Selling the electoral register

Lord Norton

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.

20 comments for “Selling the electoral register

  1. Julian Gall
    27/08/2008 at 7:35 pm

    It seems to me that information we, the public, have paid to have collected or created should be available free to us, the public. For example, post codes.

    With the electoral register, there is an argument that it should be confidential, like tax or TV licence records. However, if it is publicly available to view, I cannot see how its use can be restricted. To tell me I’m allowed to know something but not act in certain ways on that information is restriction of a basic freedom.

    There are other mechanisms that can prevent people receiving junk mail and no marketing company wants to waste money sending things to people who don’t want them.

    Either it is public knowledge who, of voting age, lives in each house, or it isn’t. No one should be restricted from using publicly available information in any way they wish.

  2. 27/08/2008 at 8:45 pm

    I don’t understand why anyone would not tick the box to remove themselves from the edited register. I can see no benefit of being on it.

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with the website 192.com. It’s a sort of advanced directory enquiries, combining the phone books with company director records and the electoral register. It has historical electoral information stretching back to before the opt-out. It also has information from every year since, although this is obviously only the edited register. I’m always amazed that I can find people on there. I’ve never paid to use the site, but it’s actually possible to glean quite a bit of information from the limited details they show non-paying users. I have to admit I quite like this site, but ultimately it is a huge breach of people’s privacy.

    Lord Norton, I guess electoral registration is something you and the other contributors here don’t need to worry about. Funnily enough, I’ve never seen any guidance notes on a registration form saying members of the Lords are exempt. There’s certainly not a box to tick!

    Something I consider a much more important issue is individual registration. I once had to live in a shared house, and I was in a very difficult position when one resident said he didn’t want to be on the register, when I knew I’d be breaking the law if I signed and returned the form without his name, but would equally if I didn’t return it. Any chance of pressing to have this changed (as I believe it already is in Northern Ireland)?

  3. lordnorton
    27/08/2008 at 10:09 pm

    Jonathan: Thanks for the comments. On registration as a peer, you are quite right. I’m not sure what other peers do in ensuring that they are registered (so they can vote in European and local elections) while making clear they are not eligible to vote in elections to the House of Commons. It certainly caused confusion with the Hull electoral registration officer. When I went to vote in a local election, I was told was not eligible to vote! I eventually got it sorted out. They now have it organised. It’s not that difficult as there are only three peers in Hull.

    On individual registration, this is certainly something I have been pressing for and have been since I joined the Lords. I have always favoured individual registration, with electors have to add their signatures and possibly National Insurance numbers, and then sign when they vote at theb polling booth or cast a postal vote. The Government’s argument has been that this may deter people from voting. I don’t find this a compelling argument. Ensuring a high turnout should not be at the expense of the integrity of the electoral process.

    Julian Gall: You identify some of the practical problems. I am unusual in that I veer towards the view that the material should be viewed as confidential, but that is something on which I have made little headway in persuading others. I certainly favour stricter controls on who can see the data. The edited register renders as essentially useless the existing limits on who can view the electoral register. Getting rid of the edited version would be a step in the right direction.

  4. AlexJ
    27/08/2008 at 11:39 pm

    Julian Gall: some datasets are becoming available:
    http://www.showusabetterway.co.uk/call/data.html
    The site is run by the Power of Information taskforce.

  5. 28/08/2008 at 9:38 am

    I’ve opted out of the edited register ever since it was introduced.
    However in terms of leaking information about me the electoral
    register is relatively low on the list of information
    sources. I think some organisations still get access to the full
    register for the purposes of things like credit checks.

    I think the biggest difference I make to the amount of junk mail I get
    is by not using loyalty cards, limiting most of my general purchases
    to cash only and a zealous approach to ticking the “don’t send me
    stuff” box on anything where I give my details. Even on the occasion I
    take part in market research in the street I don’t give my full
    details.

    I do these things because I’m fairly aware of the value of information
    and the consequences of it’s spreading. Even then a lot of
    organisations carry a lot of information about me. Sadly most people in this
    country don’t learn about the importance of data so I’d quite happily
    support more education on the Data Protection Act and principles of data security.

  6. Krishna
    28/08/2008 at 10:55 am

    Bravo Lord Norton,
    An individual’s information is both valuable (someone is willing to pay for it) and personal property(IP? :-)).
    In a liberal capitalist democracy, it is certainly not the role of the Government to usurp private property and hand it out free.
    I wish more legislators around the world would wake up to this simple fact

  7. Krishna
    28/08/2008 at 10:56 am

    Bravo Lord Norton,
    An individual’s information is both valuable (someone is willing to pay for it) and personal property(IP? :-)).
    In a liberal capitalist democracy, it is certainly not the role of the Government to usurp private property and hand it out to others.

    I wish more legislators around the world would wake up to this simple fact

  8. lordnorton
    28/08/2008 at 11:37 am

    Alex Bennee: I agree with everything you write. I adopt a similar approach. The difference between completing the electoral registration form and having a supermarket loyalty card is that you have a choice as to whether you have a loyalty card. Where you have a choice, then you can exercise it in the way that you do. Even then, as you indicate, it is very difficult to avoid data about you being held in one form or another. I certainly agree with you about people being better informed about data security. Many people give out information without querying why they are being asked for it or what it is being used for.

