been provided. I understand the difficulty with the complexity of the regulations, but none the less I hope the Government can address that problem.

As constituents have also told me, it is easy enough for companies to receive these calls, but extremely difficult for them to call back and get hold of a person to complain to. Often they are advised to register online or to complain in writing, but it would be much simpler if the minute a call came in, they could press a button and send a message or immediately get through to someone and say, “Look, this has happened just now. What can you do about it?”

Constituents have also complained about premium rate phone numbers. I know the Government are looking at that in relation to public services, but people often complain to me that when they call one of these numbers, they have to hang on for ages and press a series of buttons, only to be referred to a website at the end. Such things do not give people any confidence that the industry, or indeed Government and politicians—we also suffer these complaints—are taking it seriously enough. I hope the Minister will respond to that.

Hon. Members have mentioned the number of calls to people who have taken out loans. The hon. Member for Edinburgh West gave some interesting examples. It will be interesting to hear how many more unsolicited approaches he gets from payday loan companies now that he has admitted to having used them on an experimental basis. For people already in difficulty, however, and who perhaps have health or mental health problems, to be pursued to that extent is unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will take account of the suggestions of the Select Committee and hon. Members today, including the shadow Minister, who, for good reasons, could not stay for the full debate.

If someone signs up and gives permission for such calls, that ought not to be ad infinitum, but to be reviewed after a while, in particular given the complexity of how people give permission. Sometimes, they might not realise exactly what they are signing up for and that they will be subject to a range of marketing from several different companies, not just the one company they are dealing with. Also, there is the difference between opting in and opting out. I am sure that all of us, at some stage, have failed to untick the box or have ticked the box at the wrong time and subsequently received a huge amount of information we did not want.

We have heard helpful examples of progress being made—as with TalkTalk—but it is unacceptable that BT wants to introduce more charges, such as for the 1571 service and caller ID. For many elderly people using these services, the cost—even if only a couple of pounds on the phone bill—can be a considerable amount for them. Sometimes they fear the technology or do not trust it and they are worried, particularly if they have had experience of the TPS system, that the technology might not in itself solve the problem.

We have had a useful debate, and I hope that the Government will take account of what has been said. I know from the Minister’s comments at various meetings and events that I have attended that he takes this issue seriously. Recalling his definition of spring, which stretches to November, I hope that he will be able to take action shortly and do something this winter, providing some comfort to the thousands of people who have signed the petitions, seen their MPs and written to the newspapers asking for action. I know that the Minister wants to see something happen; we now need to hear what it is going to be. We hope that it will be sooner rather than later. I end with a final reference to The Sunday Postbecause if the Minister can achieve that, it will be “the very dab”—exactly how The Sunday Post would put it.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 4:21 pm, 16th January 2014

I am grateful for the chance to respond to the debate, which I congratulate Mike Crockart on securing. It is worth noting the contributions of three hon. Members who are not present. My hon. Friend Alun Cairns, whom the hon. Member for Edinburgh West mentioned, is co-chairing the all-party group on nuisance calls. When the date of this Back-Bench debate was changed, it meant he could not be here, but he has put a huge amount of work into the issue and would have liked to be present. For good reasons, Helen Goodman cannot be here for the debate’s conclusion, but she made a powerful speech as Opposition spokesman.

The presence of the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend Simon Hughes, who was in his place earlier, was significant, because it showed that one of those rare, almost unheard of events had taken place—joined-up government. When the new Minister was appointed over Christmas, I reached out, made a nuisance call to him out of the blue and told him that I would be very pleased if he would engage with me on this issue. He certainly has engaged with me, and I look forward to working with him more, as he gets his feet under the desk. Joined-up government between the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is highly important. As many hon. Members have pointed out, this is a complex regulatory landscape, involving two regulators—Ofcom, for which my Department is responsible, and the Information Commissioner’s Office, for which my right hon. Friend’s Department is responsible. It is important for our two Departments to work together.

We have heard a number of valuable contributions, not least from the hon. Member for Edinburgh West who opened the debate. Other contributors were Mr Weir, my hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale who is the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland who is the Opposition spokesman, my hon. Friend Richard Graham, Pat Glass, my right hon. Friend Sir Andrew Stunell and, last but by no means least, Cathy Jamieson, who contacted me about this issue many months ago. She requested a meeting and has maintained her interest and her campaigning work on the issue.

