Backbench Business — Nuisance Phone Calls — [Mr Dai Havard in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 3:00 pm on 28th February 2013.

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Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan 3:00 pm, 28th February 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Havard. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting this subject for debate and those Members who supported me in seeking parliamentary time, especially my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who turned up to make representations before the Committee. It is also good to see my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price, who has raised this issue in the past, as well as many other colleagues.

I have been overwhelmed by the response I have received since applying for this debate. I am sure that more Members would have been present today were it not for the Eastleigh by-election, which is a subject that I might briefly return to later. More than 100 MPs responded positively to my suggestion of a debate on the subject and there has been significant interest from the national and regional newspapers and network and regional television outlets, which clearly shows that nuisance calls are a problem that needs to be resolved. The matter might sound straightforward, but it is complex and ever-changing. I referred briefly to Eastleigh, and we all need to confess, both as individuals and as political parties, to the role that we play in generating even more nuisance phone calls.

Let me explain the background to my interest in this subject. Although I have a specific interest in ICT legislation, I did not appreciate the significance of the issue until a constituent explained his predicament. A retired individual from Cowbridge in my constituency in the Vale of Glamorgan, who is regularly at home during the day, highlighted the fact that he could receive more than a dozen calls from sales and marketing companies during working hours and throughout the evening.

I initially assumed that the Telephone Preference Service would resolve the matter, but after researching the issue, I started to appreciate its complexity. Anyone who wishes to stop unsolicited calls can register with the Telephone Preference Service, which makes it against the law to call consumers who are registered on the list unless they have prior consent to do so.

Ofcom has the responsibility for maintaining the Telephone Preference Service, which is administered under licence by the Direct Marketing Association. The Information Commissioner has the responsibility to follow up consumer complaints and take action against those companies that are breaking the law. That sounds pretty straightforward providing that each party lives up to its obligations. However, the situation is not so straightforward. To complain about an unsolicited call, we need the caller’s telephone number. Caller display or dialling 1471 should enable a complaint to be pursued. The privacy and electronic communication regulations require the caller to identify themselves when asked, but it appears that most withhold their number, making it almost impossible to identify them unless the receiver is prepared to endure the marketing pitch, which is undesirable to many. In many circumstances, the caller will simply hang up when the receiver asks for their identity at the outset.

The situation does not stop there. Many calls are silent or abandoned, and that is because call centres use automated diallers. That technology dials more numbers than there are agents available in order to maximise the time they spend speaking to consumers. It is only when the consumer answers the phone that an agent will be connected. If an agent is not available there are two options: the automated system can leave a message, which is considered to be an abandoned call, or it can drop the call without a message, which is considered to be a silent call. Both are irritating, but a silent call can be intimidating or even frightening to some constituents. That situation is compounded when the number is withheld, preventing a complaint from being made.

There are two issues here. First, many call centres do not adhere to the rules laid down by the Telephone Preference Service or the privacy and electronic communication regulations. Secondly, withheld numbers prevent a consumer from complaining. Even if a company is committed to following the PEC rules, loopholes remain. If someone is registered with the TPS, it remains legal to call them to conduct a survey as an excuse. Another way of getting around the rules is to use the “permission to call” loophole, which is where someone who may have bought a product in the past has not ticked the box to exclude their data from being passed on to “carefully selected partners”. The reality is that their data have been sold on to another company that might have some tenuous relationship with the original company. It does not even stop there. There is also a third dimension: calls from overseas. Calls being made on behalf of UK companies should also adhere to the privacy and electronic communication regulations. There is evidence that they do not, but there is a further problem when they are not acting on behalf of UK companies.

It is little wonder that I received such a response to this debate given the numbers of the complaints. Ofcom shows that 47% of adults experienced the silent call treatment during the last six months of 2012, which is up by a quarter on the year before. In July 2012, there were some 10,000 complaints; six months earlier the number was a third of that, which shows that the problem is increasing at a remarkable rate. A survey by Which? magazine found that 76% of respondents were still getting lots of nuisance calls despite being registered with TPS. It is safe to make the assumption that there would be even more complaints if the callers could identify the number from which they were called.

The regulatory responsibility is split and not straightforward. The Information Commissioner’s Office is responsible for enforcing companies to comply with the rules, and Ofcom has powers to deal with the silent or abandoned calls. Let me give credit to the Information Commissioner and to Ofcom. Both have made some efforts to challenge and fine those responsible for such calls. I have to stress that they were extremely slow to respond, but I welcome their late efforts none the less.

Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock

My hon. Friend is getting to the nub of the argument. There are regulators responsible for policing such activity, but as with any regulatory breach, regulators have to be fleet of foot in dealing with transgressions, or companies will just carry on with them. Would my hon. Friend like to see a much more aggressive approach on behalf of the regulators so that action is taken sooner?

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan

My hon. Friend shows great interest in these issues and makes an extremely valuable point. I have already mentioned that Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office have been slow to respond to the problem, and as my hon. Friend highlights, the position is ever changing. Not only are telephone numbers changing but so too is technology. Although I welcome Ofcom’s five-point plan, which it would probably cite in response to the criticism coming from the Government Benches, it is not a game changer. The plan is helpful and welcome, but it will not make a significant difference to most people, particularly as it is an ever-changing situation.

I have serious concerns about the regulatory responsibility being split between two bodies. It causes confusion to the consumer and adds nothing to the prevention or resolution of the problem. Having one body—probably Ofcom—would be much more efficient. The issue of withheld numbers, however, is central. Technology improvements allowed caller ID to be introduced in 1994, and at that time a consensus developed that callers should be able to withhold numbers if they wished. Key reasons related to the need to protect people receiving calls from charitable groups, such as those supporting victims of domestic violence, and to the need for the police to contact someone without disclosing their identity. At the time, there was no major issue with nuisance calls, and it is fair to say that contact centres have now abused the protection that was intended for the greater good.

Nuisance calls could be compared to someone knocking at the door wearing a mask or a balaclava. Would we answer the door to such an unknown caller? Of course we would not. Why, then, do we allow the same thing to happen over the telephone? Ironically, door-to-door salesmen from some of the companies Ofcom has criticised must show identity cards. In recent years, some of those companies have used them as a marketing ploy to demonstrate how responsible they are. Salesmen are therefore showing ID cards when they call at the door, but nothing similar happens when they use the telephone.

Many people have been forced to ask their telephone operators to block all withheld numbers—for a fee, of course. That can leave individuals in a vulnerable position. GP practices, police stations or other essential service providers do not always display their number—possibly with good reason, possibly not—so constituents may refuse to answer the telephone.

