THURROCK MP, Jackie Doyle-Price rose on the floor of the House of Commons to question colleagues about nuisance phone calls.
Ms Doyle-Price said:
“My hon. Friend is getting to the nub of the argument. There are regulators responsible for policing such activity, but as with any regulatory breach, regulators have to be fleet of foot in dealing with transgressions, or companies will just carry
on with them. Would my hon. Friend like to see a much more aggressive approach on behalf of the regulators so that action is taken sooner?
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan, Conservative)
My hon. Friend shows great interest in these issues and makes an extremely valuable point. I have already mentioned that Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office have been slow to respond to the problem, and as my hon. Friend highlights, the position is ever changing. Not only are telephone numbers changing but so too is technology. Although I welcome Ofcom’s five-point plan, which it would probably cite in response to the criticism coming from the Government Benches, it is not a game changer. The plan is helpful and welcome, but it will not make a significant difference to most people, particularly as it is an ever-changing situation.
I have serious concerns about the regulatory responsibility being split between two bodies. It causes confusion to the consumer and adds nothing to the prevention or resolution of the problem. Having one body—probably Ofcom—would be much more efficient. The issue of withheld numbers, however, is central. Technology improvements allowed caller ID to be introduced in 1994, and at that time a consensus developed that callers should be able to withhold numbers if they wished. Key reasons related to the need to protect people receiving calls from charitable groups, such as those supporting victims of domestic violence, and to the need for the police to contact someone without disclosing their identity. At the time, there was no major issue with nuisance calls, and it is fair to say that contact centres have now abused the protection that was intended for the greater good.
Nuisance calls could be compared to someone knocking at the door wearing a mask or a balaclava. Would we answer the door to such an unknown caller? Of course we would not. Why, then, do we allow the same thing to happen over the telephone? Ironically, door-to-door salesmen from some of the companies Ofcom has criticised must show identity cards. In recent years, some of those companies have used them as a marketing ploy to demonstrate how responsible they are. Salesmen are therefore showing ID cards when they call at the door, but nothing similar happens when they use the telephone.
Many people have been forced to ask their telephone operators to block all withheld numbers—for a fee, of course. That can leave individuals in a vulnerable position. GP practices, police stations or other essential service providers do not always display their number—possibly with good reason, possibly not—so constituents may refuse to answer the telephone.
Some innovations and new telephones can overcome part of the problem, but there needs to be a shift in policy to protect the consumer. One option is that organisations that wanted to withhold numbers would need to show they had good reason for doing so and to get Ofcom’s agreement. That, of course, should not apply to domestic users. We need to recognise that that will not always deal with certain situations, given technological developments and the ever-changing situation. Voice over internet protocol and the international calls I mentioned are particularly problematic.
I am not a fan of legislation for the sake of legislation, so I ask UK firms to play their part voluntarily. They should not only adhere strictly to the regulations, but go further and introduce higher standards, possibly in the
form of a code of conduct. It would be a good start, for example, if they agreed to stop using withheld numbers, rather than being forced to do so through legislation. Using withheld numbers is in their interests, not the consumer’s interests, so if they really want to react to consumer demands, that would be a good start.
Telephone network operators also have a part to play. They could establish a system that made it possible to identify callers using withheld numbers. That would allow complaints to be made to Ofcom or the Information Commissioner. Legislation may well prevent the caller’s number from being given to the receiver, but the network operator will often know what the number is. A simple system could be introduced to allow a consumer to make a direct complaint to Ofcom, with the telephone operator advising Ofcom what the number is. Those innovative, straightforward proposals would resolve many of the problems.
As I said, the situation is extremely complicated. I have not even got on to texting or calls to mobiles. However, my comments demonstrate the problem, which has increased partly as a result of payment protection insurance and partly as a result of the claims that have been made for many other things. Given that the data that have been published show a trebling of nuisance phone calls in one month alone last year, we can assume the figure is even higher, and it would be much higher still if the receiver of the call could complain because they had the telephone number. I am grateful for Members’ support.