To put an end to any speculation from the outset—I know that hon. Members are on tenterhooks—let me say that the strategy document is ready to go. It was originally due to be published on 31 October. I discovered that if a Minister tells officials that a document will be published on a certain date, the work starts to crank up exponentially. I congratulate my officials on their excellent work over the period to hit that deadline. We were ready to publish then, but we decided to wait for the all-party group on nuisance calls to conduct its report because a lot of hard work had gone into it. We said that we would also wait for the Select Committee report, which came out at the beginning of December. Once those two reports had been published, we incorporated their findings in our strategy document, which then began its meander around Whitehall for clearance. One thing that we inherited from new Labour is the grid—the grid that sits in Downing street: the holy grid—and we are waiting for a slot in that grid, which, I assure Members, is harder than finding a slot at Heathrow. However, the document is ready to go, and I shall now reveal to Members what, broadly speaking, is in it.

We all agree that nuisance calls are a menace. I was extremely grateful to some Members for saying that they sympathised with my position and recognised that I was working hard in trying to make an impact on the problem. They did not need to say that, and it was very kind of them to do so. I was also grateful to the Members who pointed out that the direct marketing industry is valuable to the UK economy. We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater—we must recognise that a legitimate industry is doing a legitimate job—but make no mistake: as is clear to all Members who have done so much work on the issue, nuisance calls are a scourge that needs to be tackled.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland observed that the number of such calls seemed to have increased significantly. That is partly because it has become easier to report them, but I suspect that it is also due to the increase in the number of calls relating to payment protection insurance, which has, in a sense, been a unique phenomenon, in that it has provided an opportunity for—perhaps—the more careless members of the industry to seek ways of making an income.

There are three categories of nuisance call. Both live, unsolicited marketing calls, when someone—a real person—rings up out of the blue, and automatic pre-recorded calls are covered by the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, and fall within the scope of the Information Commissioner. Silent and abandoned calls—automatic calling machines repeatedly make the calls, but when one picks up the receiver no one is there—are covered by Ofcom, which can tackle them by means of its powers to oppose the persistent misuse of networks under the Communications Act 2003. We have increased the maximum fine that Ofcom can impose for silent and abandoned calls from £50,000 to £2 million, and have given the Information Commissioner’s Office the opportunity to impose a fine of up to £500,000 for unsolicited calls and texts. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester mentioned my letter to him, in which I referred to the need for enforcement. The powers are there to make an impact, and since January 2012, Ofcom and the ICO have issued fines amounting to £2. 5 million.

We have also sought to give Ofcom and the ICO a closer working relationship. I now regularly chair a round table that brings them together, along with representatives of telecoms companies and interested Members, including Mike Crockart.

What more can we do? As a number of Members have pointed out, the legal threshold that the ICO must meet before it can issue a penalty is too high. It requires the ICO to demonstrate that a breach of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations would result in “substantial damage” or “substantial distress”. The ICO has argued that the threshold should be lowered, and has suggested a test involving

“nuisance, annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety”.

I agree with the ICO that a lower threshold would generate more effective enforcement, and we are keen to legislate this year. That will be in the strategy document. There will have to be consultation on it, because it will require legislation.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I do not know whether it is on the grid, but the announcement is governed by Downing street, and the legislation is governed by the Leader of the House.

In order to improve the working relationship between Ofcom and the ICO we also want to make it possible for Ofcom to share the data it has with the ICO, which is not possible at the moment. We will introduce a statutory instrument. That order will be brought into force by the beginning of April. We will look at consent. That will be in the strategy document as well. Members have rightly pointed out that there is frustration with the telephone preference service but again the frustration partly arises from the fact that consumers may not realise they are giving consent and therefore effectively allowing the marketer to override the TPS.

The PECR states that a marketing call cannot be made to a consumer who has registered with the TPS unless consent has been given. The ICO has updated its guidance on this issue, but I accept there is scope for greater clarity to help consumers make informed decisions. We are considering the scope for action in this area and once we have published the strategy document we will launch a hands-on consultation working with consumer groups, particularly Which?, which has been excellent in the area of nuisance calls, and our regulators to look at a practical way forward. Incredibly complicated regulations could inadvertently be brought in were we to introduce detailed regulations about when informed consent is given. If we are to change the regulations, it is important that we get them absolutely right and that they are clear and not confusing.

