Government gets tough on nuisance calls

After complaints from households treble in three months, threshold for taking action is lowered

Nuisance phone calls that blight households face a Government crackdown today as ministers aim to erase a problem that cause “real distress and fear” across Britain.

Maria Miller, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, will unveil the plan aimed at tackling the problem, claiming the practice “must stop”. The measures follow the revelation in April last year that the number of complaints about unwanted calls had trebled in just three months, with three-quarters of people who attempted to block the calls still receiving them. Ms Miller said the calls were “at best an irritation” and could cause “real distress and fear” for the elderly.

One of the major components of the plan will be a consultation on lowering the threshold for when action can be taken by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). Current rules mean that calls must cause “substantial damage or distress” before action can be taken. But the ICO has asked for this to be lowered so that it just has to be proved that the calls cause “nuisance, annoyance, inconvenience” or “anxiety”.

The shift in policy would allow the ICO to target more companies – and this, in turn, will be considered by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Research by Which?, the consumer group, back in September found that around 80 per cent of people received a cold call on their home phone in the previous month, with nearly half (48 per cent) receiving an unsolicited text message in the past month. More than 100,000 complaints were received by the ICO last year. Other changes include the setting up of a task force, chaired by Richard Lloyd, the Which? chief executive, aimed at investigating how customers give and withdraw consent for marketing calls and how the information is kept.

Payment protection insurance calls make up a significant number of nuisance calls and the Ministry of Justice will launch a consultation tomorrow on whether regulated companies that breach Claims Management Regulation Unit rules should face fines up to 20 per cent of their annual turnover for offences including using information gathered by unsolicited calls and texts, providing bad services or wasting time and money by making spurious claims.

Next week, regulation will be introduced in Parliament to simplify how Ofcom, the telecommunications regulator, can share data with the ICO and the Insolvency Service about potential rogue companies.

The DCMS action plan will be overseen by Ed Vaizey, the Communications minister. Mr Lloyd said the proposals would represent a “victory” for the some 112,000 people who had signed up to the campaign by Which? on the issue, which was set up last March. “We look forward to regulators using their new powers to help stop this growing problem,” he said. “It’s also important that people continue to report complaints so regulators can crack down on companies who break the rules.”

Mrs Miller said that she believed people needed to “feel safe and secure in their homes”. She added: “The rules are clear – people have the right to choose not to receive unsolicited marketing calls.”

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