Some innovations and new telephones can overcome part of the problem, but there needs to be a shift in policy to protect the consumer. One option is that organisations that wanted to withhold numbers would need to show they had good reason for doing so and to get Ofcom’s agreement. That, of course, should not apply to domestic users. We need to recognise that that will not always deal with certain situations, given technological developments and the ever-changing situation. Voice over internet protocol and the international calls I mentioned are particularly problematic.

I am not a fan of legislation for the sake of legislation, so I ask UK firms to play their part voluntarily. They should not only adhere strictly to the regulations, but go further and introduce higher standards, possibly in the form of a code of conduct. It would be a good start, for example, if they agreed to stop using withheld numbers, rather than being forced to do so through legislation. Using withheld numbers is in their interests, not the consumer’s interests, so if they really want to react to consumer demands, that would be a good start.

Telephone network operators also have a part to play. They could establish a system that made it possible to identify callers using withheld numbers. That would allow complaints to be made to Ofcom or the Information Commissioner. Legislation may well prevent the caller’s number from being given to the receiver, but the network operator will often know what the number is. A simple system could be introduced to allow a consumer to make a direct complaint to Ofcom, with the telephone operator advising Ofcom what the number is. Those innovative, straightforward proposals would resolve many of the problems.

As I said, the situation is extremely complicated. I have not even got on to texting or calls to mobiles. However, my comments demonstrate the problem, which has increased partly as a result of payment protection insurance and partly as a result of the claims that have been made for many other things. Given that the data that have been published show a trebling of nuisance phone calls in one month alone last year, we can assume the figure is even higher, and it would be much higher still if the receiver of the call could complain because they had the telephone number. I am grateful for Members’ support.

Photo of Iain McKenzie Iain McKenzie Labour, Inverclyde 3:13 pm, 28th February 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on bringing this debate before us. Many of us have been contacted by constituents about this subject in the past weeks, if not months.

Anger over nuisance calls is growing, and rightly so. The latest Ofcom complaints data show that complaints to the Telephone Preference Service increased 150% from July 2011 to July 2012. Many of my constituents have regularly received nuisance calls that are supposedly from within the UK. They are told there is something wrong with their computer and that the caller is qualified by Microsoft to fix it for a fee. They may also be asked for personal details, but the details some people reveal are passed on, and, lo and behold, those people then receive another call, about anything from what they do in their leisure time to their choice in shoes.

A constituent told me of a call they have received, which starts with the words, “This is an urgent message about your personal pension.” It goes on to say, “Press 5 for immediate action,” at which point, the person receiving the call can be signed up to something. The message then says, “Or press 9 to be removed from our database”, although the company will, of course, do no such thing, and the person will receive the calls over and over again. Dialling 1471 in the hope of finding out who is calling just results in hearing, “We do not have the caller’s number.”

Thousands of people up and down the country have to deal with this every day, and many of them are elderly. For many vulnerable and elderly people, nuisance calls are a menace, and one that puts them at risk of fraud—just as if a crook or pushy salesman had turned up on their doorstep offering to sell them this, that and the other. People are experiencing this every day over the phone.

A growing number of nuisance calls come from overseas, and there seems to be no way of protecting the British public from them at the moment. Many people have been victims of terrible scams and have lost money, which they can ill afford to lose at this time.

In 2010, Parliament approved an increase in the financial penalty available to Ofcom to enforce its rules on nuisance calls, from £50,000 to £2 million. Yet, there is still no real action. The Information Commissioner’s Office has fined just one company in the past 18 months. Studies show that 76% of people who have suffered from nuisance calls were still receiving unsolicited calls despite being registered with the Telephone Preference Service.

What is being done, therefore, to improve the situation? The TPS makes it clear on its website that there has been a rise in the number of unwanted calls made to people registered with it. However, it says that most of them originate from companies that deliberately ignore the law or disguise their identity.

Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, many of these nuisance calls are generated overseas, which means that the firms taking advantage of the information the calls produce, are deliberately getting round the regulatory system here. Would the hon. Gentleman support what I would like to see, which is the naming and shaming of high street firms that pay overseas companies to do exactly that?

Photo of Iain McKenzie Iain McKenzie Labour, Inverclyde

I understand the hon. Lady’s point, and I share her concern, but I would like to go a bit further than just naming and shaming.

The TPS has no enforcement powers, but it does send its complaints to Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office each month. However, despite the TPS sending more than 1,000 complaints each month, the ICO has yet to issue a fine against any company.

What does the law say, and who enforces it? Ofcom has powers under the Communications Act 2003 to deal with the persistent misuse of a communications network or service, which includes the generation of unsolicited and silent calls. The ICO enforces any breaches of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, which cover rules about unsolicited electronic marketing messages sent by telephone, fax, e-mail or text. Regulation 19 requires organisations making automated marketing telephone calls to have the prior consent of the person being called. That means that live marketing calls cannot be made to anyone who has indicated an objection to receiving them—for example, by registering with the TPS.

What, however, is happening in reality? Constituents have told me time and time again that despite registering with the TPS, they are still plagued by cold calls. The safeguards are therefore doing little to protect them. Ofcom has fined nine companies for making silent calls, but if the companies persist it must be because, in spite of the fines, it is worth their while. Over the 10 years for which Ofcom and the ICO have had the relevant powers they have been used only rarely against the many companies known to be breaching the requirements.

Apart from an apparent general reluctance to act, the regulators tie their own hands by the policies that they set. To give just a few examples of the complexity of those policies, Ofcom uses the persistent misuse powers only against those who it finds have failed to follow its policy that no more than 3% of calls may be abandoned. All other reported misuse, including making millions of silent calls within the 3% limit, is tolerated. The ICO requires that the direct marketing purpose of the call be explicitly declared. However, a caller collecting information about an individual for direct marketing purposes may say that they are providing public information or conducting a survey.

The maze of regulations does not help. We need one clear point of contact with the power to act and enforce the law. While there are different regulators and different Departments in charge, there will always be loopholes for the companies to abuse and exploit. I fear that legislation may be the only step that we can take to curtail nuisance calls in the long term. I call on the Minister and the Government to bring about a single, simple point of contact for any individual wishing to protect their privacy from unwanted calls, texts, faxes or e-mails.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Dai Havard Dai Havard Labour, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

Order. About half a dozen hon. Members want to speak, and so that Front-Benchers will have time to contribute properly I ask that speeches be kept to about six minutes, to give everyone a reasonable chance.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham 3:21 pm, 28th February 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard, and a special pleasure that this debate is stopping so many of us having to make nuisance phone calls to a small place called Eastleigh, on the south coast; otherwise we should all probably be in call centres having to do that.