Many Members have made the point that there is no silver bullet and I thought the Select Committee report was excellent on that. For example it is easy to say we should just merge the regulators, but when we look into the issues, we see the situation is much more complicated than that and we are much more likely to make more rapid progress by simply making the regulators work together.

In a complex and fast-moving environment, it is also important that we look at what measures we can take without legislation. With developments in telecoms technology, it is now easier and cheaper than ever before to make calls. That is good news for consumers, but rogue companies can also utilise the same technology to circumvent regulation and bombard us with unsolicited calls and texts. We therefore need to look at not just legal measures, but industry collaboration, technical standards, and support from telecoms providers.

We also want improved information and guidance for consumers, to enable them to register complaints on regulators’ websites more easily and also access information about steps they can take to deal with nuisance calls. This information is available, and the guides have been viewed more than a quarter of a million—or perhaps I should say 250,000, as I think that is the new parliamentary expression pioneered by the Leader of the Opposition yesterday—times and are clearly proving to be a valuable tool. Additionally, as a result of our engagement with the consumer organisation Which? it has now developed a user-friendly page on its website whereby consumers are automatically directed to the right place to access information as well as to make complaints. In addition to issuing fines, the ICO “names and shames” persistent offenders on its website so that consumers are better informed about those who break the law.

I mentioned earlier the upswing in the number of nuisance calls. I think that has been generated by the payment protection insurance sector. There is an alphabet soup of regulators with a role in this area, and that sector is regulated by the claims management regulation unit. Through our engagement with it, it has put more resources into tackling the problem of unsolicited calls and text messages to ensure that it can move more quickly to investigate and take enforcement action. It is working actively with the ICO, Ofcom and other relevant bodies to detect and punish those involved. I welcome the action it has taken and continues to take against claims management companies that fail to comply with the rules. From June of last year it started to publish the names of companies under investigation or subject to recent enforcement action. Between July and September 2013, it conducted 41 audits, issued 25 warnings, commenced 11 investigations, cancelled 109 licences and visited 407 claims management companies.

When introducing measures it is important that Government start to think about what impact they might have on nuisance calls. For example, the ban on referral fees in personal injury cases appears to have had the knock-on effect of reducing the volume of marketing calls to potential clients, because claims management companies can no longer receive a fee for referring client details. The claims management regulation unit is actively policing the ban on referral fees, in addition to the ban on claims management companies offering financial rewards.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

The measures that the Minister is outlining are welcome. We are dealing here with nuisance calls, one category of which is the downright scam, which regulations might not be able to cope with. Does he acknowledge the importance of publicity from his Department and perhaps from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in dealing with scam calls? I have heard examples of people getting phone calls from overseas selling them bogus computer insurance; I am sure we have all handled that kind of case. Those scams need to be publicised and people need to be warned about them. Does he agree that such publicity is important in dealing with not only nuisance calls but scams, and that continued efforts need to be made by Ofcom and by the Government in that regard?

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

Yes I do; it is important for consumers to be aware. Organisations such as Which? and official regulators such as Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office are great sources of advice on where scams are under way. They are often organised, all-pervasive scams that touch hundreds of thousands of people, and it is important that clear information on them should be disseminated to people as quickly as possible.

Taking that intervention has given me the opportunity to notice that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark has snuck into the Chamber. He might not be aware that I mentioned him earlier in the debate, when I said how grateful I was to be working with him. For his edification, I should say that I also pointed out that he and I had embarked on an almost unique experiment called joined-up government to see whether our two Departments could make an impact by working more closely together. But I sense that the House is tiring of that joke. The mood of the House tells me that I should move on.

I also want to talk about call blocking. Market solutions are available for consumers wishing to block calls at individual level, and I am pleased that network-level solutions are now also being considered by telecoms providers and other companies. That is an important development. Phones with call-blocking technology are available for the consumer to buy and use in the home, but network-level blocking is also very effective.

