The Gazette’s petition to Stop Nuisance Robocalls is to be used at the forefront of a fight to change the law.
We met Information Commissioner Christopher Graham at Westminster last week to hand over our 2,000-name petition, which was launched after a torrent of late-night automated calls left residents across Northumberland angry, upset and confused.
Mr Graham said the robocalls dossier, featuring Gazette reports, comments from our Facebook site and the petition, would help towards imposing tighter regulations on companies which continuously flout the law.
He said: “I am really delighted to receive this petition from the Northumberland Gazette and from the readers who are really concerned about the scourge of silent calls, nuisance calls and robocalls that wake you up in the middle of the night, where people want to sell you things that you don’t want.
“This is really useful. This is, so far as I am concerned, exhibit A in the response I am going to be making to the Government consultation on changing the law, so it is easier for organisations like mine to make fines stick and to make civil monetary penalties stick against the people who are perpetrating this sort of nuisance.”
Our campaign received cross-party support and was backed by charities, businesses and individuals, all of whom were sick and tired of nuisance calls.
One pensioner told the Gazette that the calls, which she received two or three times a week, were ‘ruining her life’ and making her ill.
A consultation is soon to be launched to make it easier for consultancy bodies, such as the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to enforce tougher penalties on companies which flout the laws of data protection by making nuisance calls without permission.
At present, the ICO has the power to impose a civil monetary penalty of up to £500,000 for the most serious breaches of the Data Protection Act.
However the ICO has to prove that the company has caused substantial distress for any fine to stick.
In one case over the last two years, an individual was fined £200,000 for his part in sending hundreds of thousands of scam text messages.
But the consultation is being launched to lower the burden of proof and make it easier for companies to be reprimanded for their actions.
Mr Graham said: “It is hoped that the lower burden will be around nuisance, hurt and annoyance.
“And this information in this dossier is just fantastic to help that.
“We need to encourage people to register their concerns and show the impact that these calls can have.
“If somebody breaks the law and annoys everybody we should have more effective penalties to be able to deal with them.
“In some cases you can just dismiss it as an annoyance but for others it is much more.
“You have got elderly people on their own where the telephone is their lifeline and they think if it rings it must be important. But when they get a recorded message or someone selling them something it causes a lot of distress.
“We just need that change in the law to help us to nail the perpetrators.”
But it was taken to tribunal and the fine was overturned because it was deemed the messages had not caused substantial damage or distress to the recipients.
And the buck doesn’t just stop in the UK. Mr Graham has been working with his counterparts across the EU as well as those even further afield in India and America.
He said: “We have spoken with the Indians and said to them that if they want business from Europe they have got to take data protection seriously. I went to Delhi last year with my Dutch and Canadian colleagues to make the case for data protection in India.
“We are pushing for rules of data protection across the EU and I can tell you that we are not alone with this problem in the UK. This is a global phenomenon and it needs global rules.”
The ICO is working alongside Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, the Telephone Preference Service, Which? and other agencies .
Mr Graham added: “I am not promising it is going to stop, but we are working very hard to close down the perpetrators and working to convince the Government to change the law.”
Sir Alan Beith MP, who organised the petition handover, said: “I was delighted that the Gazette ran this petition, particularly after the night-time calls which were so distressing to so many people earlier in the year.
“It was quite clear from the Information Commissioner’s response, in his discussionswith the Gazette, that the petition could potentially be influential as valuable evidence of the distress that was experienced by people in Northumberland who had these calls, from who knows where, in the middle of the night by an automatic machine.”