Separating the nuisance callers from genuine telemarketing

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The claims sector can help prevent a telemarketing ban, which would simply allow rogue CMCs and foreign-based nuisance callers to flourish, says Nick Rines

Telemarketing may soon be banned as a result of a new law pushed through by the outgoing Government as part of its wash up before Parliament closed for the General Election.

The claims sector may lose its most effective sales and marketing channel as a result the Digital Economy Act, through which the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) will be instructed to draft new direct marketing and data practice guidelines. ICO recommendations will go before ministers for consideration and implementation.

The problem for the claims sector is that politicians have clearly stated they are not in the mood to tolerate any weak or watered down measures, and what is more, nuisance calling is the most common subject of letters in MPs postbags.

During debates on the bill in the House of Commons, direct marketers were attacked time and again, and variously described as being “the lowest of the low”, “shysters” and “rogues” who could not be relied upon to follow any rules.

A large percentage of these nuisance callers operate outside of the UK and the ICO and OFCOM can do nothing about them. Despite this, MPs were out for blood for those based in the UK, and they have plenty of motivation. Voter agitation about telemarketing outweighs any other subject. Ministers may take a slightly more sober view, but they are under pressure from the popular media, as well as the public and MPs.

The ICO is acutely aware of the situation regarding telemarketing and Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has pledged to investigate problems with outbound calling regulation.

This is not, of course, to say that when the ICO considers its remit to produce new direct marketing practice and data guidelines it will automatically bend to the wishes of Westminster. The ICO has an exemplary record for independent thought and action. However, the belief among telemarketing regulation compliance experts is that the ICO is likely to put forward recommendation for an opt-in based system, similar to that which governs email marketing. The need for consumers to opt-in to receive calls from specific companies about specific subjects before they can be contacted by telephone would effectively mean a ban on telemarketing.

Of course, ministers do not have to abide by what the ICO puts forward. If they consider the rules are not tough enough they can simply decide whatever they like. There certainly will not be any tears shed by MPs, their constituents, or the red top press if new rules turn out to be draconian. What is more, a government representative has already said new regulations will be statutory with the power to deal with offenders in court, something that would potentially affect Government telemarketing campaigns.

Ironically, a law that in practice prohibits telemarketing would make matters worse for members of the public.

Rogue calling companies that currently openly ignore current rules are hardly likely to decide to call it a day after they are given the market to themselves. If they are caught under new regulations those companies based in the UK will fold and remerge as they do when prosecuted under current rules, while the overseas offenders are untouchable.

Like it or not, the majority of rogues get away with rule breaking at the moment, and if there are to be severe restrictions on outbound calls they would expand activity to fill the void left by compliant companies.

But if the Government looked to work with those companies who do follow the principles and legislation, would this not be a way to keep rogues at bay?

So what are the options for claims companies? The good news is that part of the Digital Economy Act includes the Government instructing the ICO to consult all relevant representative bodies as part of a review prior to forumulating recommendations. What this means is that it is possible to put forward views on how the current Telephone Preference Service (TPS) can be changed to better protect the public, and allow the freedom to legitimately and compliantly call consumers.

There are feasible ideas being put forward that would work to exclude rogue callers and make genuine compliant calls more relevant. The ICO needs to be informed about how regulation can be improved by those that operate at the ground level. As a regulator it cannot be expected to foresee the probable outcome of rule changes with the degree of clarity that those that work at the coal face do.

Similarly, compliant telemarketers understand how to create rules that sideline miscreants. That is why consultation is important.

Call For Action On The TPS is a free to join collective of telemarketing interests that has been formed to draft robust and workable regulation, and to put its recommendations to the ICO and government ministers.

At least one claims company is involved, but in order to succeed it needs strength in ideas, and just as importantly, depth in membership, with organisations prepared to lead in talks with the regulator and politicians.

It is essential that whatever proposals for regulation are put forward are seen to make things better from the perspective of the general public. Taking a purely self-serving position will be seen for what it is, and treated accordingly. What is needed is constructive regulation that works for everybody.

The ICO and ministers cannot know the thoughts of claims companies unless someone actually tells them, which means it is up to each firm to decide whether telemarketing is worth protecting.

There is a clear threat to outbound calling, but there is something that can be done about it.

Nick Rines is Head of Communications for Call For Action On The TPS

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