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Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and I can assure him that the four chief constables who recently gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee offered full support for the Government's strategic approach to policing; I can also assure him that South Wales police expressed considerable support for the 24 community support officers whom we met. In a rural area such as mine, CSOs have to serve an enormous patch covering some 18 or 20 miles, and the additional CSOs will be greatly welcomed, especially in areas such Abergavenny and Monmouth, in which there has been a particular problem with alcohol-induced antisocial behaviour.

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, they will make a substantial contribution, as will the other antisocial behaviour measures that have been widely welcomed, including the combining of powers in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 and in fireworks regulations. This has once and for all given the lie to the idea that such measures are a gimmick that will never work. In the past month, communities throughout England and Wales have benefited from them, and any Member of this House who tries to demonstrate otherwise is not in touch with their local neighbourhood.

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Points of Order

1.26 pm

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you confirm that there is a long-standing courtesy and convention in the House whereby a Member of Parliament who intends to visit the constituency of another MP lets them know of their intention? May I draw to your attention the fact that both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary were in my constituency this morning, but they did not exercise a courtesy that I understood applied to the most exalted Members of this Chamber, as well as to we lowly Back Benchers?

Mr. Speaker: We are all equal in this matter, and regardless of whether it is the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary or any other Cabinet Minister, the usual conventions must apply when they visit a constituency. I expect that convention to be abided by.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have given notice of a point of order concerning the relationship between this House and the press lobby. I would like to clarify whether it is possible to withdraw a press pass from a member of that lobby, particularly if they have shown contempt for all Members of this House. In this Sunday's edition of The Sunday Times, a journalist said:

Does someone who treats Members of this House in that way and who thinks of us in that manner have any right to a pass to attend our proceedings?

Mr. Speaker: I think that the standards of the journalist concerned certainly did leave a lot to be desired. As the hon. Gentleman said, he gave me notice of this point of order and I have made inquiries. That individual, fortunately, is not a Press Gallery passholder. He should follow the good example of such passholders, who work night and day to enhance our good reputation and always write about hon. Members—including me—in the kindest possible terms.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you tell us what newspapers you read?

Mr. Speaker: I will not be drawn into that one.

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Corporate Nuisance Telephone Calls

1.29 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab): I beg to move,

Mr. Speaker, you, in common with many hon. Members and their constituents—and, indeed, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—may occasionally have answered the telephone only to be confronted with a silent call. If it has happened to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or to other hon. Members in their places today, that would hardly be surprising, because evidence suggests that businesses in the UK are generating hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of direct marketing calls every year that result in the consumer receiving a silent call. That may seem a rather bold assertion and the House may want to know what evidence there is to confirm it.

A consultancy company called CM Insight Ltd recently produced a report that concluded that BT receives more than 100,000 queries every month from individuals who are concerned about silent calls. Companies will not generate all those calls, but evidence suggests that a large majority of the silent calls received by consumers do indeed originate from commercial interests. My Bill would create a specific offence if a telemarketing telephone call resulted in a consumer receiving a silent phone call or, as I call them in the title of my Bill, a corporate nuisance call.

Why do those calls happen? The problem arises mainly out of the use of something called predictive or power-dialling equipment, which is designed to maximise the efficiency of call centre operations; in other words, attempting to maximise the use of call centre operations when companies are trying to sell their products and services over the telephone. That equipment routinely and deliberately generates more calls than there are live operators available, on the assumption that many of the calls will be unanswered. However, when more people answer the calls than predicted by the predictive dialling equipment, there are not enough live operators at the other end of the line to handle the calls, so many people receive a silent telephone call. The problem is compounded in many cases when consumers try to find out who is calling them at the other end of the line by dialling 1471 and are met with the message, "The caller withheld their number".

It is not too difficult to imagine the impact that such calls can have on individuals, particularly on the vulnerable and the elderly, who may imagine that there is some malicious intent involved. Indeed, when I first raised the issue in the House in an Adjournment debate on 26 April 2002, I had been contacted by several of my constituents who had been pestered by silent corporate nuisance calls. In their case, they had gone to the trouble of going through the BT nuisance call bureau to discover where those calls had been generated and they found out that they had come from irresponsible companies rather than, as they feared, from psychopathic stalkers.

