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Kevin Brennan: The Minister's letter states:

the telephone preference scheme—

the Information Commissioner's office—

I have yet to receive an update, and I hope to hear from the Minister about the outcome of those consultations, what the current position is, and what progress is being made in dealing with the problem.

As the Minister suggested, I contacted the telephone preference scheme. I received a reply on 16 November as follows:

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That shows that, as I said, one can still receive nuisance calls from market survey companies in particular. The letter continues:

The Government are recommending that people register with the telephone preference scheme to get over the problem, but according to the letter—from Tessa Kelly, director of compliance operations for the scheme—doing so imposes unforeseen cost burdens on the service. In November, I received an answer to a parliamentary question to the Minister, which confirmed the existence of this particular practice.

Following those letters and constituency cases, I tried to find out exactly what was going on, and in that regard I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for its help. I discovered that two types of power dialling exist, the first of which is not so pernicious. We all accept that tele-sales calls are regrettably necessary, and the first type of power dialling makes outgoing calls only when an agent becomes free. In that way, it can be guaranteed that an agent is available to take successful call attempts. In other words, on answering the telephone, a human voice explains who they are, which company they represent and what they are trying to sell. Most people would find it reasonable to receive a call of that type if they have not registered with a telephone preference service.

It is the second and more pernicious type of power dialling to which I object. It is known in the industry as predictive power dialling and is a version of power dialling that attempts to improve agent productivity by increasing their talk minutes per hour. The computer application that makes the outbound calls uses predictive analysis to maximise the agent's telephone talk time. That is achieved through a combination of predicting when an agent is likely to become free and starting an outbound call to coincide with it or, alternatively, through predicting the number of call attempts that are statistically answered.

For example, if only one in three call attempts are successful, the system can make three simultaneous outbound calls at the same time although only one agent is free. If people answer the telephone in greater numbers than the computer predicts, which is bound to happen from time to time, the unfortunate person at the other end of the line will receive a corporate silent nuisance call. I am sure the Minister will agree that that is unacceptable. We need to ensure that safeguards are in place to protect the citizen from such corporate nuisance calls.

Oftel started to review the use of power dialling in June last year with a view to relaxing further the restrictions on the use of that type of technology. However, it admitted in the consultation documents that there is huge potential for abuse of the technology. As a result, it issued a statement on 18 January 2002 in which it said that the current regulatory position should mean that the calls do not take place. The director general of communications said:

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The document goes on to say that Oftel decided to relax the restriction requiring prior written consent for such a call. However, regulations are in place to stop them. In theory, therefore, despite the dilution that Oftel announced to the regulations on power dialling, consumers should still be covered by the existing protection. However, it seems from the information that I receive from constituents that they are not.

There is little awareness of the problem and only a low level of protection. There have been one or two references to the issue in the public domain and the press. Sue Arnold wrote an article in The Independent as long ago as 30 January 1999 in which she described how she received silent telephone calls at 27 minutes past three every afternoon which were from a corporate source. In finding out about the series of nuisance calls that she was receiving, she came across the term "power dialling" for the first time. Furthermore, I discovered a letter as recently as 17 December last year in the Daily Express, which was from a Mr. Peter Ivers of London SE8. He wrote:

That is partly why we are here today; we want to hear the Government's views on that. Clearly, this problem is still going on. Incidentally, if the company included a recorded message telling the recipient the source of the call, that would technically be illegal, because the call would not have resulted in live speech but in recorded speech.

I believe that what I have uncovered is just the tip of the iceberg. This morning, a constituent who heard that I was raising this subject in Parliament sent me an e-mail via the House of Commons website constituency locator service to say that he was pleased that I was raising the issue. As one of my constituents, he wanted to tell me—I shall not repeat the words that he used, for fear of breaching the convention of the House—that he had had many of these calls early in the morning and at weekends. He said that he would not call himself a vulnerable member of society, but that he genuinely thought that he had a crank caller. When he reported the calls to BT's nuisance calls line, he was given a number to ring and he was able to get his name removed.

This should not be happening. Many people out there are not going to the trouble of contacting the nuisance calls bureau because they are living in fear of the kind of calls that they are receiving. Thousands of people are suffering in silence. Perhaps today's debate might help them to come forward and raise their concerns with Members of Parliament.

It is not clear that there has been sufficient will to deal with the problem until now, but the Government are now aware of it. With power dialling, the balance of rights between the citizen and the corporate world is wrong. There is a lack of public understanding of the problems, and there is a confusing number of bodies involved—TPS, Oftel, the Information Commissioner, DTI, NTL, BT, representatives of the industry and the Direct Marketing Association. It is a confusing picture for members of the public.

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We need to establish clear principles. There should be no predictive power dialling, and the pernicious form should be completely stopped. Companies should not be allowed to withhold their numbers when they ring people up to sell them something and there should be rapid action against an abuse of that. Telephone preference scheme registration should also be included when somebody registers as ex-directory, unless the consumer opts out from that registration.

As I said earlier, tele-sales can be a good thing. Many people enjoy the benefits of being able to buy goods and services over the telephone, but it is open to abuse. I have not even mentioned some of the overseas scams of which some other Members of Parliament are aware, in which people are phoned from overseas and have to ring back high-premium numbers. I would like to know that the current regulation is being enforced and to hear the outcome of the Minister's talks.

One of my constituents suggested an alternative to registering with the telephone preference scheme: when people receive one of these calls, they should politely ask the caller for the home telephone number of the directors of the company involved so that they can phone them up in case they have anything to sell—perhaps a useful way of trying to get rid of that old kitchen table.

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