The easiest and most fertile targets for nuisance phone calls are the elderly, like me. About 30% of householders in my constituency are retired home owners. They provide a happy hunting ground for fraudsters. Rob Vale and his team in trading standards at Bromley council suggest that the battle over nuisance phone callers is constant, unremitting and growing. According to Bromley trading standards two particular scams have been perpetrated over the past two years. One is the Microsoft scam. The victim receives a phone call from someone, often with a foreign accent, who says that there is a bug in their computer. The fix requires the victim to log on to a website where their computer is then under the hoaxer’s control. A fictitious problem is then placed on the computer and the victim is told that it will cost, say, £120 for it to be fixed by a download or, indeed, that regular maintenance by the fraudsters will be needed. The second scam involves debit or credit cards, and everyone has heard of it. Fraudsters telephone claiming to be from the police and saying that the victim’s debit or credit card has been cloned. The fictitious police ask for details of the account, normally also giving a fake police telephone number so the victim can check that they are genuine. However, they stay on the line until that phone call is made, so they keep control and continue the deception until they get the bank details.

Both the present and previous Governments have been more than aware of the problems caused by nuisance phone calls. Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office as regulators have powers to act, and the maximum penalty, as we have heard, has been increased to £2 million. Ofcom set out an action plan on 8 January for improving the service to victims. Generating unsolicited telephone calls is an offence, but it remains planned and persistent. Only one company has been fined £50,000; but I think everyone present would want more fines. The problem continues.

As I understand the matter, the Information Commissioner’s Office is meant to carry out enforcement for the Telephone Preference Service and receive complaints and notification of breaches. As we have heard, there are problems when the companies involved are based abroad. It is then difficult get a grip of the situation; but there must be something that the experts can suggest. For example, no doubt the calls are being made from abroad for the a British company; somehow we must get to the British companies that are authorising the activity. What I find odd is Ofcom’s current advice to recipients of unsolicited sales and marketing calls from overseas, which is to contact the overseas company making the call. How great is that for a little old lady—or little old gentleman? I am not trying to be sexist.

A big problem arises when people have given consent in the past. I often book rail tickets, when I visit one of those constituencies that have by-elections, on the internet. When I fill in the boxes on the internet form I am always asked if I would like to receive further information. It is easy to miss that box or tick it by mistake, but once someone has done that apparently the Telephone Preference Service may not be able to help. That is sad.

I have inquired locally, and trading standards in Bromley have tried to get a grip of nuisance phone calls with various measures. When they hear of a problem they rapidly get hold of the originators of cold calls and warn them off; they have set up a system for banks and building societies in the Bromley area to contact trading standards if elderly people begin to make unusual withdrawals or to do things that are not typical of them; they have delivered 70 talks in the past year to the elderly warning them about the dangers of nuisance and cold calls; they have sent out packs to elderly residents also warning them of the problem; and of course they use the local newspapers and radio to alert people to scams. I mentioned Rob Vale, the head of standards at Bromley, who does a very good job. He reckons that such measures have probably saved the elderly about £1 million in the past few years, which is great. Those responsible have done so well that The Municipal Journal has awarded them a commendation for their efforts. They are a model.

I am conscious of the time, and the fact that I should soon shut up. I believe that either Ofcom or the Information Commissioner’s Office should get much tougher about nuisance phone calls. After all, there is the power to do so. However, if that does not happen we should consider setting up a nuisance calls agency as advocated by the Fair Telecoms Campaign. That, in its turn, should get a grip on the problem.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury) 3:28 pm, 28th February 2013

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, and I congratulate all those hon. Members who pressed for it. Several of us have been raising the issue of nuisance phone calls in various ways. I am sure that Mike Crockart will be pleased to know that one of my constituents congratulated me on taking up the issue and mentioned his campaign in conjunction with The Sunday Post. I am sure that he will say more about that.

People are concerned about a number of issues, and a range of constituents have contacted me. An elderly couple wrote to me to ask for advice about what they could do, because they were receiving persistent calls. They said in their letter to me:

“How can we stop phone calls which we consider to verge on the disruptive and the invasive? This week, since Monday, we have received seven of these calls.”

That might not seem like a lot of calls, but for an elderly couple such as my constituents, who live in sheltered housing and who would normally receive calls from family and friends but who are suddenly receiving an influx of calls and do not know who they are from or what they are about, it can be quite concerning.

I gave that couple advice at that stage. They contacted the Telephone Preference Service and were told that that was the correct thing to do. However, part of the problem was that the calls originated from offshore and the TPS could do nothing about them. Of course, the couple were then quite concerned because it seemed as though nobody was really taking the issue seriously.

As well as the nuisance calls, of course, there are the other types of calls that have already been referred to as scams. Again, one of my constituents wrote to me to explain that a couple of years ago she was constantly phoned for a few weeks by a company that said there were problems with her computer. Eventually, after a number of those calls, she gave in; she thought that what the company said must be correct. She gave the company information, allowed it to log on to her personal computer and then it started to tell her about all the serious problems she had with her computer and began to ask her for money. Thankfully, she then realised that something was wrong. None the less, she continued to receive calls from the same company, despite making it clear that she had no wish to receive any such calls in the future. Her number was ex-directory, and she was registered with the TPS.

Another issue was raised with me recently by constituents. I hope that the Minister will consider it seriously, as he has done with the other problems that have been raised. A number of constituents have contacted me because they are concerned about what they say are companies calling them about either the green deal or some of the energy offers that are available. The problem for my constituents is that they are not immediately able to identify whether those calls are genuine calls made on behalf of—as they see it—the Government or, indeed, on behalf of a company that is seeking to persuade them to apply for Government grants before providing them with the business. There seem to be some grey areas in terms of what is marketing and what is actually selling. That is something that it would be useful to look at.

One of my constituents, who is pretty savvy about these issues, received a call telling her that she could miss out on lots of Government grants, so she told the caller that, of course, the green deal is not about grants but loans, etc. The caller then tried to continue with the call, by claiming that they were not trying to sell her anything at all. Afterwards, she googled to get the information about the company that had called her and discovered that it was indeed a company trying to sell her products. Again, she was left feeling that the protections that exist did not particularly help her.

