In 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.