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Finance: Debt

Volume 717: debated on Monday 1 March 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they plan to take to deal with unsolicited computer-generated telephone calls offering to resolve any and all debt and financial problems.

My Lords, organisations that use recorded phone messages to promote a product or service are required by law to comply with the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003. Regulation 19 requires the caller who leaves a recorded phone message to ensure that they have obtained prior consent. Where a consumer receives a recorded message that they have not agreed to, this is likely to be a breach of the regulations. In these circumstances, consumers are encouraged to report such calls for further investigation to the Information Commissioner's Office, as it has responsibility for the enforcement of the regulations.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that the citizens advice bureaux have drawn attention to the 9,500 new debt problems and 8,200 new benefit problems every working day? The latest call I received said, “You’ll be able to work off 100 per cent of your debts in just 12 months. To see if you qualify to take advantage of this scheme and to have your entire debts written off then press 2 on your phone now”. I get these calls several times a week. Does he agree that the danger is that vulnerable people will be taken in by that type of message, and that the Government should at least issue warnings about it?

I agree with the noble Baroness. I, too, have had these calls, although I have not stayed on the line as long as she did—I have never got to the “press 2” bit. However, we share her concern about the situation. We realise that a significant number of people are struggling with their finances during the recession. Additional funds were poured into various funding activities: £10 million to support longer opening hours at 330 citizens advice bureaux; £5.8 million for the National Debtline to increase capacity levels on the helpline by 50 per cent, thereby enabling it to handle 220,000 calls a year; and £500,000 to develop a new self-help debt advice toolkit to empower people to negotiate with creditors and agree a repayment plan, thus freeing up more time for debt advisers to deal with people who are facing crisis debt problems.

My Lords, I shall slightly widen the noble Baroness’s Question. I appreciate that this may be slightly above the Minister’s pay grade, but will he undertake to ensure that during the election we do not have a repetition from the Labour Party of what happened last time, when I understand that many people received computer-generated telephone calls from John Prescott at 3.30 am?

The noble Lord should remember the saying, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. In 2005, the ICO served enforcement notices against the Conservative Party and the SNP. In 2008, the ICO served an enforcement notice against the Liberal Democrats as they had breached the PECR by making unsolicited automated marketing calls to consumers who had not given their consent.

The noble Lord suggests that those who wish to complain should get hold of the Information Commissioner. Is it not about time that the Information Commissioner got off his backside and recognised that there are thousands of complaints out there already, and that he should do something about them?

The Information Commissioner initially warns companies informally that he will initiate formal action unless they cease to make such calls, which is usually effective and removes the need for formal action. Since 2005, the ICO has issued five enforcement notices. As regards unsolicited marketing calls, as opposed to computer-generated live calls, you can use the telephone preference service, which should stop these calls. Fifteen million people have registered for that facility and the number is growing.

Is my noble friend aware that I now live in mortal terror of getting an unsolicited computer telephone call from the noble Lord, Lord Razzall? Is there a publicity campaign to inform people about this admirable figure, the Information Commissioner?

I thank my noble friend. I cannot do much about the terror in which he lives, but I suggest counselling. We are active in terms of the Government’s other activities. The Ministry of Justice runs the Financial Inclusion Fund, the Financial Services Authority and Her Majesty’s Treasury are progressing their financial capability money guidance pilots, and Communities and Local Government is providing more help for consumers in difficulties via the mortgage rescue scheme. A number of government schemes are in process and there is a lot of publicity.

Can the Minister tell us how many unsolicited calls the Treasury has had to help with its debt and financial problems?

Does the Minister recall the opening sentence of Cakes and Ale by W Somerset Maugham to the effect that, when you have been out and on returning home discover that somebody has called you and that it is extremely important that you should call them back, you generally find when you do call them back that it is more important to them than it is to you?

I thank the noble Lord. As a Somerset Maugham fan myself, I could not remember that particular quote. In today’s circumstances, you would think “caller beware” before you answer all those calls.