The Government will clamp down on millions of nuisance phone calls and text messages under fresh plans to change the law, which will be unveiled later this month.
Ed Vaizey, the Conservative Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy, is recommending a change to regulations so that it will be easier to fine firms that have bombard people with cold calls and spam texts.
The changes, once agreed, would be in force before the general election in a move that MPs are hailing as a "first step" to "protecting the most vulnerable".
The prospect of fines is expected to stop firms harassing customers with recorded messages that promise, for example, to help them recover mis-sold payment protection insurance. Many of these firms are believed to have illegally obtained the mobile and landline phone numbers they ring, while the messages can often mark the start of a scam – some even lie that they will block nuisance calls for a fee.
Previous attempts to stop rogue messages and phone calls were undermined last year when a legal decision went against the regulator, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).
The watchdog had fined Christopher Niebel £300,000 after a marketing company he co-owned, Tetrus Telecoms, sent hundreds of thousands of texts about PPI and accident claims.
A tribunal upheld Mr Niebel's appeal that these texts did not meet the legal test which requires "substantial harm" or "substantial distress" to have occurred for a fine to be issued against a marketing firm. Though the case judge concluded that the firm had "engaged in sending unwanted text messages on an industrial scale", this was not sufficient to justify the fine.
The decision angered the ICO, as it hampered its ability to fine firms even though concerns over spam marketing are raised by the public more than 3,100 times a week. Industry figures show 30 million Britons receive up to a billion nuisance phone and text messages a year.
A draft version of a consultation recommends changes to the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations. The preferred option is thought to be a lowering of the threshold when a firm could be fined, so that substantial harm or substantial distress is replaced by a term such as "annoyance" or even "nuisance"; the second idea is to remove the threshold entirely, which would mean that the ICO would have more freedom to interpret the regulations, and therefore fine firms, as it sees fit.
Simon Entwistle, the deputy chief executive of the ICO, said yesterday: "This will make it much more straightforward for us to take action. That's what these calls are – they are annoying, and it's not going to be difficult for us to show they are annoying. At the moment, it takes a large amount of effort to prove substantial distress and this change will make it much more proportionate to the problems these calls and texts cause. I would hope this [will help to] close down those that are not reputable marketing firms.
"We want to make this unattractive as a business model – if some firms get closed down because they weren't adhering to the rules, it is not something we would be worried about. We understand firms can have legitimate reasons to make marketing calls, but we reckon that for every one concern lodged with us there are about 1,000 nuisance calls or texts."
Mike Crockart, the Lib Dem MP who co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Nuisance Calls, said: "If this goes ahead, it could clamp down on millions of nuisance calls and texts a year. This is the first step in the right direction and we do need to be doing more work, protecting the most vulnerable households from nuisance scams."