Alex Neill: Cold callers must be given the cold shoulder

ALEX Neill looks at how the government is leading the fight against those nuisances who bedevil our every waking hour

Nuisance calls are especially concerning for the vulnerable. Picture: PA
Nuisance calls are especially concerning for the vulnerable. Picture: PA

Last week I attended a summit arranged by the Scottish Government in response to the Which?​ nuisance calls ​campaign​.

The summit – an SNP manifesto pledge – gave me the opportunity to ​directly ​raise the​ ​concerns of our Scottish supporters ​with ​the government​, regulators and businesses​ and ​discuss what we​ can ​all ​do ​collectively ​to tackle this modern menace.

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Which? knows that Scots are plagued by nuisance callers. In fact, even​ more so than your average Briton – our latest research found that 29 per cent of Scottish consumers we surveyed said they received 11 or more unwanted calls per month​ compared to 17 per cent in the UK.

​Overwhelmingly, people say the types of calls they get are either silent calls, or people ​calling about PPI ​or​ accident claims​.

But in Scotland there is something that stands out: Scots are significantly more likely to receive unsolicited calls to their landline about energy deals, home improvement and energy efficiency.

This trend certainly reflects that the nuisance callers are using the big Scottish Government policy initiatives as a springboard. And this was highlighted recently when the government had to put out a warning about cold-callers who were targeting households claiming government legislation stated they must replace their existing heating system with a new A-rated boiler.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Scottish people​ ​expect action. They want to see things​ change, and quickly.​ Th​is point was not lost on the summit attendees.

Along with Which? and the government, the​ meeting was attended by many of the ​institutions and ​organisations that together can make​ a difference – regulators​, ​big businesses including the phone ​network providers​, government-funded bodies and ​the ​voluntary sector.

​The summit was focused on trying to explore the range of solutions that could be deployed to reduce the number of nuisance calls we’re all plagued by. There are three ​key changes that ​Which?​ think​ will make the biggest difference to the lives of Scottish consumers.

Firstly, the government should conduct impact assessments of all its new policies, on increasing energy efficiency for example,​ to ensure they do not inadvertently lead to more nuisance calls.

Secondly, senior executives of big businesses should be held personally accountable if companies breach the law on nuisance calls. At the moment it is the firm that is responsible and this means there is less accountability.

Rogue traders can easily close down their company if they get caught breaking the rules and, in some cases, avoid the fine. ​​More companies, ​like​ Perth-based Scottish & Southern Energy, ​should step forward to make this commitment​ voluntarily.

​And finally, there needs to be more help targeted at the most vulnerable people​ suffering at the hands of nuisance callers. There has already been a successful initiative run by Cosla and Trading Standards Scotland around installing call blocking technology into the homes of those that most need it.

Activities like these should be built upon and continued if we’re to make a real difference to the lives​ of Scottish consumers. ​

It was clear from talking to Keith Brown MSP, the cabinet secretary for economy, jobs and fair work, about the issue that he is committed to looking at how he can make a difference, and in particular by ​using ​both the ​new consumer powers ​and by working with others – including the Westminster government – to find practical ways to protect people from nuisance calls.

We welcome the enthusiasm from the Scottish Government to find new ways to protect people from unwanted callers and were encouraged that all the parties at the summit agreed that they want to work together to tackle this everyday menace.

​And just this week, the UK government introduced the Digital Economy Bill to Parliament.

We were pleased to see that it included tougher sanctions for nuisance callers, including stronger rules around how companies can use our data for marketing calls. Overall, the last week has seen positive strides ​​being made to stand up for consumers in the fight against nuisance 

• Alex Neill is director of policy and campaigns at Which?