Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Charlie Elphicke.)
I am delighted to have secured a debate on this important issue following my early-day motion 223 entitled “Calling time on nuisance calls”, which was launched at the end of June and attracted support from Members from across the House. I am also pleased that so many Members are staying for this debate so late in the evening. That is an indication, if any were needed, that this issue affects constituents in every part of the United Kingdom.
Very soon after the election, a number of constituents raised this matter with me in exasperation and despair at the fact that they were unable to find peace and quiet in their own homes because of the constant torrent of nuisance calls at all hours of the day and evening. These calls fall into three types: live marketing calls; recorded marketing calls; and abandoned, silent calls. They ask: do you want a conservatory? Would you like to save money on your gas, electricity, broadband, credit card and so on? Have you had an accident in the past X years? Have you claimed payment protection insurance money to which you are entitled? Would you like to take out a convenient loan? The list goes on and on.
We know that such calls are not just a nuisance—they are much more than that. They cause real distress, anxiety and upset, particularly to the elderly and the vulnerable, who simply cannot ignore their ringing phone because it is often the single most important means of friends and family keeping in touch with them.
This subject clearly transcends issues of party or region. In my constituency, there have been a number of these phone calls in the past few months to the vulnerable, the elderly, the young and the educationally disadvantaged—those four categories of people have been taken advantage of. Not only are they receiving nuisance calls, but they are losing money. Does the hon. Lady feel that legislation needs to be put in place to ensure that they are not losing money to these scams, which are occurring across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I was going to discuss the fact that we know that the way in which our data are used and passed on leaves the consumer without any real control. Studies have shown that there is evidence to suggest that certain groups in society are deliberately targeted.
Research undertaken by Which? tells us that eight out of 10 people said that cold calls were an annoying feature of their daily lives, with a worrying one third admitting that they found such calls intimidating and 56%—more than half—saying that they were discouraged from answering their phones. Make no mistake, the scale of this problem is huge and the effect on the lives of many of our constituents demands our attention.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this Adjournment debate. Many of these calls, which affect all of our constituents, up and down the country, originate abroad. Does she have any idea as to how we can bear down on nuisance calls from companies based outside this country, in addition to dealing with the calls from this country?
There is talk and co-operation going on, with Ofcom leading the way, looking at what can be done at European and international level. Beyond that, it is a case of knocking heads together to see how we can better regulate and control the data that leave this country.
Registering with the Telephone Preference Service is the obvious first step for those who feel that their lives are blighted by nuisance calls. Although that is an important tool, it cannot stop all unsolicited calls.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Not only do old people suffer more anxiety and distress about these calls, but they seem to be targeted—the research would seem to bear that out.
Ofcom estimates that the TPS can stop only about a third of nuisance calls, and that is because the issue of consent can be very confusing for consumers; it is not always clear that they have given their consent for their data to be passed on to other parties by ticking or not ticking a box on a form. In addition—
Let me make some progress and then I will give way. In addition, there is often a lack of clarity about the sheer range of other parties that people may have “agreed” to share their data with. As a result, those who register with the TPS may still be subject to a barrage of nuisance calls. Perhaps most worryingly, the evidence from StepChange Debt Charity is truly chilling: one in three of its service users—people who are in severe financial difficulty—has received an unsolicited marketing call offering a payday loan. It is absolutely shocking that unsolicited marketing calls for high-risk credit are encouraging financially vulnerable households to spiral deeper into problem debt. Before seeking advice, 15% of people said that they went on to take out further loans, borrowing an average of £980. That is not all. People who have already taken out a payday loan are significantly more likely to be targeted by nuisance calls or texts for payday loans. According to a report by the Children’s Society, 42% of people with a payday loan are contacted at least once a day, compared with only 11% of those who do not have a payday loan.
Chillingly, more than 1 million British adults say that they have been tempted to take out high-interest credit such as a payday loan as a direct result of an unsolicited marketing call or text. I urge the Minister to use his influence to persuade the Financial Conduct Authority to bring forward stronger rules to tackle the unsolicited marketing of high-risk credit products, such as payday loans. More must be done.
