I rise to speak to new clause 10, which stands in my name. Although I support paragraph 5 of new schedule 1, it is not just the lack of consent that I think is the problem with nuisance calls. My new clause has been promoted by the huge growth in nuisance calls and messages. In fact, on each occasion when I have been out on the streets recently, at least three people have come up to me to talk about the explosion in unsolicited contacts and said, “Can’t something be done?” There is a weak data protection regime and consumers feel that they have lost control of their personal information.
I am convinced that if I was on a desert island the first call I would receive would be someone offering me a loan to get off the island. For people in financial difficulties, in particular, nuisance calls and text messages offering high-cost credit, such as payday loans or fee-charging debt management services, can lead to the temptation to take out products or services that, if mis-sold—they often are—could substantially worsen their situation.
StepChange has done some research that shows that 1.2 million British adults have been tempted to take out high-interest credit as a result of an unsolicited marketing call or text. There is legislation to protect consumers against these practices. Unsolicited promotional electronic messages are banned, but the ban is widely flouted and inadequately enforced. My new clause would lower the threshold for firms breaching the Act. At the moment, the Information Commissioner’s Office can issue enforcement notices against these companies only if “damage or distress” can be demonstrated. It can also issue monetary penalties to firms misusing consumer data or breaking the laws on electronic communication under section 551 of the Data Protection Act, but only if
“substantial damage or substantial distress” to the consumer can be demonstrated.
I believe that those thresholds are far too high. They should be lowered so that firms can be issued with enforcement notices or fined for breaching the Act without the Information Commissioner having to demonstrate “damage or distress” or
“substantial damage or substantial distress”.
The current thresholds have resulted in a situation where it is next to impossible for the Information Commissioner to enforce penalties against these firms. A recent tribunal decision went against the Information Commissioner when a £300,000 fine was overturned despite the defendant sending hundreds of thousands of illegal text messages.
This situation cannot continue. We have to demonstrate that we are serious about stemming the flood of unwanted text messages and nuisance calls. Lowering the thresholds would send that message and allow the Information Commissioner to do his job—the job that consumers expect him to do. We need to take away the thresholds about distress to the consumer and simply tell companies, “It’s illegal to do this—let’s stop it now.”