Almost all Members who have spoken in the debate have raised their concern that consumers will be charged for services that could help them to tackle nuisance calls—in particular, caller line identification, call barring and anonymous caller rejection. This is clearly a commercial decision for companies, but it is important that consumers are aware of whether those services are being charged for and how much they cost, so that they can look into which telecoms companies are offering the best deal.

In that regard, I am pleased that, at the end of last year, Ofcom published a table setting out the cost of such services provided by the main telecoms companies. I hope that that will make the companies realise that this is a service that their consumers value. I welcome TalkTalk’s announcement yesterday that it is to become the first company to make all its landline privacy calling features free of charge, and I hope that the other telecoms companies will have noted the clear, strong steer from Members in the debate today that charging for those services is not a good idea.

Hon. Members have also mentioned international calls. It is particularly frustrating when nuisance calls are made from abroad, and it is therefore good news that we are working with BT on finding a way to display incoming international numbers, enabling consumers to make informed decisions. Hon. Members might be angry with BT for charging for caller line identification, but I hope that they will congratulate the company on updating its telephone exchanges to enable that service to encompass international calls. That update is expected to take place after the summer of this year.

We have also been working with the telecoms providers on call tracing. It is sometimes difficult to identify who has made a call, perhaps because the number is unavailable. But we have asked the Network Interoperability Consultative Committee, which brings together all the major telecoms companies, to develop new industry standards for call tracing between networks, as well as revising the current rules on how caller line identifications are passed between networks and presented to consumers. The new call tracing standard was published at the end of last year, and it will simplify and increase the likely success of the process.

We also face other technological challenges, for example, from technology that allows numbers to be “spoofed”. Companies may wish to give customers a local number to call rather than the number of their national centre and so this technology can be used for legitimate reasons, but it can also be misused for nuisance calls. So, again, we are working with regulators and industry to see how that can be addressed. We are also working with the regulators and telecoms providers to explore technical opportunities to make it more difficult to misuse caller line identification in that way, and to help identify companies that are doing so. The spoofing issue has an international dimension, and last autumn Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office announced that they would be joining forces with regulators from Australia, Canada and the United States to tackle spoofing.

The issue of nuisance texts has been raised during the debate. Mobile operators, the Global System for Mobile communications Association—GSMA—and the ICO are working together to allow mobile operators to share their information to help block nuisance texts, no matter which network they emerge from, as well as to enable the regulator to take more effective enforcement action. The GSMA spam text reporting service enables consumers to make a report by using a short code, “7726”. Such reporting makes a difference. To give just one example, we have been told by the mobile operator Three that it suspends thousands of pay-as-you-go accounts each month in its efforts to tackle nuisance texts. As in many cases, the expertise to tackle such issues lies in the industry, which is why it is so important that we continue to work with it. The marketing industry also needs to play its part. Last October, the Telephone Preference Service launched its accreditation scheme, “TPS assured”, which focuses on improving the best practice of companies using these techniques. That is, in effect, a kitemark for call centres; it allows companies that do adhere to the Direct Marketing Association guidelines to get an industry accreditation that they are TPS assured and to use it in their marketing material.

A lot of hon. Members have mentioned their concerns about the effectiveness of the TPS. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, some things were beyond the control of the TPS and it is up to the Government, working with consumer groups, to look at the issue of consent. We need to have clear and specific information to guide our thinking on the effectiveness of the TPS. The TPS is governed by Ofcom, although Ofcom has contracted out its management to the DMA. Ofcom is undertaking research on the effectiveness of the TPS and that work will conclude in the spring. We expect Ofcom to publish its recommendations in the summer.

Let me touch on some of the other actions being taken. Regulators, the ICO and Ofcom sent a joint letter to about 170 organisations reminding them of the need to ensure compliance with the rules. The ICO has engaged with more than 20 organisations responsible for making nuisance calls through compliance meetings and has monitored their progress over a period of three months. As a result, there was a substantial reduction in the number of complaints about those 20 companies. Ofcom has also taken informal action against 25 organisations. As a result, complaints linked to telephone numbers used by 16 of them stopped and the number of complaints against five others fell significantly—four cases are ongoing. Again, I wish to assure hon. Members that although the fines get the headlines, a lot of behind-the-scenes work is going on, with both Ofcom and the ICO engaging with organisations that attract a persistent and high number of complaints.

