Nuisance calls action plan must prompt more prosecutions

The Government’s measures to reduce nuisance calls require a real appetite to hunt down offenders. Without it, they will fail.

Michael Barnett

As I anticipated in this news article in November, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has now revealed its action plan for stopping nuisance calls, moving to consult on lowering the burden of proof needed to prosecute, as well as on reforms to how marketing consent is given by consumers.

The only concrete action to be taken immediately involves amending legislation to allow the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and Ofcom – the two regulators in this area – to share information more easily. Raising the level of potential fines also requires further discussion.

The moves are clearly welcome, for both consumers and law-abiding direct marketers who are often tarred with the same brush as the rule-breakers. However, they could have gone much further, such as by mandating technological means of preventing marketing calls made to people who have opted out. Several recommendations of an All-Party Parliamentary Group have also fallen by the wayside.

The theme shared by all the Government’s proposed actions is that they all focused on making enforcement against nuisance callers easier. That’s fine, but is the enforcement infrastructure for chasing down offending companies and those buying data lists from them really in place?

Late last year, I was told the ICO had just six investigators it could turn to. I hope it will be able to add significantly to that, if it hasn’t already. Otherwise it’s hard to see the number of calls abating.

And then there’s the question of why this is all taking so long. The measures announced have been mooted since late last year and haven’t evolved much, while the original timetable for consultation indicated by communications minister Ed Vaizey at the time was to hold it around Christmas. A number of conspiracy theories lend themselves as possible explanations.

For example, one of the more interesting aspects of the Government’s announcement is that the initiatives are now fronted by two Tory secretaries of state – Maria Miller from DCMS and Chris Grayling of the Ministry of Justice – when it has been Miller’s subordinate Vaizey answering all the nuisance calls questions from journalists and Parliament.

What to infer from that? It could be that the nuisance calls debate is suddenly perceived as a vote-winner at Conservative HQ in the general election run-up, worthy of bringing in more prominent members of Government to comment. Is it therefore also worthy of holding back progress so the Conservatives can announce their successes closer to polling day?

Perhaps. Or perhaps this was the plan all along, handing the media coverage to the big hitters once Vaizey has done all the legwork.

I could just be peddling the type of Westminster gossip that suggests much but means little. But then, there seems little reason why all this consulting couldn’t have been done and dusted by now.

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