Offshore calls are another issue that people will be familiar with. I know how difficult it is sometimes when I am calling people, or when people are calling me, for them to understand me; having a fairly broad west of Scotland accent, it can be fairly difficult for people to do so. I was on a call last week and I had to try to spell out the name of my home village of Mauchline to someone in another part of the UK, and that was pretty difficult. Again, we can imagine what the situation is like for vulnerable people or elderly people. They are concerned because they do not know what the call is about and they have been asked to give information, perhaps even details such as their date of birth and their bank information, ostensibly for market research or marketing purposes.

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making some extremely valuable points. She mentions vulnerable and elderly people. Does she agree that people of working age, who might not be at home during the day, might not appreciate the scale of this problem because many of these calls are made in the daytime? Vulnerable people, including older people who may well be vulnerable, are disproportionately affected by these nuisance calls.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

That is a very good point, and I think that it is why we as MPs get so many people coming to us who are in that category of vulnerable people. However, some of my constituents who are at work during the day complain that the calls are targeted for the period immediately after they return home, after the schools come out or perhaps at the traditional tea time in certain parts of my area, between 5 o’clock and half-past 6. Basically, people are saying, “We get in from work; we sit down; and the phone goes.”

Older people are advised to get caller identification, but not everyone wants to do that because they might not necessarily understand the technology or want to judge whether to answer a call. People simply want a system whereby, if they say that they do not want to receive unsolicited calls, somebody somewhere takes their request seriously, does something about it and puts in place a system that works.

I do not have much more time left, so I will finish on the point about multiple responsibility. Different agencies and organisations have different responsibilities, and people are split between contacting BT or their phone company, before they are told to contact the TPS and then perhaps Ofcom. People just give up and say, “It’s all too difficult,” and I have not even started on the number of texts that people complain about, particularly ones about payment protection insurance or PPI. Perhaps that is for another day and another debate.

Photo of Michael Crockart Michael Crockart Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West 3:36 pm, 28th February 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Havard, and I, too, thank Alun Cairns for securing this debate.

I should start by declaring an interest that has already been mentioned. For the past six months, I have been running a “no to nuisance calls” campaign with The Sunday Post in Scotland. In that time, we have secured about 20,000 signatures on a petition, which I presented to Downing street two weeks ago. Nevertheless, the number of signatories is still growing, and I am sure that it will grow in the aftermath of this debate.

As a brief aside, I am also in the process of forming an all-party group on nuisance calls. Many Members will already have received an invitation to join me in that group, and I ask anyone else who wants to join to contact me.

The overwhelming response that I have received to the campaignis a clear demonstration of how strongly people feel aboutnuisance calls, and by nuisance calls I mean unwanted live marketingcalls, as well as silent calls, abandoned calls, spam texts and recorded messages. My constituents have contacted me in great numbers to share with me their stories of unscrupulous callers, as well as to complain about the companies that pester them day in, day out. Indeed, only yesterday, I discussed this issue with a colleague, whose young children now shout, “It’s PPI,” whenever they hear the phone ring. Clearly, we are a country under siege and something has to change.

I have not come to Westminster Hall today with an exact proposal about what structures should be changed, what legislation should be amended, what Department should be responsible or even what powers are missing, although I hope that the proposed all-party group will look at those issues. However, what is clear from talking to Ofcom, the Information Commissioner’s Office, BT and Ministers is that absolutely no one thinks that the present system is working. So of all the potential solutions to this problem, doing nothing is not one of them, but neither is working more collaboratively, which I fear is where the Minister is heading. Consequently, I welcome the opportunity that we have today not only to discuss the problems, but to highlight some of the work that has already been done to address them and to agree a way ahead.

I want to quote a couple of short paragraphs from those who have signed my petition. First, one signatory said:

“You just can’t get through to these people to stop hassling you. I get phone calls when I’m driving, eating, working, even in the shower.”

It is unclear whether he actually had his phone in the shower with him. He went on:

“They ring day after day and won’t take “get lost” for an answer. You ask them to take you off the database and they don’t.”

Another signatory said:

“I am signed up to the TPS, but am fed up with calls from PPI firms, car warranty companies who seem to have access to my name and type of car, “Microsoft” callers...and silent calls. Time to ban these. I don’t need to claim PPI, have never had an accident, don’t need to sort out my pension or anything else they phone about.”

Those two responses are fairly typical of the comments that we have received.

Nuisance calls, spam texts and other forms of unsolicited contact are an annoyance for most people, but as has already been said, for many vulnerable and elderly people, they are also a menace, and one that puts them at risk of fraud just as much as though a crook or a pushy salesman turned up at their door. So I want one single, simple point of contact—a regulator—to take in all forms of unsolicited contact, and a single, simple point of contact for any individual who wishes to protect their privacy from unwanted calls, texts and faxes.

Ofcom has recently attempted to make it clearer to consumers how they should make a complaint if they are bothered by nuisance calls. When I heard about that, I imagined a small A5 or even A6 guide that I could keep next to my phone for when the inevitable call came, perhaps something like the document that I am holding now, which I compiled for constituents in Edinburgh West, to put on the inside of their doors in case they were confronted by unwelcome cold callers. Instead, I found this document—[Interruption.] I cannot imagine a better example of why reform is so badly needed.

There should be a simplified, single regulator with a single point of contact. The public seem to have the appetite for that. The current web of regulations allows companies constantly to find new ways to contact people who have opted out of receiving such information. The Minister has said in meetings that we need to give consumers greater clarity, so that they know who to turn to, but putting the responsibility on consumers is unacceptable when the regulations are such a maze.

Far from the situation outlined by other hon. Members, the ICO has begun to show its teeth. It issued fines for cold calling to three companies for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Last year, the first fines were issued for spam texts for a company that was part of the growing industry that texts numbers to promote PPI and personal injury claims. The ICO is doing much more, with a few initiatives in the pipeline, including working with global phone companies to agree a memorandum of understanding to allow information to be shared, as it has already done with the claims management regulator, and considering intervention points relating to personal data—all the points at which data from someone who, for example, completes a survey while shopping online are used. Working together, regulators can trace the data from the start to the end of the process. That will give a better understanding of where the intervention points are and will highlight any gaps in legislation. There is also an investigation into what changes need to be made in terms of data protection, to allow the ICO to use complaints collected by consumer groups, such as Which? and citizens advice bureaux, rather than having to collect individual complaints.

