Unsolicited Calls (Prevention)

– in the House of Commons at 2:45 pm on 24th April 2018.

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

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling 2:53 pm, 24th April 2018

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to prevent unsolicited calls;
and for connected purposes.

Lest anyone be in any doubt as to the seriousness and importance of this subject, I should inform the House that well over 100 Members kindly offered to co-sponsor such a Bill. This is the first time I have had the privilege of attempting to bring a Bill to the House and I am glad to be able to get this level of support from only a single email.

Receiving unsolicited telephone calls has become an infuriating but inevitable part of our daily lives. Such calls are intrusive, seldom of any use and, in many cases, made with the sole intention of ripping people off. The situation has become normalised and we should not be content with that. It is estimated that some 70 million nuisance calls are made every year; this is a growing problem. A Which? survey estimated that 39% of calls in September 2016 were a nuisance and that the volume of nuisance calls for some was astonishing, with 10% of people receiving more than 60 a month—that works out at two calls per day, on average. Later data shows that Scotland is the worst area in the UK for rogue calls. The most recent figures from Which? show that 71% of Scots believe that receiving cold calls has discouraged them from even picking up their home phone when it rings, with 41% saying they feel intimidated by cold calls. New BT figures claim that every household in the UK receives four nuisance calls a day; as this is across 23 million households in the UK, it would indicate the ridiculous figure of 5 billion nuisance calls a year. Needless to say, those numbers show the extent of a problem that is at least very large.

These calls are intrusive; as people are sitting down with their family enjoying a bit of downtime in front of the television, they get interrupted by a phone call that turns out to be an unwanted waste of time, inconvenient and annoying. In the residential setting, this kind of disruption is never welcome. For businesses, unsolicited calls play havoc with the rhythm of the daily business routine and with the productivity of offices. I heard of one business where if one nuisance call was received by one phone, it could almost be guaranteed that every phone in the office would receive the same call throughout the day. That is distracting for employees, taking up precious time for no productive purpose, and it blocks the line, preventing customers and suppliers from being able to get through on the phone.

I have also heard stories of helplines being clogged up with this kind of call, preventing people who genuinely need help from getting through. It is the equivalent of setting up a trader’s stall outside a hospital accident and emergency entrance that blocks ambulances from getting in. We would not allow this in the physical world, so why should we tolerate it in telephony? For many who are more vulnerable, the people at the end of the phone gather data and try to foist products and services on them, which are usually neither wanted, nor needed. This leads to people getting ripped off by often unethical operators. Laws are already in place against that, but the line is blurry. Although people who phone purporting to be from a company to get access to someone’s computer are breaking the law, the calls where someone phones up to ask questions to build a profile of how vulnerable a person is may not be illegal.

This is a certainly an issue that affects millions of people across the country, one that demands action from us as legislators. We have a duty to ensure that our legislation is effective and gives the authorities the power they need to effect solutions to a huge problem. I am not suggesting for one moment that the Government have been complacent on this issue. Since the publication of the nuisance phone call strategy in 2014, there has been a great deal of Government action on this issue. I know how much work my right hon. Friend the Secretary for State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has undertaken on it, both in his current role and in his previous role as Minister of State. The single most significant element was placing responsibility for all nuisance calls with the Information Commissioner’s Office, creating a single port of call for the regulation of this issue. But more needs to be done, and making directors liable for the actions of their companies when they undertake nuisance calls is an essential part of the next step we should take in this House to tackle this problem. I hope to outline this element of what the Bill will do.

I recognise that much good work is being undertaken on financial services legislation that will outlaw the practice of soliciting insurance claims over the phone, making annoying traffic accident and payment protection insurance calls a thing of the past. Members will know that I am often a critic of the Scottish Government, but they have done much good work in this area. They have spent money on ensuring that people, especially the most vulnerable in our society, are aware of scams, and they have taken proactive steps to ensure that these warning messages get to the people who need to hear them. The Scottish Government estimate that the UK-wide economic harm from scam calls comes to £3 billion; this was in a report published only last month looking at the effectiveness of actions to reduce harm from nuisance calls. The work the Scottish Government have done has shown some results, and it is worth looking at this across the UK.

The private sector has also been hard at work on this issue. The Telephone Preference Service is a great way for people to limit their exposure to nuisance calls. BT has been working very hard to limit these calls. In my constituency, trueCall works with our local trading standards to install call blockers for vulnerable households and has blocked more than 21,000 scam and nuisance calls.

I would like to outline what I envisage the Bill doing. It is effectively divided into three parts, the first of which, as I have said, will make the penalties more robust and widen the way in which they can be applied. One aspect of the problem is that the companies that make nuisance calls are often pop-up companies. They are designed to make money and then go bankrupt, so that if they are caught, they will avoid a fine. That is an abuse of company law, and the Bill would make the directors of such companies personally liable for fines for nuisance calls. That reflects the private Member’s Bill that was introduced by the former member for Edinburgh West and the work of Patricia Gibson, to whom I pay tribute for her work on this issue. If directors are personally liable, people will think twice before authorising such activities.

The second part of this Bill will tighten up the definition of a nuisance call. We think we all know what a nuisance call is—it is when someone calls us up and tries to sell us something that we do not really want—but is that, in fact, the definition that we should adhere to? Sometimes we receive calls that we are not expecting from businesses, and they are good. Is it right to say that a nuisance call is simply a call that we do not want? That would effectively end the opinion poll business and all telephone canvassing, and I am not sure whether that would make the Bill more desirable to Members or less. It is clear that the current legal definition is not effective, and the Bill is designed to empower the Government and the regulator to have a more robust definition of nuisance calls.

Finally, I would like to place a general responsibility on unsolicited callers to ensure that the numbers they are dialling are not registered with the Telephone Preference Service. That would ensure that there was no problem when phone numbers were bought and sold. As with any valuable data commodities, it would be the responsibility of both the purchaser and the seller to establish whether a number was a TPS number. It would be possible to fine both parties if they had not performed due diligence on the nature of the numbers that had been traded.

This is an important issue, which has rightly gained a lot of attention from across the House. It has also elicited a lot of conversation with the private sector. I thank Brendan Dick and his team at BT Scotland for providing me with an excellent briefing, as well as Which? and Citizens Advice for the work that they have done in this area. If we can make the situation better for people, we will remove a nuisance and make everyone’s lives a bit easier. At the same time, we will improve business productivity. It is seldom that one finds such widespread agreement on any issue across the House, and therefore I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Stephen Kerr, Kate Hoey, Hugh Gaffney, Rachel Reeves, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Ben Lake, Nigel Dodds, Lady Hermon, Dame Cheryl Gillan, Fiona Bruce and Patricia Gibson present the Bill.

Stephen Kerr accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 July, and to be printed (Bill 197).