I referred to vulnerable people a few moments ago, but the people who originally contacted me about the problem were far from vulnerable. They were people who could well look after themselves, but they were also deeply disturbed by the problem. It remains a problem.
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Yesterday I spoke to a journalist who said that she had previously been the victim of genuinely abusive stalking-type phone calls and then more recently received many corporate nuisance calls. It was a frightening experience for her as it was a reminder of her previous difficulties.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), who is sponsoring the Bill with me here today and who has campaigned on the issue in South Dorset, told me that when Radio Solent ran a feature on the problem, it received a bigger response from the public than for any other news item broadcast over the past 15 years. That shows that it is definitely an issue of genuine concern to our constituents.

One commonly cited solution is to register with the telephone preference service, which enables consumers to have their number removed from the lists of telemarketing companies, including those registered with the Direct Marketing Association, the industry body. It is a mark of the scale of the problem referred to in my Bill that 5.25 million numbers have already been registered with the telephone preference service since its inception in 1999. That amounts to 24 per cent. of British households; 37 per cent. of those households say that they registered with the TPS in order to escape silent nuisance calls. About 12,000 people register with the TPS every year, yet many complain that they still receive unwanted calls.

Although a £5,000 fine is already in place for companies breaching the TPS, to date not one fine has been levied against any of them and not one licence has been revoked during the legislation's six-year history. Let us compare that with the position in the US, where a similar scheme exists. The scheme now has more than 30 million numbers registered with it and it continues to grow at the rate of 4 million per month. It is interesting to note that in November 2001, the company AT&T was fined $780,000 for transgressing the "do not call this" scheme, the equivalent of our TPS. Clearly, our legislation needs to be toughened up.

In addition, some consumers may not necessarily wish to block all telemarketing calls, whatever the faults in the system. Some may be willing to receive such calls, particularly when they are an existing customer of a company, but no one wants to receive a silent call.

The industry has taken some steps since I raised the matter in the House in 2002. There is a Direct Marketing Association code of practice, which contains sensible provisions such as the basic requirement that caller ID is always available where a call fails, so that the customer can know the identity of the thoughtless company that believes it is appropriate to treat customers with such contempt as to give them a silent corporate nuisance call.

However, the same code of conduct contains the pathetically weak provision that predictive dialling equipment should be adjusted so that no more than 5 per cent. of live calls are silent calls in any 24-hour period. Even if someone is lucky enough to get a call from a company that is signed up to the DMA's code of conduct—not all are—it is deemed perfectly acceptable that one in 20 of the calls answered should generate a silent corporate nuisance call.

Let me just examine what that means in practice. Earlier this year, Ofcom took welcome action under the Communications Act 2003 against MKD Holdings in
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connection with the promotion of Kitchens Direct products. It is to the credit of the Direct Marketing Association that it originated the complaint. Ofcom's investigation showed that MKD made 24 million calls from its call centres between November 2003 and February 2004. Of those, 11 million were answered and 1.5 million resulted in silent calls. That was rightly deemed by Ofcom to be a misuse of the telecommunications system. But what if Kitchens Direct had been operating at the 5 per cent. level acceptable under the DMA code of conduct? Out of the 11 million calls, the company could have made 549,999 without falling foul of the industry's code of conduct, and that is just one company! We should welcome the fact that Ofcom has taken such action, but clearly it is not enough.

I am not a Luddite—telemarketing is legitimate if responsibly regulated—but if it takes 1.5 million silent calls in three months to trigger action, the current system is too weak. The UK has gone for the consumer "opt-out" model whereas Germany and Italy have an "opt-in" model. Unless action is taken, pressure will grow for the UK to follow that route.

My Bill would take the side of the consumer and put financial pressure on the industry to clean up its act. It would help those who currently follow best practice and penalise those who show little concern for the misery caused by their silent calls. It would end the scourge of the corporate nuisance call and help millions of people who currently suffer, literally, in silence.

I commend my Bill to the House.

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