    Khrisna: Thanks for your comments. As you say, it is not the job of Government to be giving out data about citizens. The Government is embarrassed by the loss of data about citizens yet doesn’t necessarily grasp the problems with selling data supplied by citizens. I realise one can usually get the information from other sources nowadays, but that does not negate the importance of the principle involved.

  9. Flotsam
    28/08/2008 at 11:06 pm

    When it comes to the distribution personal information there is one principle that should always be the default: Opt-in rather than opt-out.

  10. 29/08/2008 at 9:25 pm

    My understanding of the law is that, if you tick the opt out box, even credit reference agencies can’t see it. For that reason alone I don’t tick it but I am mightily ticked off that it means the junk mailers get my details, too.

  11. lordnorton
    29/08/2008 at 10:41 pm

    Flotsam: I agree completely. I would have preferred for this approach to be adopted when the edited version of the register was introduced and it was something I pursued with the Government. Ministers did begin to move in the direction of accepting the principle of having an opt-in, but apparently encountered practical problems.

    hifranc: I think that the full version of the register is made available not only to the political parties but also credit rating agencies. If you tick the box to opt out of the edited register, you are opting out of the version that is sold to commercial concerns.

  12. 30/08/2008 at 11:56 am

    The full version is definitely supplied to credit reference agencies. It’s explained here:
    http://www.callcredit.co.uk/business/compliance/Electoral-Roll-Regulations

    The relevant Statutory Instrument can be found here:
    http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2002/20021871.htm

    It’s also explained on the web pages of most local authorities, e.g.
    http://www.canterbury.gov.uk/buildpage.php?id=3372

    Perhaps this misconception about the edited register is the reason so many people choose not to opt out of it.

  13. 30/08/2008 at 2:21 pm

    The three credit check agencies have access to the full register.

    http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk/how_do_i_vote/registering_to_vote.aspx explains:
    The main use of the full register is to show who can vote in elections and referendums. Credit reference agencies can use it, but only to check your name and address if you are applying for credit. It can also be used for law enforcement purposes.

    This is most unfortunate as it means there’s no way to register only to vote.

    br -d

  14. howridiculous
    31/08/2008 at 6:35 pm

    Dear Lord Norton,

    Thank you for pursuing this.

    ‘Practical problems’ is the sort of line one would expect to hear on ‘Yes Minister’ when an official does not want to do something! And how can opting-in present problems when opting-out does not seem to?!

    Howridiculous.

  15. Flotsam
    02/09/2008 at 10:45 pm

    Dear Lord Norton,

    Thanks for your reply and it’s good to see that at least one person (yourself) has the right idea. I must say that it’s a crying shame – and also completely puzzling – that opt-in seems to be impossible. It must be a policy decision as there really aren’t any technical reasons that I can think of.

    I wonder if anyone in Westminster ever stops and thinks why so many Britons, me included, have done the ultimate opt-out and emigrated to countries with less intrusive bureaucracies? The UK Government and civil servants need to be reminded daily that working for the citizens is a higher priority than working for corporate interests. Convenience and “practical problems” should never be a reason for doing something badly. If it can’t be done correctly then don’t do it at all.

    More power to your Lordships’ elbows and keep the Commons honest.

  16. lordnorton
    04/09/2008 at 8:05 pm

    howridiculous and Flotsam: Many thanks for your comments. I shall be pursuing the case for getting rid of the edited register but, if the government fails to accept that, I shall return to the case for having opt-ins rather than opt-outs.

  17. James Clarke
    08/09/2008 at 1:41 am

    What interests me most about this debate is the fact that our details seem so easy to obtain. Not only can companies glean your information from the register they can use a loophole in the law to get call centres in (pick a country) to call your home. Even though the Data protection act was supposed to stop your details from being sent abroad where no data protection act may exist. This and junk mail is the cause of peoples annoyance with the system. Do you think there is a cross party consensus to resolve this issue? Do you think it will come at the expense of the freedom of information act?

  18. lordnorton
    08/09/2008 at 9:14 am

    James Clarke: I agree very much with the point you make. I think there is a view across peers in all parties that there is a serious issue here that needs pursuing. There should not be a conflict with the Freedom of Information Act. The need is to strengthen provisions for data protedction. The issue is one I raised when we were discussing the provisions for the electoral register. The points I made about the edited register, for example, gained support from members of other parties. Recent events have reinforced the need for much sronger provisions to protect personal data.

    The basic point, as you indicate, is that it is far too easy for organisations to obtain data about individuals. The Information Commissioner does an excellenr job, but his office has limited facilities relative to the scale of the task. We need to devote more time and resources to the issue.

  19. John
    08/09/2008 at 6:45 pm

    I am glad to see you intend to continue to pursue the issue. As an Electoral Registration Officer, I find it very annoying that the media continue to paint councils as the grubby villains of the piece, and imply that councils are “on the make”, choosing to sell the registers to make money. As you rightly point out, we are required to do so by law, and do not make a profit.

  20. lordnorton
    08/09/2008 at 6:51 pm

    John: thanks for the comment and the confirmation. I agree that the perception is that councils are the bodies making money from selling data from the electoral register. I simply don’t understand the rationale for imposing a requirement on councils to make the edited register available to anyone who wishes to purchase it and to do so at cost. It imposes an unnecessary burden as well as being ethically unacceptable.

    The responses I have received to this post reinforce my resolve to pursue this. I will report progress.

Comments are closed.