Information Commissioner: Lib Dems must stop automated phone calls

by Stephen Tall on September 25, 2008

As speculated here on LDV last night, the Information Commissioner has now officially ruled that the Lib Dems must stop attempts to contact up to 250,000 voters in 50 marginal constituencies with an automated phone call featuring leader Nick Clegg. The BBC website has the full story here.

Lib Dem chief executive Lord Rennard told the BBC last week the aim of the calls in the wake of Mr Clegg’s party conference speech was to “guide” the party to the issues worrying voters in 50 key seats. An automated 30 second voice message from Mr Clegg was played out during the early evening calls, with recipients tapping numbers on their handsets to respond to questions about education, health, tax, crime, environmental and economic policies.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has now ruled that the Lib Dem calls constituted “direct marketing”, which are not allowed unless someone has given prior consent.

I understand from party sources that of the 250,000 calls attempted, some 159,000 people in those 50 constituencies will have heard Nick Clegg inviting them to give him their opinions on the Lib Dems’ key messages and hear what they are. Out of those 159,000 the Information Commissioner has received six complaints, or 0.0038% if you prefer.

The Comissioner’s enforcement notice gives the party 30 days to stop using the calls (any breach would be a criminal offence). The party has confirmed to LDV that it has already done so.

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28 comments

Well – I said they were a stupid idea… Someone’s head should roll over this debacle!

by Felix Holt on September 25, 2008 at 3:08 pm. Reply #

“The party has confirmed to LDV that it has already done so.”

Well naturally – they were all done on one night! Which shows how toothless the IC is on these matters.

“Out of those 159,000 the Information Commissioner has received six complaints,”

Please don’t tell me our defence will now be – it wasn’t legal but not many people complained so what’s the problem….

by Hywel Morgan on September 25, 2008 at 3:19 pm. Reply #

I’m sure Darth Rennard calculated that the value of the data was worth the possibilty of a slap on the risk.

by Terry Gilbert on September 25, 2008 at 3:24 pm. Reply #

Sorry – wrist.

by Terry Gilbert on September 25, 2008 at 3:26 pm. Reply #

The IC only recieved 6 complaints but how many local Lib Dem parties or even HQ itself recieved complaints directly is more of a fair measure. Also how many people just slammed the phone down?

But still, whether it’s six or six thousand complaints doesn’t make it right.

by Nick on September 25, 2008 at 3:28 pm. Reply #

I’m no fan of automated calls but I doubt it’s something you can boil down to a moral right or wrong.

by Graeme on September 25, 2008 at 3:37 pm. Reply #

I’ve no problem with the automated calls in principle, but I’m astonished that that party didn’t run the script by the Information Commissioner beforehand.

by Iain Coleman on September 25, 2008 at 3:39 pm. Reply #

It was a stupid idea in the first place! How many years have we campaigned against similar???

by Susan on September 25, 2008 at 3:47 pm. Reply #

“I’ve no problem with the automated calls in principle, but I’m astonished that that party didn’t run the script by the Information Commissioner beforehand.”

No doubt they didn’t do this because they knew that if they did he would tell them not to do it!

by Clegg's Candid Friend on September 25, 2008 at 3:48 pm. Reply #

Reading the IC’s enforcement notice a verbal summary of the calls was given to the IC on the morning in question. The IC advised that party, before the calls took place, that his opinion was that these were marketing calls (and therefore contrary to the regulations).

Despite that advice therefore it seems we went ahead with the calls. I’d say we were lucky only to get an enforcement notice.

by Hywel Morgan on September 25, 2008 at 4:23 pm. Reply #

Terry Gilbert Says:
“I’m sure Darth Rennard calculated that the value of the data was worth the possibilty of a slap on the risk.”

If Rennard knew anything about statistics he would know that the first 1,000 calls would give him a reliable sample. The trouble was the Information Commissioner probably knew that too. The next 158,000 calls were just marketing.

by Mark Williams on September 25, 2008 at 4:36 pm. Reply #

“If Rennard knew anything about statistics he would know that the first 1,000 calls would give him a reliable sample.”

Yes – that’s why it was so obviously not a genuine exercise in market research.

But regarding the usefulness of the data to the party, I assume it’s also planned to use the information on individuals in future campaigning – target letters, knocking up and so on (which is also against the guidelines, of course).

by Clegg's Candid Friend on September 25, 2008 at 4:51 pm. Reply #

The first investigation by Ofcom into Silent Calls found that one company had made 1,500,000 of them in a four month period.

This investigation was prompted by one formal complaint.

All of the publicity around this issue, which referred to the ICO, caused only 6 people who were caused nuisance to suffer the additional inconvenience of making a formal complaint.

As I have repeatedly commented in this forum, it is now for the Lib Dems to ensure that action is taken against those commercial organisations who are breaching the same regulation repeatedly.

