The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has announced plans to make it easier for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to fine companies that spam people with nuisance calls and texts.
The six-week public consultation will seek input on lowering the legal threshold before firms responsible for nuisance calls and texts can be fined up to £500,000.
Culture secretary Sajid Javid said: “Companies have bombarded people with unwanted marketing calls and texts, but have escaped punishment because they didn’t cause enough harm.”
At the moment, the ICO must prove that nuisance callers caused "substantial damage" or "substantial distress".
However, in October 2013, Christopher Niebel, joint owner of Tetrus Telecoms, successfully appealed a £300,000 fine imposed on him in 2012 for sending millions of unlawful spam texts over three years. His co-owner, Gary McNeish, was also fined £140,000.
The pair sent up to 840,000 texts a day from unregistered, pay-as-you-go SIM cards, as well as selling on active phone numbers. Each reply to the messages raised £3 to £5 in a lead-generation scheme, netting them over £7,000 a day. However, the court ruled that Niebel and McNeish did not cause substantial distress.
This had the effect of hindering the ICO's ability to successfully fine firms.
Plans to reword the law
“Being called day after day may not be ‘substantially distressing’ but that doesn’t make it acceptable,” said Javid.
The government would now like to reword the law to allow the ICO to pursue companies found to have caused "annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety".
Justice and civil liberties minister Simon Hughes added: “We have already increased the level of fines available to punish rogue companies. Now we want to make it easier to stamp it out by lowering the threshold for taking action.”
Lending its support to the consultation, consumer advocacy group Which? hailed a substantial victory for its Calling Time campaign, which attracted the support of 125,000 people.
Read more about the work of the ICO
“Millions of us endure unwanted calls and texts every day, so these new powers must be introduced as soon as possible,” said Which? executive director and chair of the government’s Task Force on Marketing Consent, Richard Lloyd.
“We look forward to the regulators using them to crack down hard on the unscrupulous firms that flout the rules.”
The consultation comes seven months after the government published an action plan on nuisance calls, which brought together regulators, consumer groups and industry representatives to tackle the problem.
Measures published in the action plan included highlighting informal action taken against large consumer brands, including British Gas and TalkTalk, which had enabled them to cut complaints against them by three quarters; the publication of easier to understand and more consistent guidance on how to stop unsolicited calls; the appointment of extra enforcement staff to the ICO and the Claims Management Regulation unit at the Ministry of Justice; simplifying how Ofcom shares information on rogue callers with the ICO; and improvements to the ability of the industry to trace calls where the number is withheld or spoofed.