Keep your PECR up (I know, I’m sorry)

The BBC reports that Bournemouth and Poole NHS PCT have got themselves into hot water by calling a member of the public using an external company in order to offer him some health screening as he was in an at-risk group. The PCT were, it seems, attempting to deal with a target imposed on them by the Department of Health. The Trust felt that it was not “practical” for them to get consent in this case.

Given that my only source is the BBC news website, I cannot make any definitive judgement about what went on, although it’s clear that the person concerned managed to convince the Information Commissioner’s Office that the use of his data was unfair. The ICO is quoted as follows: “Individuals should have been informed by the trust that they would be receiving a call inviting them to attend a risk assessment, and that this letter should ideally give them some method for asking not to be contacted”

It’s at this point, however, that I feel entitled to mount my hobby horse and ride it up and down the public highway.

The Information Commissioner’s own definition of direct marketing, found in his guidance on the subject, is ‘the offer for sale of goods or services, or the promotion of an organisation’s aims and ideals’. The rules covering any form of electronic direct marketing (i.e. phone, email, and text) come from the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (usually pronounced ‘Pecker’), not from the Data Protection Act. PECR does not contain any discussion of harm, benefit of legitimate interest – its rules are simple and relatively easy to explain.

Direct marketing cold-calling by phone is legal – unless the person is on the Telephone Preference Service or has told the organisation not to call. Therefore, to make a marketing call, the organisation (in PECR terms, the ‘person’) must screen the numbers they are using against the TPS lists (which they must rent or buy from the TPS itself or a marketing company who has done so). Direct marketing emails and texts are opt-in – you cannot text or email someone without their permission, and the same is true of automated marketing phone calls.  There are some wrinkles – business and personal emails are treated differently – but for direct marketing, that’s about it.

As described in the BBC story, the PCT’s call was a marketing call. They were not calling the person to tell him results, to arrange an appointment for treatment that had already been consented to, to discuss something that was already happening. The PCT’s aims include the hitting of a target for screening of a specific group, and without previous consent, the only possible interpretation of the call is that recruiting people to join the screening is a form of direct marketing. Having worked – briefly and without particular distinction – in the NHS and having had this argument several times, I know that few health staff would agree with me. Indeed, when looking at this issue many in the public sector have the same problem – if a message is clearly of benefit to the recipient, how can we not be allowed to do it?

Although some in the private sector find ways around PECR or ignore it altogether, I have never spoken to a private sector person who didn’t see how the regulations applied to what they do. Public sector, voluntary and charity organisations are obsessed with the value or justification of their message. Labour, the Lib-Dems, the Conservatives and the Scottish Nationalists have all received enforcement notices under PECR for their use of automated marketing calls – the Scottish Nationalists perhaps personified the wider misunderstanding of how PECR works but claiming that being prevented from using automated calls of Sir Sean Connery was a breach of their human rights. It’s not. I have a right not be bothered by what you think I should be interested in, whoever you are. And PECR gives me that.

PECR is a single-minded law in this respect, caring only about the content of the message. If your call, your email, your text is designed to sell, promote, persuade or influence – it’s direct marketing. If you want to change behaviour, get people to make better choices, or even tell them something that will change or save their lives, PECR doesn’t care. Even if you don’t know who the recipient is, that’s irrelevant – this isn’t Data Protection.

Of course, the BBC coverage doesn’t mention PECR and screening against the TPS, which implies that some people in the ICO don’t know what their own position on PECR and direct marketing is, but that’s not a surprise. The point is, the next time someone has a smart idea for a communication campaign, whether it’s health promotion, news of how you’re dealing with anti-social behaviour, or the benefits of recycling, just remember to think about PECR.

Which is a bit funnier if you say it out loud.

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