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Monday, 13 September 2010

Parliament demands better consumer information about "acceptable" Silent Calls

I have recently returned from the meeting of the parliamentary committee that has granted Ofcom's request for an increase to the maximum penalty it can impose on those who break its rules covering Silent Calls. (The official record of proceedings is published herewill be published tomorrow.)

The minister, Ed Vaizey, will be meeting with Ed Richards, Chief Executive of Ofcom, tomorrow to discuss the points raised. Mr Vaizey has promised to report back on the outcome of this meeting.

Two major points emerged from the debate:

·       The Committee agreed that Ofcom should continue to tolerate Silent Calls being made. The Minister is happy with the currently tolerated levels, although some members urged him to discuss the possibility of lowering them a little.

·       Many members agreed that victims of Silent Calls should be given more information about what is allowed, and what is being done.

There are very many complaints made about Silent Calls, however they are generally invalid because Ofcom allows callers to hang up in Silence. They only have to a) make lots of calls to other people when they speak, and b) wait a day or more before repeating the nuisance. If they comply with these rules, then Ofcom will not take action against them.

The committee was told that since it last used its powers, Ofcom has secretly investigated 22 companies making Silent Calls. Not one of these was found to be practising "persistent misuse", so as to require use of the powers. The powers begin with a simple Notification of misuse, which can be followed by an enforceable requirement to cease the practice and the possibility of a financial penalty. Every complaint about Silent Calls made to Ofcom since 2007 has been effectively invalid, because it has not led to a determination of “persistent misuse”.

One member of the committee suggested that Ofcom should have a consumer website showing the names of companies. These would need to be the companies who are allowed to make Silent Calls, because they comply with Ofcom's rules. This would be of great assistance to their victims who would know not to waste time complaining about them.

Because all Silent Calls sound the same, it is not easy for victims to know whether or not the rules are being breached. Ofcom could certainly help citizens by advising how they can tell whether the inconvenience, annoyance or anxiety that they experience is "necessary" and when it is "unnecessary". As Ofcom wishes for the number of complaints about Silent Calls to diminish, it needs to take up this idea so as to prevent the many complaints it receives about necessary “acceptable Silent Calls”.

I have always argued that it is neither acceptable nor necessary to hang up in silence as a matter of habit. I am disappointed that Ofcom and all of the main parties represented on this committee do not share my view and create a distinction between unacceptable and acceptable Silent Calls. I reject this distinction totally – no Silent Call is necessary. There are perfectly good ways of avoiding making them whilst still running an effective and efficient call centre operation. Issues with telemarketing in general are quite separate.

In due course we may be able to turn our attention back to having the persistent misuse powers used to stop the nuisance of Silent Calls. My proposal to set up a citizen's agency to use the powers which Ofcom prefers not to use has, for now, been rejected by BIS.

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