THE GOVERNMENT last night hailed the Daily Echo’s campaign against silent calls on the day it hiked the maximum fine for firms causing nuisance and distress to £2m.

The current penalty for companies found to be making “nuisance calls” is £50,000, but ministers said the higher penalty was required to improve business practice.

Silent calls are generated by call centres which use automated calling systems. In some cases the system dials more numbers than there are staff available to speak to those picking up the phone, resulting in a silent call.

Minister for Consumer Affairs Kevin Brennan said: “Companies who make nuisance calls by abusing automated equipment should face the consequences, which is why those who break the rules will be fined with a hefty penalty of up to £2m.

“Consumers can be assured that the new fines are definitely more than a slap across the wrist for persistent offenders.

“I hope our decision will be a catalyst for better business practice, increasing customer loyalty and reducing operational costs for handling complaints.”

Mr Brennan added: “I welcome the Daily Echo and BBC Radio Solent’s End the Sound of Silence campaign for better consumer protection in this area.”

Mark Hoban, Conservative MP for Fareham, said: “These are nuisance calls and I hope that these fines act as a deterrent to companies that do this.”

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said the new higher penalty would provide the telecoms regulator Ofcom with a greater ability to deter and punish companies that ignore the guidelines in this area.

He said: “In addition, Ofcom will be reviewing its ACS misuse guidelines to provide clearer advice to operators, benefiting both business and consumers.”

The new penalty will be amended as soon as possible in the Communications Act 2003 by statutory instrument, the spokesman added. The move follows a Government consultation process launched last October.

It is the second time the fines have been raised following the Daily Echo’s campaign. In 2006, the Echo reported that the maximum penalty would be raised from just £5,000 to £50,000.

The Echo campaign was launched in conjunction with BBC Radio Solent in October 2004. Thousands of readers filled out our coupons urging the Government to take action to stamp out the menace – prompting a pledge by ministers to sort out the problem.