25 February 2015
Last updated at 02:30
Imposing fines of up to £500,000 on the companies behind cold calls and nuisance text messages is to become easier under changes to the law being made by the government.
The move follows tens of thousands of complaints about cold calling.
At the moment, companies can only be punished if the Information Commissioner can prove a call caused “substantial damage or distress”.
But from April 6, that legal requirement is to be removed.
More than 175,000 complaints were made to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) last year about nuisance calls and text messages.
The government says the number of complaints has risen in the past decade and the issue is particularly acute for the elderly and housebound as such calls can cause distress and anxiety.
In a speech earlier this month, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham described the current law as “a licence for spammers and scammers” and appealed for more powers.
Currently the ICO can take action against companies who flout rules on direct marketing, and it says it has issued penalties of £815,000 to nine companies since January 2012.
But it has been powerless to target other firms behind a large number of unsolicited calls or texts.
It had tried to argue that companies which make a large number of calls could breach the regulations because of the “cumulative effect” of their actions.
But a tribunal upheld an appeal against a £300,000 fine imposed on Manchester-based Tetrus Telecoms after ruling its high volume of text messages about PPI and accident claims did not meet the legal threshold of causing “substantial damage or distress”.
Now, following a six-week public consultation, that threshold is to be removed according to digital economy minister Ed Vaizey.
He said: “”For far too long companies have bombarded people with unwanted marketing calls and texts, and escaped punishment because they did not cause enough harm.
“This change will make it easier for the Information Commissioner’s Office to take action against offenders and send a clear message to others that harassing consumers with nuisance calls or texts is just not on.”
It will now be up to the ICO to assess when a serious contravention has taken place.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said it was “committed” to dealing with the problem of nuisance calls, and that it was looking to introduce mandatory caller line identification so that all marketing callers would have to display their telephone numbers.
It also confirmed that it will look at introducing measures to hold board level executives responsible for nuisance calls and texts.
This follows a report last December from a task force looking at the problem, which called for a review of the rules in order to act as a stronger deterrent to rogue companies.
The executive director of the consumer organisation Which?”, Richard Lloyd, who chaired the task force, welcomed the announcement, saying the government was “making good on its promise” to crack down on nuisance callers.
He added: “These calls are an everyday menace blighting the lives of millions. We want the regulator to send a clear message by using their new powers to full effect without delay.”