People throughout the UK are worried about nuisance and silent calls and spam texts. We have an opportunity soon, in the Communications Bill, to make significant inroads into dealing with this problem, but only if the Minister is prepared to be bold and act in consumers’ interests. I hope that we will hear from him about bold intent and not merely timid tinkering at the edges.

Photo of Dai Havard Dai Havard Labour, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

Unfortunately, Mr Crockart, we will not be able to write your visual aid into the record. That is not possible, even with modern technology.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 3:42 pm, 28th February 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on bringing this debate. It is reassuring to hear calls for stronger and more regulation from all hon. Members in the Chamber in this instance. I will not try to cover the excellent points already made by hon. Members from all parties about why we need better regulation.

I have two declarations of interest to make. I implemented calling line ID, as an electrical engineer, and I worked for Ofcom before first coming into the House. Those two areas correspond to the two brief points that I should like to make.

As an electrical engineer, I implemented calling line ID and the withholding of calling line ID for many business systems across Europe and the world. Calling line ID is a useful facility; we should not blame the technology. Having implemented it, and having written the code for it and looked at the bytes that carry information across telephone systems, I know that even when the calling line ID is withheld, the number is still present and is still sent. Alun Cairns mentioned that it is technically possible to ensure that the numbers of those who make nuisance calls are obtained, whether through the equipment manufacturers or regulation, or a combination of both. I should like there to be an industry working group on this. The industry should be able to take relatively simple steps to ensure that the numbers of those who make these calls are recorded and are available, so that regulatory enforcement can be carried out.

I worked for Ofcom for six years before first entering Parliament. I yield to no one in my admiration for Ofcom, not even the Minister—sometimes we get quite competitive about this. Ofcom is an excellent organisation, with fine people who are highly qualified—great economists and technologists—but when it is considering what resource to spend on enforcement, it will necessarily consider the impact of the harm that it is trying to address and will look to calculate that harm in economic terms.

In this instance, Ofcom may be severely underestimating the harm that results from nuisance calls. Like many hon. Members in the Chamber, I have been contacted by constituents who suffer these calls, and I have my personal experience to go on. I registered with the TPS service, of which I was very aware, working in telecommunications, yet I receive up to 10 silent and nuisance calls every week on my fixed land line. For me, they are a nuisance and an irritation, but for those who are more vulnerable and less comfortable with technology, they can be worrying and upsetting. We may be underestimating the cost by not considering the cost to society and our economy of increasing the mistrust of technology in this regard.

We are already aware that many demographics are reluctant to go online. There are 10 million people in this country who rarely or never use the internet. Nuisance calls, together with spam and other harm, which we have considered today, increases the mistrust of technology in our society, and this represents a barrier to getting more people from particular demographics online. That is a brake on our economy. This issue can only get more important. In future, technology will become increasingly a part of our lives. We already think it is a part of our lives, and some of us already find it difficult getting away from our mobile phones and tablets, but that will increase.

It is essential that Ofcom, and the Minister and this Government, send a strong message to people throughout the country and to businesses that a person’s phone, PC or tablet is, just like their home, their castle. They should be able to be secure and unmolested. I hope that the Minister takes that message away with him.

Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock 3:48 pm, 28th February 2013

I congratulate my hon. Friend Alun Cairns on securing this debate and thank all hon. Members for their wise contributions, which have shown considerable consensus.

Chi Onwurah mentioned the need for stronger regulation, but we are looking for more regulatory activism, because there are already quite a lot of powers for regulators on the statute book. We are after more compliance and more enforcement, and we should perhaps look at the regulators’ tools. In my intervention on Mr McKenzie, I mentioned the regulator having the power to name and shame companies that are flouting and abusing regulations. I should like to see more naming and shaming, because significant high street names are engaging in some of these abuses.

I want to focus on the activities of ambulance-chasing lawyers and claims management companies, which are among the worst perpetrators of nuisance calls and have had a boom with PPI mis-selling. It is becoming abundantly clear that the next area of expansion is accident compensation. As Members will realise after the Mid Staffordshire report and as I know from being a member of the Public Accounts Committee, the field of health compensation is growing like Topsy. It is so cheap for companies to make randomly generated calls that that will be the emerging nuisance.

We have seen how prevalent daily hounding is by text, e-mail and telephone. Which? reports that 74% of people have been contacted in that way. As we have mentioned, it is the most vulnerable people—the people at home and not working—who are being plagued the most by this menace. Let us call it what it is: harassment. Numerous calls can be made during a day.

Sometimes consumers unwittingly find themselves entering into contracts that cause them significant financial detriment and are fleeced for payments without any service being delivered. Which? told me of an 87-year-old housebound gentleman who was quite deaf and frail. He was on the Telephone Preference Service register, had not taken out any loans for years and had no PPI, but during a call, he was persuaded to give his credit card details to a claims management company, which promptly relieved him of £250. I call that theft. The regulatory system needs to be able to take prompt and severe action against companies that engage in such activities.

In the time available to me, I want to highlight what consumers can do, given that the regulators are being a bit lily-livered about dealing with the issue. Richard Herman has fought back successfully against being plagued by such companies. The man is a complete hero of mine. He hit the headlines last year when he successfully brought a claim against PPI Claimline in the small claims court for compensation for the nuisance calls that he received.

I must advise hon. Members that the even better news is that Richard Herman has done it again. He was recently cold called about his accident. He played along with the caller, who—illegally—would not say who they were, kept plugging away and asking the question and eventually discovered that they were from a 260-person firm of solicitors called Scott Rees. Mr Herman contacted Scott Rees on the phone and advised them that he would charge them £10 a minute for any further time that he spent being contacted by the firm or its lead-generating system. Sure enough, the firm called him again, so he took great pleasure in invoicing it for £230 and received a cheque. Consumers can fight back. Good luck to Mr Herman; he has obviously found himself a nice little earner.

Mr Herman has set up a website at, where he outlines a six-point plan to deal with cold callers. It is probably much more use than the advice that Ofcom gave to Mike Crockart and a fraction of the length. Mr Herman’s first point of advice is to record the telephone call and then to play along to find out the company name, advise the company that it will be invoiced £10 a minute if it calls again, wait for it to call again and then send it an invoice and sue in small claims court if it does not pay. Thanks to Mr Herman, there is a precedent.

We would all do well to advise our constituents that that is the way forward. When cold callers get to Mr Herman, it will cost them, but he says that it would deter them more if penalties were higher. That comes back to what we have all been saying about the regulators taking more action where detriment occurs. Much more should be done in terms of spot fines to curb such behaviour. Until we start showing that we will take action against cold callers, they will continue; it is just too profitable for them not to do so.

