Neil McNicholas: A call for action on telephone nuisances

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ONE of the more consistent criticisms levelled at a number of our current political leaders is that they are out-of-touch with the lives and experiences of the people of the country. This was once again confirmed for me in last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.

Someone asked the Prime Minister if he would do something about the constant wave of unsolicited phone calls that people are having to deal with every day. The PM’s typically bland reply was that he would look into the matter but that people could always register with the Telephone Preference Service. Does he not think we do and that it doesn’t make any difference?

The TPS has shown itself to be absolutely useless. It cannot (so it claims) do anything to prevent automated calls and those coming from international numbers – which are exactly the calls that people are receiving and wish to have stopped. Mr Cameron clearly doesn’t have such problems because I’m sure he has the likes of MI6 monitoring his incoming calls. If his phone rings just as he’s sitting down to dinner, it’s more likely to be Barack Obama than someone selling double-glazing.

It should be against the law for individuals or companies to make unsolicited calls in the first place. They have no to right to insinuate themselves into our homes in this way but should be made to operate from commercial premises or to advertise their products or services in the same way as legitimate businesses have to.

Many people have a caller identification facility on their phones precisely so that they have the option to answer the phone or not depending on who the caller might be. There is clearly a dishonest and subversive intent on the part of companies and businesses that deliberately prevent their phone numbers from being identified. That in itself should be more than enough reason for people not to do business with them.

It seems to me that the technology must exist to automatically trace and block such calls. After all, establishments such as Menwith Hill, near Harrogate, are monitoring domestic and international phone calls and emails all the time anyway (though we are not supposed to know that, so forget I mentioned it).

Admittedly many calls appear to come from overseas (if the “international – out of the area” caller identification is anything to go by), but these could still be electronically blocked. Domestic cold callers should be identified and prosecuted.

The very reason these callers persist can only be because it is worth their while. They probably know they have the British penchant for politeness on their side. Most people when they answer their phone will listen for a while instead of simply hanging up. Of course most of the time there isn’t an actual person at the other end of the line but an automated recording. The most you can do, and should do, is immediately hang up albeit in a cloud of frustration and annoyance. If there actually is a person at the other end of the line then they deserve all they get, and that must surely be quite an earful most of the time.

Most commonly just at the moment, such calls claim to be from quasi-official-sounding departments trying to inform me of my right to claim all sorts of allowances to ensure my home is adequately insulated. I hang up.

Some are from actual people claiming to be from the likes of Microsoft informing me that my computer may have problems which they can help me fix if I could just let them access my hard-drive. I hang up even quicker.

Another popular scam is people trying to sell me (as a parish priest) advertising space in a publication sponsored by my local police force – there isn’t such a publication. Sadly there are obviously enough people who fall for these ruses to make it worthwhile and equally sadly the victims are more likely to be the elderly at whom specific scams are targeted. They too are unlikely to give such callers the short shrift they deserve.

So while Mr Cameron has his secretarial staff to deal with whatever calls his secret service clears and allows through, we mere mortals continue to have our meals and our evening relaxation interrupted by automated nuisance calls which should never happen in the first place, and wouldn’t if the Telephone Preference Service was doing its job properly. As it isn’t, what exactly does Mr Cameron intend to do to stop these calls?

Neil McNicholas is a priest in the Diocese of Middlesbrough.