A guide to UK regulations regarding unsolicited telephone calls

The following is based on what I have learned while trying to cope with unsolicited telephone calls. I have done my best to make it accurate, but I am not a lawyer or expert in this field. If you are aware of any glaring errors in this article, please let me know.

I am plagued with unsolicited phone calls. Sometimes I think I get too angry about them, some friends say I should just ignore them; but when you receive more unwanted sales and marketing phone calls than actual valid calls from friends, family and organisations you want to hear from, you know something is wrong.

Most people will have heard of the TPS – the Telephone Preference Service. The purpose of the TPS is to limit unsolicited calls to residential telephone customers who have said they don’t want them. However, many people don’t know the following.

  • The TPS is not a government body, nor is it funded by the government. It is actually funded and managed by the Direct Marketing Association – the industry body of the very people who are trying to call us. It is a good (or bad, depending on your viewpoint) example of attempted self-regulation. It is also a complete failure.
  • TPS is not a call blocking or barring service. Numbers registered with TPS are placed on the national ‘Do Not Call’ register and organisations engaging in unsolicited direct marketing calls are obliged under the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 to screen their data against the TPS and must not make an unsolicited direct marketing call to any number registered with TPS. However, even though it is the law, it is regularly flouted.
  • The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 is only binding on companies making calls from within the EU. So it won’t stop call centres in the USA and Pakistan from calling you.
  • Although the TPS manages the ‘Do Not Call’ register, it has no powers to enforce it. It is instead regulated by Ofcomm and enforced by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

If you continue to receive calls, you can complain to the TPS, but it doesn’t achieve much – indeed, recently they made it even harder to complain, as they now require you have the caller’s valid company name before they will even accept the complaint. In the TPS’s own words, “TPS offers a free complaint handling service as a value added service”. I have come to the conclusion that it is not worth complaining to the TPS – I now address all complaints to the ICO.

The ICO is an independent body, sponsored by the Ministry of Justice, and reporting directly to parliament. They are involved with unsolicited calls through their remit to enforce the various data protection acts.

With regard to telephone calls, prior to 2010, the ICO had enforcement powers equivalent to giving companies a slap on the wrist. In 2010, they were authorised to issue penalties (a fine, by another name) to companies in breach of the regulations. However, they were very reluctant to use these powers at first, choosing to wield them as a stick to threaten companies with. It is only in the last year or so that they have started to issue significantly large penalties.

To complicate things further, both the TPS and ICO’s remit only covers live unsolicited calls of a sales/marketing nature, and fully automated calls giving you a recorded message. This does not include surveys, which is why many marketing calls try to pretend to be ‘market research’. Furthermore, they also do not include silent or automatically queued calls – these are dealt with by Ofcomm, the Office of Communications.

Is it any wonder that people are confused, when responsibility for unsolicited telephone calls is shared by 3 different organisations? Is it any wonder that companies feel they can simply ignore the regulations, and (literally, sometimes) laugh at you when you say you are TPS registered?

I think it is high time to shake the whole thing up, take the TPS away from the Direct Marketing Association, and put the whole thing under a single regulator with powers.

I also think something should be done with our antiquated telephone system that trivially allows companies to spoof CallerID, putting another barrier in the way of effective regulation.

I have spoken to to my MP on this subject on a number of occasions. So far, I don’t think it has achieved anything, other than make me feel marginally better!

So, if you are receiving unwanted telephone calls:

  • Register with the TPS, but I wouldn’t bother complaining to them, unless you want to.
  • Make any complaints about unsolicited live calls to the ICO.
  • Make any complaints about calls giving you recorded messages to the ICO.
  • Make any complaints about silent calls to Ofcomm.
  • Make any complaints about automatic calls that ring you, and then tell you that no-one is available (or simply drop the line) to Ofcomm.

And if you think this whole mess is nonsense, talk to your MP!

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