We might need to examine the activities of companies that present direct debit instructions to banks, which leaves consumers exposed, and to consider codes of practice in that regard. Telecommunications providers that allow scammers, particularly from overseas, to use our network have a big role to play. We are aware of other abuses that involve re-routing through UK numbers, the owners of which are often presented with significant bills. I hope that the Minister will consider that bigger issue and engage with other Ministers about it.

As we have discussed, there are lots of regulatory underlaps in this area, and many different agencies are involved. That is the challenge for the Minister. As we have heard, we have a good opportunity now to tackle the issue. We have all had enough of such attacks on our privacy, and we must engage with the industry on behalf of consumers, who do not deserve this nuisance.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes 3:55 pm, 28th February 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Alun Cairns on securing this debate. It is obvious from the exchanges so far that the present system is failing and totally unsatisfactory. It does not work in any meaningful sense. If we are to stop the plague of unwanted and unsolicited calls from which we all suffer, something must be done—and quickly.

Like colleagues, I have raised the issue in the House on numerous occasions, the last of which was 8 November, when after my question to the Leader of the House I received a response from the Minister. We all know the Minister to be effective and diligent; I sense he hears a “but” coming. I quote from his letter to me:

“I share your concern about this issue and fully understand the nuisance this causes your constituents. I agree that we need a more effective system which ensures that consumers are effectively protected against such calls.”

He goes on to say:

“I am aware that enforcement of the protections offered under PECR has not been very effective”.

That is certainly true, and from what we have heard I think that other Members would endorse it.

I do not want to be too critical of the Minister, as he has indicated that he is determined to push ahead with improvements. Indeed, he continues in his letter:

“I have pushed for improvements in this area.”

I am aware that efforts have been made, but numerous suggestions have also been made in this debate. We must limit how many times a company can call a particular answer machine to once every 24 hours. I understand that that has been knocked about and debated previously, but if it could be enforced, that would be a major step forward. I also understand that efforts have been made to clarify existing policy on issues such as calculating abandoned call rates, when an information message is to be played and what information it may or may not contain.

Ofcom has also made it clear that it is willing to tighten regulations further on answer machine detection technology, which is improving all the time, if such calls continue to cause harm. I assure Ofcom that they are continuing to cause concern, and I hope that it will act more robustly in future.

As we have heard, the Information Commissioner’s Office enforces breaches of the privacy and electronic communications regulations and of the Data Protection Act 1998 when a company uses a person’s name and number. If I read regulation 19 correctly, it requires companies making automated marketing calls to have the prior consent of the subscriber being called. Live marketing calls cannot be made to anyone who has indicated a general objection to receiving such calls or informed the caller that they do not wish to receive them.

As we heard from my hon. Friend Bob Stewart before he had to leave, there is also an issue about ticking the box on other forms and whether that counters one’s entry on the Telephone Preference Service register. Clearly, when they have registered with TPS, people think that that is job done. Many unsolicited and silent calls arise through the use of automated systems used by commercial call centres. Silent calls are of particular concern to the vulnerable and elderly. Any automated calls—those where the recipient of the call does not have the chance to speak to a real person—must be made with the consent of the recipient, and the identity of the caller must be included.

Ofcom’s revised statement of policy, of September 2008, specifically identified abandoned or silent calls as examples of persistent misuse:

“An abandoned call is where a connection is established but terminated by the caller even though the call has been answered by a consumer. Our policy is that these calls should play an information message to inform the consumer who made the call.”

What happens if that information message is not played?

As we have heard, such calls cause particular distress to the elderly and vulnerable. More than 70% of complaints received by Ofcom about silent and abandoned calls are from recipients who have received two or more silent calls a day from the same company, often over a period of days or weeks. Ofcom estimates that more than 22% of the population have experienced silent calls on their landline in the past six months.

The aim must be for a system in which our constituents do not need to complain because they can register with the Telephone Preference Service—that is it, job done, no more calls. If the calls did keep coming, there would be a clear breach of the rules and action should follow.

I have seen statistics that indicate that TPS operates with an 85% success rate; I can only assume that I, and most of my constituents, fall within the other 15%. Such calls seem to come in phases, with flurries of activity. PPI has been a particular plague in recent months, but people do not need such middlemen. If people go into their bank and fill in a claim form, the cheque will come to them in the post without having to send 10%, 20% or 50% to the middlemen.

The TPS does not affect automated diallers and recorded messages, so it recommends registering with Silent CallGard. That also confuses people. We need a much simpler system.

I am of an age at which I can remember knocks on the door from door-to-door salesmen selling anything from brushes to the “Encyclopaedia Britannica.” Nuisance calls are a modern menace equivalent to those door-to-door salesmen. Our constituents need a single point of contact with adequate resources and full powers to regulate that nuisance industry. When will that happen?

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 4:02 pm, 28th February 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard.

I congratulate Alun Cairns on securing this important debate. The fact that hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken demonstrates that he was right to press for the debate. He set out clearly the technical issues that we are facing.

I am also grateful to my right hon. Friend Ms Winterton, who first drew the problem to my attention. She is demonstrating her concern by sitting here and listening to the debate, which will not end in a whipped vote. What would demonstrate greater commitment than that?

Nuisance calls are a rapidly growing problem, and their number has trebled since the general election. I hope the Minister is paying attention, because this is one issue on which he cannot say, “What did you do for 13 years?” The fact is that this is a new problem for which he needs to find a new solution.

Some 47% of adults surveyed say they have received nuisance calls. Martin Vickers is absolutely right that it is shocking that 76% of people who have signed up to TPS are still receiving nuisance calls. That shows that, even when people behave perfectly sensibly and responsibly, they are still pestered, even if they have not displayed the degree of entrepreneurialism recommended by Jackie Doyle-Price.

The seriousness of the problem was demonstrated in the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) and for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). The calls are not only a nuisance; they can become threatening to some people, and they can also lead to serious financial frauds and scams. That is why it is important that the Government take serious action.

The briefing from Ofcom on its work is interesting, but Ofcom, too, is asking for changes to the regulatory framework. Ofcom would like to be allowed to share information with the Information Commissioner’s Office, which highlights the problem—we need a single regulator, a single port of call. Sharing information will not be enough; we need one place where people can go with the confidence that they will receive a proper answer. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on introducing one seamless operation to address this scourge of modern life?