Following the Government’s action plan and the subsequent Which?-led taskforce, which reported in December 2014, a series of recommendations for Government regulators and businesses focused on finding solutions that work within the existing legislative structure. That includes director level responsibility and also requiring businesses to show their numbers when they call. Ofcom wants all communication providers to stop charging for caller line identification display. Only BT and Virgin now do so, but it is hoped that all providers will make such a move following the forthcoming EU framework review.
Businesses need to make public commitments to tackling nuisance calls. It is also important that consumers have much greater control over their personal data. Indeed, it is essential that, if and when consumers give their consent to be contacted by companies, it is clear to the consumers that he or she is doing so and, further, that it is easy for the consumer to revoke that consent should they wish to.
The hon. Lady is making a compelling speech on this subject. Does she agree that it would be very helpful if every time someone made such a call as this, they were required to say exactly how they had come by that information and on what basis they were relying on the consent of the person whom they were ringing?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and the Minister would do well to pay much attention to it.
Consumers are often targeted by nuisance calls, because, at some point, they ticked the box, or more commonly failed to tick the box. I am talking about a teeny, tiny box at the bottom of a page of tiny writing, which the consumer often does not even see. This gives consent to companies to contact them by telephone and pass on their personal details to third parties.
Let us not forget scam calls, the goal of which is to defraud consumers. Indeed, work done by some local authorities suggests that as many as 15% of nuisance calls to vulnerable customers are, in fact, scam calls. It is yet another sign that the consumer has very little control over their personal data. Who knows where the data can land as they pass through hands that are not always scrupulous?
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not only older adults who are at risk from these unscrupulous callers, but vulnerable people who have mental health problems or learning difficulties?
Absolutely. A whole range of people in society need the protection of the law and tighter regulation in this area.
Mobile phone users have not escaped this plague. In fact, many mobile phone users are simply unaware that they can register their mobile number with the TPS, and only 3% have done so.
My own local authority, North Ayrshire council, is doing some excellent work to help protect vulnerable consumers. It has invested in 10 call blockers and, out of 32 local authorities in Scotland, it blocks the third highest number of nuisance calls. The call blocking device ensures that only trusted sources can get through and it stops nuisance callers in their tracks before the residents’ phones have the chance even to ring. One consumer has had slightly more than 2,000 calls blocked in a four-month period. Although that is to be applauded, it is a disgrace that any one household would be subjected to such a barrage of nuisance calls.
With automated messages, my hon. Friend will be aware that one can often press 9 to remove oneself from the list. Does she agree that telling a cold caller to remove one’s number from the list should be enough for them not to call anymore?
Absolutely. The difficulty, though, is that a person’s personal data are out there among a host of organisations that will further continue to pester them.
It is essential that the Government reconsider whether the rules about how our data are collected, used and traded need to be tightened. We must get the balance right between enabling decent businesses to carry out direct marketing activity when consumers have given their consent for their personal data to be used and preventing the abuse of their data by unscrupulous businesses. I also urge the Government to lead a cross-sector business awareness campaign to ensure that companies know their responsibilities as regards marketing calls and texts and to consider how future legislation could tackle nuisance marketing.
Does my hon. Friend recognise the impact of the charitable sector’s cold calling on our communities? These discussions should also include the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator and the Charity Commissions for England and Wales and for Northern Ireland to ensure that charities recognise their duty of care to the vulnerable and the elderly.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. This should include all organisations that choose to use cold calling as one of their tools.
Senior executives need to be made more responsible for the actions of their companies. Although the Government have committed funding to an awareness campaign, more action is required and there is, in my view, an important role for the Financial Conduct Authority. It is time that the responsibility was no longer placed so heavily on the victims of nuisance calls and businesses who engage in this practice should be held more accountable for the genuine distress and anxiety they cause to consumers.
I thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for calling this important debate on nuisance calls. It is interesting that in the previous Parliament, nuisance calls were raised a great deal by Mike Crockart, the then Liberal Democrat Member for Edinburgh West, who is sadly no longer in this House. Without wishing any disrespect to Mike Crockart, whom I miss on many levels, the hon. Lady’s comprehensive and well-balanced speech showed that the issue of nuisance calls has a worthy new champion from Scotland. Although she quite rightly called for further action, she acknowledged that there has been some action in the recent past.
