The investigation being carried out by the Information Commissioner’s Office into the allegations made against charities in the Daily Mail newspaper found that some of the charities concerned did not have accurate and reliable records on whether donors had consented to marketing, according to written evidence submitted to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.
The ICO is one of several regulators and charities to have submitted evidence to the committee for its inquiry into call centre fundraising.
The ICO, whose evidence was submitted in August and published this month, said it was in the process of meeting the charities and call centres that were under investigation.
The regulator said it had established from these meetings that it was only as a result of the investigation that the organisations had looked into when and where individuals’ consent to receive marketing had been obtained.
The watchdog launched investigations this summer into allegations made in the Daily Mail newspaper that data-sharing among charities led to a man with dementia being tricked out of £35,000 by unscrupulous companies and earlier claims that charities were involved in the exploitation of loopholes in the Telephone Preference Service system.
The organisations named in the newspaper’s coverage were: Oxfam, the NSPCC, Macmillan Cancer Support, the British Red Cross, the PDSA, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation and the Cancer Recovery Foundation.
The ICO said in its submission to PACAC that it had found weaknesses in the wording of some of the organisations’ privacy policies, retention policies and opt-in/opt-out wording, and that some of them were retaining data for "extremely long" periods.
The ICO, which requested information from the organisations about their compliance with the Data Protection Act and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, said that from the responses it had received there appeared to be confusion about the law.
This was not helped, the ICO said, by the reluctance shown by the Institute of Fundraising and some of its members to accept that charities had to follow the same direct marketing rules as any other organisation.
It said that in addition to the organisations under investigation, it planned to write to a further 80 or more charities over the coming months as part of its education and awareness work in the sector.
It said that it was apparent from the investigation that there was a need to improve fundraisers’ understanding of the PECR.
This had not been helped by the fact that until August the IoF’s Code of Fundraising Practice referred to the regulatory approach set out in an old ICO good practice note, which was withdrawn in 2013, the ICO said.
On 18 August, the IoF announced that it had changed the code so that fundraisers could no longer call donors who were registered with the TPS unless they had been specifically notified that the person was happy to receive calls.
The ICO’s 2013 guidance removed the reference to the ICO only taking action when it received complaints. It said that it had initially taken this approach because it wanted a pragmatic position based on a level of trust with the sector.
It said it had trusted that charities would follow this advice responsibly but, in the event, some fundraisers appeared to have interpreted this as an exemption from the law.
"This view does not appear to have been challenged by the self-regulatory bodies," the ICO said. "It is difficult to see how some of the current methods of gathering sign-ups to direct debits, high-pressure telephone techniques or buying-in or swapping of lists equates to the sort of long-established relationship envisaged in our earlier guidance."