Telemarketing inquiry can’t become a buck-passing exercise

All players in the telecoms and telemarketing industry claim they have an incentive to end nuisance calls and texts, so why haven’t we moved forward faster?


Today (3 September) marked the opening of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s new inquiry into nuisance telephone and text marketing. First up were consumer groups, direct marketers and network operators, and there was a common theme in all their evidence – an express desire to pursue the rogue companies who ignore regulations and contact people without consent.

For the likes of consumer association Which?, the reason for taking this stance is obvious. But the rhetoric was just as unequivocal from the Direct Marketing Association and Direct Marketing Commission, which represent telemarketers, and from BT and the Mobile Broadband Group – the networks that carry direct marketing messages in return for payment.

All were united in acknowledging a problem exists, and in claiming it does their interests more harm than good. For ethical direct marketers, being tarred with the same brush as those that flout regulations is costing them business; while telecoms networks say the costs of following up complaints mean the revenues earned for calls made over their infrastructure aren’t worthwhile.

Yet for all this apparent consensus, there is still little agreement about whose fault the mess is or whose responsibility it is to clear up. Everyone seems to think they are, broadly speaking, doing what they can. Thus the talk was all about “partnership solutions”, which MP Philip Davies shrewdly compared to the language of the civil service – code for doing relatively little and passing responsibility to someone else.

If working in partnership is going to solve this unanimously recognised problem, then all parties need to proceed under the same set of assumptions and the same answers to the many questions that arose from this first committee hearing. Should regulators co-operate or remain individually accountable? Is legislation too lenient or is it too specific? Should marketing messages be proactively blocked or retrospectively investigated?

Each of these points – and more questions like them – could reasonably be argued either way, but all need definitive answers. Hopefully this inquiry will provide them, along with a workable roadmap for reform. The danger is that it becomes no more than a prolonged exercise in buck-passing, resulting in too little concerted action. In that case the politicians, who ultimately know least about the industry, will be forced to act as they see fit.

Their constituents are demanding it, and we’re starting to see now that they have the will to do something about it.

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