Tackling nuisance calls is a priority for us. It is an issue that I have worked on for several years now and it is a very difficult problem to tackle. I echo what the hon. Lady said in her speech about the pernicious nature of nuisance calls to elderly or vulnerable people, who are much more likely to suffer from this plague as they are at home when the phone rings.
That is exactly the point. For many elderly and vulnerable people, their phone is their lifeline. Not only are they at home and plagued by nuisance calls but, in many cases, they want to answer the phone as they do not know whether or not the call is important. They also obviously want to be able to use their phone as freely as possible to contact loved ones and additional support services.
That is why about two years ago I started to co-ordinate the action that was being taken in respect of nuisance calls, calling together the two regulators, the Information Commissioner and Ofcom, as well as numerous stakeholders, including the telephone companies and the internet service providers, and many charities and campaigning groups. Again, I echo what the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said in her excellent speech: we must strike a balance, and we should remember that underneath the plague of nuisance calls lies the legitimate activity of decent businesses, as she called them, wanting to make perfectly appropriate marketing calls and in many cases having the proper consent to do that.
Does the Minister agree that more needs to be done to make sure that the default position on any marketing form, especially those online, should be that consent is not given unless it is actively selected by the person filling in the form?
Consent is a difficult issue, which I will deal with later in my remarks. We keep the topic of proper consent under consideration. The issue of whether appropriate consent has been given, even though a person is registered with the Telephone Preference Service, is a classic example of why we need to keep the topic of consent under review.
We have considered many different aspects of the problem and how we can tackle it. We have looked at legislative and non-legislative issues which can make a difference. Early in the previous Parliament we increased the monetary penalties available to the regulators. The fine that could be levied by Ofcom increased in 2010 from £50,000 to £2 million, and in 2011 we allowed the Information Commissioner’s Office for the first time to impose monetary penalties of up to £500,000.
We have improved the signposting for consumers, so much better information and cross-referencing is available on the Information Commissioner’s website and the Ofcom website, and Which?, which has campaigned a great deal on the problem, provides a simple process. [Interruption.] The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), is making comments from a sedentary position. If she wants to intervene at any point, I will happily give way to her.
The Minister should not encourage the hon. Lady in a parliamentary error, for it would be a parliamentary error for an Opposition spokesperson to intervene from the Front Bench in an end-of-day Adjournment debate—a fact of which I should have thought a constitutionalist such as the hon. Gentleman would be keenly aware.
Having got good marks from you earlier today for a short answer to an urgent question, I now find myself back in your bad books, Mr Speaker. When you were shaking your head earlier, I thought it might refer to the quality of the hon. Lady’s intervention. I am delighted to be corrected and informed that it was merely a constitutional shake of the head, rather than a verdict.
We moved quickly to ensure that Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office could share information with each other. Those rules came into effect in July 2014. This has enabled Ofcom and the ICO to collaborate much more effectively in the identification and co-ordination of efforts to tackle those who make unsolicited marketing calls.
Last year my wife and I were involved in a minor road traffic collision, and for a year afterwards we were bombarded by calls essentially soliciting us to commit fraud by claiming to have suffered an injury which, in fact, we had not suffered. Will the Minister consider banning such outbound calls which solicit members of the public to make fraudulent claims?
I certainly would not condone anyone encouraging anyone to make a fraudulent claim. That would probably be a crime, although I would not want to comment on the individual case that my hon. Friend raises. He points to another important aspect. One of the struggles that we have in dealing with nuisance calls are the numerous regulators that get involved. For example, the claims management regulator is responsible for payment protection insurance calls, which were generated when the PPI scandal broke, and as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) pointed out in her speech, the Financial Conduct Authority also has a strong role to play, so it is important that we co-ordinate with the various regulators involved in the issue.
In talking about co-ordination and the ability of Ofcom and the Information Commissioner to share information, I should stress that I am delighted that last month we made a machinery of government change—known as a MOG—to bring the Information Commissioner’s Office into the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, so we now have both regulators within one Department. I am also delighted to say—this might raise even more of a cheer—that we have had a ministerial change. Baroness Neville-Rolfe, another Minister in the Department, is now formally responsible for the policy on nuisance calls, although obviously I will continue to answer questions on the policy in this House, because I take great interest in the issue.
The staff in my constituency office are bombarded with nuisance calls—sometimes up to 15 a day—from unscrupulous businesses trying to sell them things they do not want. Has the Minister considered the impact nuisance calls can have on small businesses?