I am also very aware of the concerns raised by the StepChange Debt Charity in its October report “Got their number”, which highlighted the serious consequences that can arise from nuisance calls for people who are financially vulnerable. That report notes that there are many factors that feed into this issue, including the apparent ease with which people’s personal data can be gathered and sold on. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland also mentioned her concerns about personal data. Again, the issue highlights the need for my Department to work more closely with the Ministry of Justice. There should be a joined-up approach to data management in this area.

I share the concerns that regulators should be able to take greater action, and I hope that the information-sharing legislation that we will introduce as well as the proposals in the joint action plan published by Ofcom and the ICO will lead to more action in this area. I take this opportunity to welcome StepChange’s efforts to provide clear advice for consumers and also its willingness to promote Ofcom’s guidance on nuisance calls.

As I said at the beginning of my remarks, I welcome the interest that has been shown in this issue. We have an excellent report from the all-party group on nuisance calls. Both Backbench debates today have highlighted the effective work that all-party groups can undertake. We also have an excellent report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. We have also had a number of private Member’s Bills, parliamentary questions and sustained and helpful interest from a whole range of Members.

I hope that we have shown that we have some clear proposals, which we will publish once they have received clearance in the Whitehall write-around. We expect that to involve two pieces of minor legislation, which should make a significant impact in terms of allowing Ofcom and the ICO to share data and of reducing the threshold for what constitutes a nuisance call. Further work will commence on the complex issue of consent, which is a live issue. It is an important matter. Indeed, the chairman of the all-party group challenged me at a meeting yesterday about what action would be taken after the report was published. I made a twofold commitment to him. I will continue my wider round-table discussions every three months, bringing together all the relevant stakeholders, telecoms companies, Members of Parliament, regulators and others. I also committed that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and I would meet him once a month for an update on where we are on making progress on action against nuisance calls. As has been said by several Members during this debate, the time for talking is over and the time for action has arrived. In order to continue to make an impact, it is important that I am held to account and that regular meetings take place.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Mr Crockart, you can make the concluding remarks. You are on the clock. There is a time limit of three minutes.

Photo of Michael Crockart Michael Crockart Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West 4:47 pm, 16th January 2014

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I presume that your words are in reaction to my earlier speech.

This debate felt like a consolation prize after the fall of my private Member’s Bill last year, but it has been an excellent debate, which has aired many of the issues that we identified during our all-party parliamentary inquiry. It is a complex area. Although my speech was described as a tour de force, there were many other points that were raised by others that I did not even mention, such as charging for caller ID, the effectiveness of the Telephone Preference Service, the EU directive, the exponential growth in the number of calls and the sense of a structure for regulators.

Pat Glass described my short speech as a master class. I think the subtext was that I had bored her into submission, and I apologise for that. She introduced the idea of naming and shaming, which is already happening, but perhaps needs to happen even more.

My right hon. Friend Sir Andrew Stunell missed the first five minutes of my speech. I am happy to repeat them for him later. He brought up the subject of spoofing, and talked about the response from constituents. He made the point that people are suffering quietly, and not complaining about the issue, but when they are asked it is clear how angry they are.

Cathy Jamieson, in attempting to steal my headlines, mentioned the Sunday Post a number of times, so I will trump her and mention the fact that it is @PoliticalYeti on Twitter. It has 602 followers—I am sure that that will help them a little bit. She contrasted the ability of the companies to make calls with the inability to make complaints by phone, which bothers me very greatly. She mentioned my alter ego, Boris Peep, so perhaps I should finish by giving an update. An organisation called Shopachecksms-uk—the wage day advance company has obviously passed or sold on my alter ego’s details—has offered me a cash loan of £500 delivered to my door. I want to make it clear in Hansard that I do not need it, thank you very much.

I thank the Minister. He is absolutely engaged and we have a good ministerial team that will be able to move things forward. We have had action on some things and not so much on others, but the best thing is the commitment.

This is a complex area, but it is clear that there is willingness across the House to see action. I am confident that we will see that, but I urge the ministerial team to be bold and ambitious, as such action has the benefit that it will also be popular.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered nuisance calls.