I was delighted to see the result of a survey, carried out by the Local Government Association and the Association of Electoral Administrators, showing that 98 per cent of electoral registration officers favour putting an end to the practice of selling the electoral register to commercial bodies.
I have always opposed making the electoral register available for sale. I argued against it shortly after I entered the Lords, contending that data that citizens were required to supply as a statutory duty should not be employed for commercial purposes. Heads of households had by law to complete the annual registration form and had no means of preventing the information they supplied then being sold. This to me was ethically unacceptable.
Rather than removing the capacity for companies to buy the electoral register, the Government instead opted for a compromise. This was provided for in the Representation of the People Act 2000 and remains the current position. It is possible to tick a box on the annual registration form to show that you wish to opt out of having your name included in the register that is available for sale (the ‘edited register’). I was assured at the time that this would be given extensive publicity. It wasn’t. Despite that, a large proportion of electors (about 40 per cent) exercise their right to have their names omitted from the edited register.
The point of the edited register is not clear. It creates an administrative burden and it does not make money for local authorities: it is supplied at cost. It simply helps companies, such as junk-mail firms, to make a profit. The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has already recommended that it be discontinued. He has reported that there is evidence that some people are reluctant to complete the registration forms for fear of their information being passed on.
Given this, I hope the Government will now accept that there is no case for maintaining the edited register and take action accordingly. It is an issue I plan to pursue.