Making people aware of the regulation and the enforcement authority is a good start.

by David Hickson on September 25, 2008 at 4:57 pm. Reply #

I’m totally amazed by this. I cannot see what the party did last week that the Tories and Labour didn’t do at the last election. The key loophole was that the calls were “market research” rather than “sales” calls, but effectively it amounted to amassing canvass data. Can anyone explain why the LibDems have ahd their wrists slapped when the two otehr parties got away with this in an actual election campaign?

by Mark Littlewood on September 25, 2008 at 5:04 pm. Reply #

Most people won’t have complained; I just put the phone down after the first few seconds and I imagine many others will have done.

by Anonymous on September 25, 2008 at 5:04 pm. Reply #

We should have planned it better.
We could easily have called 4 times that number before being stopped!

by morty on September 25, 2008 at 5:28 pm. Reply #

So I take it that the SN(socalist)P’s calls last year featuring Sean Connery were ok then?

by jim on September 25, 2008 at 6:58 pm. Reply #

Does anyone have a distribution graph of the call lengths?

by Matt Wardman on September 25, 2008 at 8:54 pm. Reply #

Just for the record.

The SNP was issued with a similar notification in 2005. This was upheld on appeal to the Information Tribunal in 2006.

Lib Dems also took credit for a preliminary notification issued to the Conservatives, also in 2005.

This Notification explains how on the day of the “offence”, following my prompting, the ICO did all it could to make the party aware of what could happen. The relevant formal enforcement powers cannot however be used until after the event. The party therefore had to make up its own mind about whether or not to listen to the advice and perhaps benefit from a clear judgement based on the full text and confirmation about whether those called had given consent.

The party chose to go ahead and supply a copy of the text the next day. The party later confirmed that the calls had been made without the necessary consent.

I believe that both I and the ICO did all we could to “save the party from itself”. It is for members and active supporters to ensure that the necessary internal action is taken.

I look forward to welcoming the party back to the right side of the battle against telephone nuisance, whenever it feels it is ready to rejoin me.

by David Hickson on September 26, 2008 at 1:38 am. Reply #

Utterly idiotic idea in the first place.

by Jay Entee on September 26, 2008 at 7:24 am. Reply #

The real irony is that the last issue we debated at conference – before Nick Clegg announced this move – was “Respect, Consent and Personal Data”. And then we simply went and ignored all the principles that we’d just agreed.

There’s another sinister move going ahead – though it only affects members. That’s the proposal to make ALDC membership compulsory for Lib Dem councillors. I joined this party because it promotes freedom of choice. If the party can’t practice what it preaches, then who will vote for us?

by Ian Eiloart on September 26, 2008 at 8:18 am. Reply #

The Information Commissioner could have stopped the calls – the section says has contravened or is contravening – but because of the Paddy Ashdown calls that were made he could have served a notice before the calls on the basis that the party had already contravened the section.

The notice doesn’t deal with deleting the data we have as a result of the calls – surely that needs to be done now.

by Jim Hargreaves on September 26, 2008 at 9:37 am. Reply #

I heard somewhere that there were 6 complaints.

by Grammar Police on September 26, 2008 at 10:42 am. Reply #

It occurred to me that this was maybe a cunning plan to ensure that Lab/Cons/SNP can’t get away with similar activities in the run up to the next General Election (the former two at least have much greater resources than us). Now the IC has come down clearly against this kind of thing (the Sean Connery / SNP stuff was slightly different) no party has got any excuse to do it. And we probably got feedback from key marginals – even if we’re forced to delete the individual data, we’ve had the headline figures . . .

by Grammar Police on September 26, 2008 at 10:47 am. Reply #

“The Information Commissioner could have stopped the calls – the section says has contravened or is contravening”

He didn’t have the script at the time, just a verbal description of what was being done so would have been on dubious ground to have acted before a call was made.

by Hywel Morgan on September 26, 2008 at 11:07 am. Reply #

He wasn’t given the transcript because we didn’t give it to him until after the calls were made – but the sheer number rules them out from being market research.

by Jim Hargreaves on September 26, 2008 at 11:11 am. Reply #

I don’t see how the volume makes any difference as to whether it is market research or not.

If I was wanting to find out how people were likely to vote in a constituency (which is market research and not that dissimilar to asking them for their views on our policies) then in an ideal world I would call every single house. The only thing that would stop me is the cost and not having everyone’s numbers. This automated phone call exercise was the equivalent of calling only four constituencies.

What worries me about all of this, regardless of the rights or wrongs of this particular phoning, is whether over time there will be a clamour to stop parties from phoning people at all without prior permission. Whilst it might force people to do more door knocking but it would be a huge blow to attempts to overcome the complaint that people never hear from political parties and make it much harder to get a good canvass.

by Anders on September 26, 2008 at 11:53 am. Reply #

Remember your standard deviations from school?

The figure of 1,000 is basically what you need to get a result within 2%. It is the standard sample size for political polls.

That’s what you need to do a poll (what the law allows you to do).

If you are doing a canvass (what the law says you can’t do with automated calling) then the more the better – the whole of the country, if possible, and 250,000 is a good start.

by Jim Hargreaves on September 26, 2008 at 1:37 pm. Reply #

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