Government pushes for simpler rules to swiftly punish nuisance marketers

The Government is pushing forward with plans to make it quicker and easier to punish nuisance marketing calls that could see direct marketers slapped with fines of up to £500,000.

The Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) is seeking to lower the punishment threshold for unwanted marketing calls to “causing annoyance inconvenience or anxiety” rather than “substantial damage or substantial distress”.

Previously, direct marketers have escaped punishment due to the authorities’ failure to prove countless nuisance calls and texts had a significant detrimental impact on the recipients. The new changes, however, will make it easier to fine guilty firms, a move its backers hail as the “first step” to “protecting the most vulnerable”.

The lower punishment threshold was first outlined earlier this year as part of the Government’s nuisance calls action plan. It aims to avoid the legal loophole that have hampered the Government and regulator the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) from clamping down on rogue messages.

A tribunal hearing ruled in favour of tele marketing company Tetrus Telecoms in 2013 after the ICO fined it £300,000 for bombarding people with texts about PPI and accident claims. The court concluded that while unwanted messages had been sent on an “industrial scale”, they did not meet the legal requirements of causing significant harm.

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham says the rule change would lead to a “definite drop off in the total number of spam calls and texts”.

“The public clearly want to see a stop to nuisance calls and texts. We welcome this proposed change in the law which will enable the ICO to make more fines stick, sending a clear message to the spammers and scammers that the rules around cold calls and spam texts must be followed, ”he adds.

“The majority of rogue marketing firms make hundreds, rather than thousands, of calls and the nuisance is no less a nuisance for falling short of the ‘substantial’ threshold. This change means we could now target those many companies sending unwanted messages.”

Richard Lloyd, Which? executive director and chair of the Government’s taskforce on marketing consent, welcomes the rule change, calling it a “victory” for the 125,000 people who supported its “Calling Time” campaign.

Mike Lordan, director of external affairs at the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), which manages the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) under licence from Ofcom, says: “It’s good news for the telemarketing industry that DCMS has now launched its long-promised consultation on nuisance calls and spam text.

“The recent surge in complaints has been driven in the main by rogue companies making PPI and accident claims calls. Lowering the burden of proof will be an important tool in protecting the telemarketing industry and consumers from the scourge of nuisance calls.”

The consultation on the rule change ends in December.

Complaints about unsolicited marketing calls and texts remain a “major concern” for ministers and regulators.

Twelve months ago the Government urged telecoms firms to clamp down on nuisance call marketers following a report that made 16 recommendations and called on telecoms companies to pilot new ways of blocking specific phone numbers. Giving consumers the option to use caller identification free of charge on all marketing calls was also proposed.

Additionally, ministers have mapped out regulations to simplify how Ofcom can share information with the (ICO) and the Insolvency Service about rogue companies.

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