Ofcom also mentioned the difficulty of addressing the problem of nuisance calls given its limited resources. The Minister is responsible for cutting Ofcom’s budget by 28%. When he did so, I am sure he thought it would be a cut without consequences for the general public because Ofcom is part of the Government machinery that is invisible to ordinary members of the public. In practice, such cuts have real implications, and he must think about whether Ofcom has the resources it needs to address nuisance calls.

I reiterate what other hon. Members have said: Ofcom should be the lead institution, because people have heard of Ofcom. But it is not simply a question of beefing up Ofcom; we also need a new framework based on the important principle that people are entitled to their privacy and should be in control of their own personal information.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central said, the issue is not only with nuisance calls but with people’s use of the internet and new technology in general. One of the main inhibitors when people go online is their anxiety about loss of privacy, and nuisance calls are another good example of that. The Government, who are pursuing a policy of digital by default, must energetically address that anxiety.

Members on both sides of the House agree that unwanted calls are a nuisance and that we need a fresh approach. Will the Minister say something about the forthcoming communications White Paper, which has been rather delayed, and commit to including nuisance calls in that and in new legislation? We hope to see a framework and outline for those things in the Queen’s Speech so that we can get moving on the problems.

I hope the Minister will be able to address the following issues in the White Paper. There should be a single complaints portal and a single regulator. There should also be changes to the rules on consent. At the moment, withdrawing consent is difficult once it has been given. If a person gives consent to a firm, the firm can carry on using that consent, even if the person subsequently signs up to the TPS. The firm can also sell on those data. We must enable people to retract consent simply and straightforwardly. I would also like the Minister to explore the possibility of ensuring that third-party marketing consent expires after three months.

It would help if the Minister said a little more about the monetary penalties available. Does he believe that the ICO needs to have stronger powers to issue fines and monetary penalties? These firms have an interest in making a high number of calls. They have a financial interest in exceeding the 3% of abandoned and nuisance calls permitted under the existing regulations. As long as they have a financial interest in doing so and it is difficult to tackle the technology, they will carry on doing that, so the only way to deal with it is for a strong, powerful financial disincentive through the fines mechanism.

Finally, we need to address the technology question. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who probably knows more about the technology than anyone else in the Chamber, say that it can be done. With a number of the culture, media and sports policy issues that we have debated, the initial stance of the industry has been, “Oh, it is not technically possible to do that”, although it has then turned out to be possible.

Hon. Members have suggested that even if the telephone number of the caller cannot be released to the recipient, the recipient should be able to complain to Ofcom and refer to the call, so that Ofcom can trace it. That is sensible. Another suggestion, equally important, is that mobile phone companies should be able to provide consumers with spam-filtering technology, to help them to tackle the problem of spam text messages, which all of us have received about PPI.

This is an important issue—we agree on that—and it is a new issue, so I am not blaming the Minister for not having dealt with it earlier, because he could not be expected to have that much foresight of the situation. The problem having now arisen, however, we clearly do not have the necessary institutional and legal machinery in place, so he needs to act. I hope that he will make a commitment to act in the forthcoming communications White Paper.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 4:12 pm, 28th February 2013

It is a pleasure to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I thank my hon. Friend Alun Cairns for securing this important Back-Bench debate and hon. Friends and hon. Members for their valuable contributions, including Mr McKenzie; my hon. Friend Bob Stewart; Cathy Jamieson, whom I have met to talk about the issue; my hon. Friend Mike Crockart, who is running a prominent campaign and whom I have also met to talk about the issue; Chi Onwurah, whom I meet regularly to talk about a range of issues because, as Helen Goodman rightly pointed out, she is the one in the House with the technical knowledge; my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price; my hon. Friend Martin Vickers, or previous Friend, because he clearly thinks I am doing a useless job, although he can get back into my good books by making a helpful intervention about what a marvellous job I am doing; and of course the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. All those hon. Members made vocal contributions, which means that they are regulated by the Information Commissioner, whereas Ms Winterton made a silent contribution by being in the Chamber to monitor proceedings, so she is technically regulated by Ofcom for the purposes of the debate, and that goes to the nub of the problem.

Without wishing to turn the debate into some kind of tit-for-tat exchange with the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, with whom I would like to say I have a good relationship on the issues we cover together, the problem is not new, although it is becoming prominent. Let me make no bones about taking the problem seriously. I know it is a problem from my own postbag, because, of the correspondence with the Department by hon. Members, I suspect that the majority is about nuisance calls, although I have not done an actual stock-take. All hon. Members contributing to the debate have made it clear that their constituents are genuinely affected by the problem, from those finding it mildly irritating to vulnerable people who find it sinister and intimidating. We must do more to tackle it.

Let me make a small contextual point: not all marketing calls are a bad thing. In this country, we have a successful direct marketing industry which is worth £14 billion—mail as well as calls—and employs almost 400,000 people. We must therefore recognise that it is an important industry and that, in many cases, a direct call can help a consumer. To return to the main point and to the thrust and mood of the debate, however, we must do more to combat the menace of silent and unsolicited marketing calls.

As I implied at the beginning of my remarks, and many hon. Members including my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan have made the point, there is some confusion in the regulatory structure. The Information Commissioner’s Office is responsible for the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, the result of a European directive, which means that it is responsible for live marketing calls, when someone calls people at home, and for automated recorded message calls, when a recorded person calls people at home. Ofcom has stepped into the breach—I think well—to deal with silent and abandoned calls, which are not directly regulated but are now covered by Ofcom because it has powers to deal with persistent misuse by telecoms companies. That is where Ofcom’s role exists.

In 2010, we made an important change, increasing the level of fines available. I will not make a party political point because that process was already under way under the previous Government; I am sure that a different Government would also have increased the fines. A penalty of £50,000 for persistent misuse is clearly chickenfeed to a large multinational company; that has been increased, so Ofcom can now fine up to

£2 million. In May 2011, we gave the Information Commissioner’s Office for the first time the power to fine, so that it can now fine companies up to £500,000 for serious breaches of the privacy and electronic communications regulations. Previously, it could only issue a fine of up to £5,000 through a magistrates court. The new powers, which came into effect about a year ago in January 2012, once the ICO had updated its statutory guidance, are being used and have resulted in substantial fines, such as the £440,000 imposed on two illegal marketeers. These are, therefore, to an extent early days for the use of the powers, although that may sound odd. I meet regularly with the ICO and with Ofcom to discuss what they are doing to work together and to use the powers. I am confident that we will see more fines.

