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House of Lords Hansard
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11 May 2016
Volume 771

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the recent announcement that cold-callers will have to display their phone numbers, what more they plan to do to prevent vulnerable people from being targeted by unscrupulous callers.

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My Lords, during the passage of the Consumer Rights Act, I made a commitment to this House that the Government would make it a requirement for direct marketing callers to display caller line identification, so I am delighted that this requirement will come into force on 16 May. It is part of a package of measures that we will be introducing to protect the most vulnerable in society from the plague of nuisance calls.

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My Lords, most of your Lordships have a mobile, probably along with a landline at home. Many elderly people have just a landline that, very often, is their link to the outside world. For a frail and elderly person receiving a call on a long dark night, imaginations can run riot and it can be quite terrifying. I congratulate the Minister on this initiative, but is she able to tell me how it will be policed and whether she has any advice for consumers?

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The Information Commissioner will enforce these new regulations and has the power to issue fines of up to £500,000 against organisations that breach the law. However, my noble friend is right that it is also important to know how to prevent nuisance calls: register with the TPS; report numbers when they come through; and help your elderly relatives to do so. Ofcom is working with the TPS to improve things. This is a complex area and we have to move forward gradually on a number of fronts.

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What steps are the Government taking to block the loophole that companies use to get around the TPS by making calls from call centres that are based abroad?

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As I said, talks are going on between the TPS and Ofcom, but the new CLI rules that come in next week apply to all UK-registered marketing operations even if they operate from abroad. However, we are also working internationally with other regulators—the equivalent of our Information Commissioner—in the US, India, China and so on. Indeed, I am going to China myself in the summer, and this subject needs to be raised there.

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I hope they are very polite to you there.

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Sorry. Nuisance calls are still clearly a menace despite our amendment that led to mandatory caller line identification. The problem with fines is that they are either very small and do not hurt the company or so big that they put the company out of business and it reappears as a phoenix company. Would the Minister give some consideration to giving the Information Commissioner the powers to hold directors of these companies to account, rather than simply relying on fines?

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I will certainly be very polite during my trip to China. I thank the noble Baroness for her collaboration on this important issue during the passage of the Bill. We are bringing in a number of measures, including strengthening the direct marketing guidance, which includes the possibility of making consent time-bound, because one problem is that you tick the box and that may enable people to make nuisance calls. The point that she makes about directors, particularly where a company has gone bust as a result of a large fine, is one that we should look at.

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My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of the companies that make cold calls take no account whatever of the regulations? They are not registered, there is no way of tracking them and they do not give their numbers, so what can be done to stop these people who are working outside the law? They are the ones who cause the most difficulty, especially to vulnerable elderly people.

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This is a wider problem, what with changes online and the ability of criminals to work across borders. The answer is that we have to persist in complaining. Even if phone numbers are withheld, you need to report instances to the Information Commissioner, whether online or otherwise. We will find that over time some operators are being put out of business. I myself have found that when reporting an incident and discovering that the number is owned by a large company that has had a large fine. This is a complex area. We are trying to tackle it on a number of fronts through regulation, awareness and innovation. An innovation fund was set up last year by my right honourable friend the Chancellor to put money into novel options, and we are pursuing those.

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My Lords, what advice is being given to vulnerable and older people at home who are being harassed mercilessly by these companies?

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Caller identification can work, and more and more phones now have that option. We have allocated £500,000 of the fund set up by the Chancellor to the National Trading Standards scams team to provide call-blocking devices to vulnerable people. Generally, we are putting more money into awareness campaigns. Nuisance calls are a blight for the elderly, and this is an area where we all need to work together to try to do something about it.

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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, on her clairvoyance in putting down this Question so timeously, but I say to the Minister that it is not just a matter of calls from unscrupulous people and criminals, nor just a matter of calls to the elderly and vulnerable people. All of us are getting call after call, day after day, week after week, and we are getting fed up with it. What is the Minister going to do about it?

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As the Minister, I share the noble Lord’s frustration and am gradually trying to do something about it. We have raised the fines and are changing the regulations, and the evidence from Ofcom is that the volume of unsolicited marketing calls has fallen as a result. But of course there is more that we have to do.