HC Deb 30 June 1998 vol 315 cc150-2 3.34 pm
Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the sending of facsimile messages offering for sale goods or services or seeking answers by questionnaire without prior permission of the recipient. Increasing numbers of people find it convenient to have a fax telephone machine at home. Almost without exception, small businesses use a fax machine to conduct their day-to-day business in what they expect to be a cost-effective and convenient manner.

Home users and businesses alike are being plagued by unwanted facsimile messages which use up paper, tie up telephone lines and arrive at all hours of the day and night. I have had many letters from my constituents and from colleagues whose constituents are receiving such facsimiles, asking how to put a stop to this invasion of their privacy. They are dismayed to learn that the solution, if it works, may cost them yet more money.

Fax marketing has increased hugely in recent months. Organisations have been carrying out automatic number searches in order to identify fax numbers and compile lists. The Office of Telecommunications—Oftel—is taking action against those who have adopted that practice, but vast lists already exist which include many ex-directory residential numbers. Those lists are clearly being used extensively.

Constituents have provided me with examples of goods and services that they have been offered. They are numerous and come in many forms. They cover everything from supplies of a recently identified wonder drug, world cup tickets, miracle diets and discount air fares to how to win the national lottery or buck the stock market, from debt collection services to questionnaires on this country's future in Europe and the registration of paedophiles, and highly distasteful joke faxes.

I have also received complaints from constituents about unsolicited telephone calls and junk mail and about the growing problem of junk e-mails, but I have chosen to deal today only with the nuisance of unsolicited facsimile messages rather than with all distance-selling practices, and I do so for several reasons. Most important, unlike junk mail or telephone calls, an unsolicited fax involves a cost to the recipient by way of paper, toner or ribbon and electricity. Junk faxes are expensive to receive. However irritating, junk mail and telephone calls cost the recipient nothing.

Junk messages tend to be sent in the middle of the night and wake the domestic user who has a phone by the bed. Unsolicited telephone selling usually takes place during the day or early evening and, though inconvenient, is less intrusive. The receipt of a lengthy fax ties up telephone lines, causing inconvenience and irritation, especially when long messages of a business nature are sent to domestic users or to a small business that needs access to what may be a limited number of telephone lines.

The content of some messages is of an undesirable or offensive nature—not something I should wish young people or children to see. Junk mail can be thrown away intact with its contents never read.

At the moment, we have an opt-out regime for marketing faxes. The fax preference service, established by the Direct Marketing Association, has reduced the number of unsolicited residential faxes received, but it remains legal for a company to send a fax to a registered number against the wishes of the recipient. Many constituents who are registered with the fax preference service continue to receive messages. They see that as adding insult to injury. The service is, of course, aimed at home users rather than business users. A business can register under the scheme, but there is no obligation for marketing companies to cross-check and remove such numbers from their lists.

As the House will know, the Telecommunications Act 1984 requires anyone running a telecommunications system in the United Kingdom to do so under licence. Companies using fax marketing are subject to a class of licence that contains measures aimed at limiting the nuisance caused by unsolicited calls by requiring callers to cease making such calls on receipt of a written request from the recipient. Oftel can then be requested to intervene in order to enforce the rules if the company continues to transmit messages. In serious cases, a licence can be revoked.

Unsolicited facsimile messages that promote premium-rate telephone services are also governed by a code of practice issued by ICSTIS, the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services.

ICSTIS tells me that it has become apparent that many customer complaints about unsolicited faxes relate to those promoting premium-rate numbers, and that, over the past year or so, such complaints have risen sharply. Examples of the type of messages generating a complaint to ICSTIS are similar to those that I have already cited, and include faxes soliciting information to compile business information directories; fax-back questionnaires; and faxes promoting other so-called joke faxes.

ICSTIS continues to take action against companies whose services breach its code, which sets standards on content, and has recently banned one company whose series of joke faxes were deemed to be offensive and inappropriate.

Before the proliferation of fax marketing, the combined approach that I have outlined—enforced by Oftel and ICSTIS—may well have offered adequate protection to my constituents and others. However, I now share my constituents' view that that approach is unsatisfactory. The quantity and content of messages coming into our homes and businesses make them a genuine concern. They represent the thin end of the wedge. If we do not act now to address a relatively simple issue and so draw a line in the sand, how can we expect to regulate as information technology moves forward and access to the internet and e-mail become as commonplace as we all expect them to do?

The current regulation system is no longer adequate. Numerous companies are sending unsolicited faxes, and each company must individually receive a letter requesting that it desist from doing so. Marketing companies make it clear that unstamped post will be returned, so the cost of each envelope and postage has to be borne by each recipient. It is possible to calculate the cost of receiving one fax and requesting the sender to remove a number from its list. However, it adds up to a significant sum when that cost is multiplied several times to cover the cost of all the faxes received in one week. Only last week, one of my constituents received seven such faxes.

The European Union distance selling directive and telecommunications data protection directive—which go some way to dealing with the problem of unwanted fax messages—are in the process of being adopted. However, they will leave it to member states to choose between a prior consent regime and an opt-out regime. The Government have not announced how they will proceed on the issue.

We must not allow our constituents to continue to be pestered. Unsolicited faxes are costing them sleep and considerable sums, and are causing immense frustration and annoyance. The solution could be very simple—the onus must be placed on the person sending the fax and not on the one receiving it. We will overcome some of the problems that I have described by requiring a company or individual wishing to transmit multiple advertising faxes or fax-back questionnaires first to seek prior consent from the proposed recipient.

Such a Bill will, of course, need careful and detailed drafting to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy. My Bill may make the process cumbersome and expensive for marketing companies, although marketing companies may think that that price is worth paying. Most important, my Bill would restore control of fax machines to their users. I urge the House to support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Christopher Fraser, Mr. David Atkinson, Mrs. Angela Browning, Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Mr. James Gray, Mr. Dominic Grieve, Mrs. Eleanor Laing, Dr. Julian Lewis, Mr. Owen Paterson, Mr. David Ruffley, Mr. Desmond Swayne and Mr. Robert Walter.