pounds 1.4bn pile of junk through the letterbox

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The Independent Online
It arrives unwanted, clutters up the house, and more often than not is dumped into dustbins unread - but junk mail is a multi-billion pound business.

Last year, companies ranging from charities to banks spent around pounds 1.4bn on putting huge quantities of pulped forest through our doors. But this is dwarfed by the return: a revenue estimated at more than pounds 16bn.

Under pressure from the Data Protection Registrar, the Direct Marketing Association - the umbrella group for junk mail merchants - is now cleaning up its act. A new code, published two days ago, tightens up the rules on sending unsolicited material through the post.

But the odds on escaping an avalanche of brochures, sales offers, book club memberships, and financial schemes are still heavily weighted against the targeted customers.

Any company which has had business dealings with an individual has the right to send him or her material through the post. The only way to stop it, under the data protection rules, is to write to the company asking it to stop, or filling in a form asking to be excluded from further mail shots.

But it is not just businesses with which one has direct transactions which can lead to an avalanche of persistent paper. Listings are regularly rented out or sold off.

To stop becoming a target, one can join the little-known Mailing Preference Service. Membership, which is free, should mean that prospective mail- shot companies would exclude names held by the body. However, if such a check is not made, the only recourse is to write and complain. But critics say that the onus of avoiding junk mail should be moved from customers to businesses.

John Woulds, director of operations at the Data Protection Registrar, a government data watchdog, said: "At the moment, those receiving direct mail have to make the effort for it to stop. There is a school of thought that it should be the other way round, with the companies engaged in sending the material having to get permission before they do so. However, marketing companies say this would be hugely expensive and very difficult to put into practice."

Martin Bartle, communications manager of the Direct Marketing Association, defended the direct mailing business. "For instance, if your bank is sending you details on how to get a better return on your money, or charities are trying to raise funds for worthy causes, then direct mailing is perfectly justified," he said.

He claimed that 80 per cent of junk mail is normally opened, and 60 per cent read by the customers.

In her annual report published yesterday, the Data Protection Registrar, Elizabeth France, said the number of complaints against direct mailing had risen after a significant fall.

The complaints had fallen from 49 per cent to 9 per cent in 1996 only to rise to 24 per cent in the next year.

Launching the annual report, Mrs France said that she would be examining whether some aspects of the work of the intelligence services could be brought into the data protection fold. At the moment, MI5 and MI6, as well as the Government Communications Headquarters, are immune from the rules, and are not members of the Data Protection Registrar on the grounds of national security.

However Mrs France stated that as the secret services become more involved with crime fighting, those aspects of their work may well fall under data protection laws. She said that she had written about this to John Major when he was Prime Minister and did not get a response. She added: "The time may have come for us to take this up with Tony Blair and the new government."

Mrs France also announced that the DPR is issuing a set of guidelines for civil servants on gathering information on the public, and disseminating them. The code would be binding and the breaking of it could lead to disciplinary and even criminal charges.

Profit in the post

More than pounds 1.4bn is spent by businesses sending "junk" mail, for an estimated return of pounds 16bn last year.

In 1996 3,173 million junk mail items were sent out.

Households received on average 7.6 items sent through direct mail a month; 77 per cent say they opened the material; 63 per cent claimed they read it.

Business use of direct mail has risen by 196 per cent in the past ten years.

More than 25,000 people are employed by the direct mail industry.

Those who respond spend on average pounds 83 per mail shot. They are expected to make three responses a year.

Figures supplied by the Direct Mail Information Service.