It is worth remembering that the ICO and Ofcom are not in a position simply to be told about a breach and issue a fine the next day. They have to go through due process and they have to be sure of their facts. Although I suspect that that is frustrating, in particular for people who are watching the debate and want to see action and more fines, I am confident that there will be more fines along the way. That is quite depressing, however, in a funny way, because it shows the problem is continuing.

I too share the frustration that two regulators are involved, which is something that we want to look at in our White Paper. Now that I know that the Labour party’s position is that Ofcom should be the single regulator, I invite the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, as well as all stakeholders and those interested, to make a response to our White Paper. We will not set out our definitive position in the White Paper, but we will set out the options. The Government being a co-ordinated and seamless machine, as we know, it is the case that the ICO is covered by the Ministry of Justice, while Ofcom is covered by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, although a young, energetic and vigorous Minister is stepping into the breach to cover both issues and to be with hon. Members in the debate today.

I meet regularly with the ICO, Ofcom and the Telephone Preference Service. One thing they have done in the light of those meetings is to improve the information available on the internet. It is now relatively straightforward to navigate the Ofcom and ICO websites. On the Ofcom website the nature of the call received is detailed, and if it falls to the other regulator a button can be clicked to go straight through to it, and vice versa. They are co-ordinating their work.

It is important to go through some of the other issues. The hon. Lady referred to a single regulator. I hear what she says about consent, and I will certainly have a closer look at that. It is clear that authorised consent must be obtained from a consumer before contacting them, but it is also clear from the debate that hon. Members have the impression that some companies are playing fast and loose with that. It is possible to impose a fine for breaching that requirement, but I will look in more detail at how consumers may seek redress.

I make it absolutely clear that companies are required to provide calling line identification when they call, and if a UK company uses an overseas call centre it will fall within the regulations. If is of course much more difficult to deal with a company that not only uses an overseas call centre, but is based overseas with no UK operation.

Better technology is coming forward to identify companies that withhold their number, and I am sure that hon. Members saw in BT’s useful brief that better technology is available for phones and the services from telephone companies to prevent some calls getting through.

Photo of Michael Crockart Michael Crockart Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

I welcome the steps that companies such as BT are making, but does the Minister agree that asking people to pay to protect themselves is unacceptable? The cost of a twin set of new BT phones is £70, and many people do not have £70. Are we creating a two-tier system in which those who can afford it can avoid calls, but those who cannot afford it cannot?

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

BT is a private company and needs revenue to pay for the services it provides. However, I have regular meetings with it and I am happy to take the cost issue up with it. New technology always seems to be expensive initially, but the more people take advantage of it, the more likely it is to come down in price.

Photo of Michael Crockart Michael Crockart Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

I apologise for intervening again. My point was not the cost, but that people should not have to go down the road of having to pay the cost. We should concentrate on regulating properly and simply, and stopping the calls in the first place.

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

I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said, I have regular meetings with the ICO and Ofcom to find out what they are doing. We introduced fines, and we have increased them. We are working to co-ordinate the work of Ofcom and the ICO. These measures are important, and in the White Paper we will address in detail some of the options.

There is more we can do in the interim. As hon. Members know, legislation takes some time. As I said, I regularly meet the ICO and Ofcom, but I will extend those meetings to include stakeholders. They will include BT and other major telephone companies, as well as important stakeholders and consumer groups. As well as having the power to take action, it is right to publicise the opportunities that are available for consumers, and to work with consumer groups and telecoms companies to publicise what redress is available.

It is also important, as some hon. Members said, that we continue to hold to account companies that persistently abuse the system. For example, the ICO stated on its website that it has invited some companies to attend meetings with it to discuss their compliance with the privacy and electronic communications regulations. Those companies include Weatherseal Home Improvements, The Claims Guys, We Fight Any Claim, British Gas, Scottish Power, Anglian Windows, and TalkTalk. One or two of them are certainly improving their procedures as a result of the embarrassment of being included in that list.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

To get back in the Minister’s good books, I want to say that he is summing up splendidly.

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

I thank my genuine hon. Friend for his important intervention.

Time is running out, and I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan wants to sum up. Let me make it absolutely clear that I take the problem seriously. I know from my postbag how serious it is for hon. Members and their constituents. I am aware of the difficulty of effectively having two regulators, although the ICO takes the lion’s share of responsibility across this landscape. I regularly meet the ICO and Ofcom to co-ordinate action. We have introduced fines in the past two years, so they are relatively recent. They are being used and they will be used in future, but due process must be followed. I give a commitment to the House now to have regular round-table meetings not just with the ICO and Ofcom, but with a range of stakeholders such as BT and consumer groups. Finally, we will set out our proposals for change in our White Paper.

I thank hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I particularly thank hon. Members who are leading campaigns to deal with the issue. I regard them as allies and supporters, and I hope that they agree that we can work together on this important issue.

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan 4:26 pm, 28th February 2013

We have had an extremely successful debate, and I think there has been a significant shift in the Government’s position. I want to show my appreciation to Mr McKenzie, my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) and for Cleethorpes, and Helen Goodman, who focused on the complexity of the current position and demonstrated the cross-party theme for action.

I was particularly interested in the response of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, who focused on the part that trading standards can play. However, that demonstrates the complexity of the matter—they are yet another body that can help. I congratulate him on his work with trading standards in his constituency, and the part that they are playing.

Cathy Jamieson focused on the vulnerability of many receivers of these calls. Elderly people are disproportionately affected because they spend more time at home. Chi Onwurah has great experience of the technology available, and said that more can be done technically to identify the telephone numbers of people who withhold them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock highlighted Mr Herman, who is a champion of this campaign. Without question, he has managed to get his own back on some operators—and more power to his elbow. The more we can highlight and champion him, the more confidence that will give to victims of these calls.

A common theme has been the call for a single regulator. The Minister responded positively, and indicated the direction of thinking. We need simplicity and certainty, and we must put the consumer at the front of the issue, not the companies. There is a balance to be struck because not all marketing calls are wrong. There is a part for them to play, but it must be proportionate and within the regulations.

With changing technology, Ofcom needs broader powers so that it can react to circumstances as voice over IP becomes more of an issue and technology develops in ways that we may not even be aware of at the moment. The Minister is absolutely right to say that the private sector has a part to play. I am grateful that he talked about his meetings with the ICO and Ofcom, and that telephone providers and operators will come forward. It is exceptionally important to act in co-ordination.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).