I think that small businesses can be impacted in exactly the same way that individuals can. Although we often focus in these debates on elderly and vulnerable people, and quite rightly, we should also remember that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) indicated, many people from every walk of life can be plagued by nuisance calls. That includes not only individuals, but small businesses, which is why it is so important to continue to tackle this nuisance.
The other key change we made this year was to lower the legal threshold for what constitutes a nuisance call. Previously we had the difficult situation in which a nuisance call had to cause significant harm and distress. It was often the case that even when the Information Commissioner’s Office carried out enforcement action and imposed a fine, the company concerned appealed and was able to show with relative ease that their calls had not caused significant harm and distress. We have lowered that threshold, so it should now be much easier to take enforcement action and impose fines. Many hon. Members might say that, looking at the record, not enough has been done, but lowering the threshold should make it easier.
Ofcom has also introduced a new standardised approach to call tracing. That is now in routine use by the ICO and Ofcom, and it will be improved by the end of this year. We are also looking at how to make it more difficult for callers to use voice over internet protocol to facilitate an invalid calling line identification.
Does the Minister agree that as well as the misuse of personal data, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) referred to, there is an issue about how data are collected in the first place? I have noticed over the past year or so that it is becoming much more common when accessing services online—online is often the cheapest and most convenient way to access services, or indeed the only way—whether an obligation-free insurance quote or free wi-fi, for providers no longer to give the option to give consent. In other words, if a person does not give consent, they are not allowed to access the service. Have the Government any plans to legislate specifically against that nefarious practice?
We are looking at the data protection regulations, and I am sure that we could look at the example the hon. Gentleman raises, which is not one that I have come across in detail. That is another reason why Baroness Neville-Rolfe now has responsibility for our policy on nuisance calls, because she is also responsible for data protection and work on the digital single market, so it is a coherent policy brief. [Interruption.] I am hearing more sedentary remarks from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who is nodding her approval at the effective work that the Government are doing in these areas. I am extremely pleased that she recognises how well the work is going.
Although a lot of work is being done within the Department, the reality is that victims are still receiving numerous calls every night, which is having an impact on their wellbeing. A constituent wrote to me only last night, having received nuisance calls from half-past 8 in the evening right through to 11 o’clock at night. Should calls not be restricted, as my constituent suggests, to a limited window in the evening so that people are not interrupted for the rest of the evening?
There are plenty of perfectly valid suggestions about how we can tackle nuisance calls. However, to be blunt, we are dealing with unscrupulous companies based both here and abroad who will stop at nothing to bombard consumers with these calls. Even if we did introduce such legislation, it would not stop the most unscrupulous companies. That is why it is so important, first, to be able to report these calls, and then to trace them. We will consult on calling line identification to make it absolutely certain that legitimate companies display their number when they call someone. We have worked with the Direct Marketing Association to produce a code of conduct to which companies can sign up. I am sure that any legitimate company that wants to carry out legitimate marketing activity would restrict its calls to what anyone in this House would regard as common-sense hours.
One reason we have seen this huge increase in nuisance calls is the use of technology that allows automated calling, so we need to combat that technology with our own technology. I was delighted that in the Budget before the election the Chancellor announced a £3.5 million nuisance calls budget. That includes the marketing mentioned by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, but also a challenge fund to allow people to purchase call-blocking technology. We are looking at network-level solutions because we want to ensure that we can block some of these calls at source. Indeed, a company that has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, TalkTalk, has deployed network-level solutions that have blocked hundreds of millions of nuisance calls.
I would not expect any legitimate company to call a consumer at 11 o’clock at night. We could debate this back and forth, but I will write to the hon. Lady about the work we have done with the Direct Marketing Association.
We have also worked with Ofcom on call tracing, helping to trace calls where calling numbers are withheld or disguised. Ofcom has now agreed a new standardised approach to call tracing across and between network providers in the UK and abroad, and that was implemented earlier.
I do recognise the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, and I am very pleased to see so many hon. Members in the House at this late hour to support her. We have worked on this through changing legislation and working with providers. I will continue to update the House on this. The nods and smiles from the Opposition spokesmen, the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), encourage me in my belief that we are doing the right thing and making an impact.
Question put and agreed to.