Consulting on the electoral register

Lord Norton

004In an earlier post, on 27 August, I drew attention to the result of a survey of showing that 98 per cent of electoral registration officers favoured getting rid of the practice of selling the electoral register to commercial bodies.   Citizens have by law to supply data about themselves for electoral purposes.  I have always opposed that data then being sold.  Electors can opt out of being on the register that is sold, but I still don’t see the point of the exercise.  It is an administrative burden that delivers no public benefit: it is sold at cost and the guidance to voters on how to opt out is not as prominent as it could (and in my view should) be.  If there is to be an edited version available for sale, it should be on the basis of informed consent: that is, electors opting in rather than opting out.

I mentioned that the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, had already recommended that the creation and sale of the edited register be discontinued.  Indeed, I think it worth quoting from the Thomas-Walport Review on the subject:

“the language used on these forms [the electoral registration forms] can be confusing, and many people do not realise it is the edited register that is on public sale.

In any event, we feel that selling the edited register is an unsatisfactory way for local authorities to treat personal information.  It sends a particularly poor message to the public that personal information collected for something as vital as participation in the democratic process can be sold to ‘anyone for any purpose’.  And there is a belief that the sale of the electoral register deters some people from registering at all.  We are sympathetic to trhe strong arguments made by the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Electoral Commission that the primary purpose of the electoral register is for electoral purposes.

Recommendation 19: We therefore recommend that the Government removes the provision allowing the sale of the edited electoral register.  The edited register would therefore no longer serve any purpose and should be abolished.  This would not affect the sale of the full register to political parties or the credit reference agencies.”

After the summer recess, I tabled a question to the Government asking when they planned to respond to this recommendation.  The reply was that they were considering their response. 

The Government’s response to the Thomas-Walport report has now been published.  On recommendation 19, the reply states: “Before committing to any course of action we need to establish how removing the provisions would impact not just on individuals but on the economy as a whole.  We therefore propose to conduct a public consultation on this recommendation.  This will enable us to build a firmer evidence base about the advantages and disadvantages of the edited register and consider the way forward on the basis of the responses to the consultation.”

This fails completely to grasp the fundamental principle involved.   It is important than in the consultation  exercise, the point of principle is stressed.  I hope as many readers as possible will take the opportunity to take part in the consultation and make their views known.

7 comments for “Consulting on the electoral register

  1. 29/11/2008 at 2:39 pm

    > This would not affect the sale of the full register to political parties or the credit reference agencies

    This is the main issue. Even if an opt out is complex, it is possible to opt out. Why is it not possible to register just to vote? There’s no compelling reason for private companies such as credit reference agencies to have details of all who register to vote. (This is made even worse by the fact that it is not possible to lock one’s credit record, as is common in the US, hence further facilitating identity fraud.)

    br -d

  2. 29/11/2008 at 3:27 pm

    I ran the government’s response through my Politician to English dictionary, and it came back as: “Dammit, we want to keep doing this, let’s see if we can delay action for another year or two!”

    I can’t imagine that the government raises a significant amount of money from these sales, so the question is which pillars of industry have the government’s ear on this matter, and what are they whispering into it?

    I agree with Lord Norton that the matter of principle here is what’s important. The selling of electoral roll data seems to run at cross-purposes to the business of democracy. It also seems to me, given the vastly increased amount of data the government collects on us these days, that we could do with establishing a general principle of “firewall” between government collected personal information and private industry. While I am not generally a slippery-slope kind of guy, I can’t see that the benefits of selling personal information in this way are worth the risks.

  3. 29/11/2008 at 11:33 pm

    I find this very strange. I had always assumed that councils made money out of selling the register to companies. That in turn would explain why it had to be opt-out not -in, to maximise the number of names on the list they could sell. While I disagree with selling the register, at least that would make financial sense. But if the reigister is sold at cost, what exactly is the benefit? Why is the Government so keen to keep the status quo, and why have they never used this to raise revenue?

  4. Stuart
    29/11/2008 at 11:38 pm

    Dear Lord Norton, would you post details of the consultation on here as & when it’s launched, please? I’d certainly like to contribute to it.

    We need a fundamental shift in how personal data is valued and protected. My partner works in this area in the public sector and I am frequently shocked by the level of nonchalance about data security that he describes.

  5. Senex
    30/11/2008 at 8:09 pm

    If junk mail prevention/nuisance is the primary reason to opt-out then it is likely to be more effective by also enrolling with the mail preferential service and optionally the telephone preferential service.

    Ref:The use of the Electoral Register in light of the ‘Robertson Case’
    http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/library/data_protection/practical_application/electoral_register_-_use_in_light_of_the_robertson_case.pdf
    What is MPS?:
    http://www.tpsonline.org.uk/mpsr/
    The ‘full’ and ‘edited’ electoral register:
    http://www.stopjunkmail.org.uk/guide/edited_electoral_register.php

  6. lordnorton
    05/12/2008 at 6:15 pm

    Thanks for the responses. I am glad that others share my view that an important principle is involved and, like Jonathan, I cannot see what the benefit is to government. Local authorities have to publish the edited register but derive no obvious benefit from so doing. As Jonathan says, if they were able to publish it for profit, then at least one could see the attraction even if not agreeing with its publication. An article in the latest edition of ‘Parliamentary Brief’ argues the case for retaining the edited register: the first reason listed is that it is useful for finding ‘loved ones, friends or relatives’. Should an electoral register really exist for that purpose? The next argument is that it can be used to confirm the identity of other individuals. Are there not other ways of doing that? If people really want their data used in this way – and want to retain the register – then they should have to opt in, not opt out. Ultimately, there is a basic principle involved and I very much agree with Stuart that there is a need for a shift in how personal data is valued and protected.

    Stuart: I’ll be happy to post details of the consultation once it gets under way.

  7. 03/02/2009 at 10:59 am

    hi
    We are bombarded enough with offers from unscrupulous organisations anyway without our details being obtained through a register meant to be used as a part of our democracy and not for commercial gain.
    Bring an end to the exploitation of our details I say!

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