The edited electoral register

Lord Norton

_42544443_lords_bbc203We have had Report stage this week of the Political Parties and Elections Bill.   On Monday, I had a good day: the Government introduced an amendment regarding the Electoral Commission to meet a point I raised in Grand Committee.  They also provided an assurance in response to another of my amendments. 

Yesterday was more problematic: I returned to the issue of the edited version of the electoral register.  This, as some readers may recall, is something about which I have strong views.   Registering to vote is a core part of the democratic process.  Requiring electors to decide, as part of that process, whether they wish to have their names excluded from an edited version of the register, which is to be sold ‘to any person for any purpose’, undermines the integrity of that process.   Compounding the problem is that it is an opt-out rather than an opt-in requirement (so we cannot be sure that inclusion in the edited register is the product of informed consent) and is sold at no profit – rather the reverse – to local councils.  In other words, those who buy it (junk mail companies for example) are being subsidised from public funds.

Compiling the edited version also imposes a significant burden on electoral registration officers, even though it has nothing to do with their core task.  Their work will increase substantially as we move to individual registration. 

I have sought to abolish the edited version of the register.  I am in good company.  The Association of Electoral Administrators, the Electoral Commission, and the Information Commissioner also support bringing it to an end.

I moved an amendment at committee stage to get rid of it.  The minister resisted, largely on practical grounds: it may harm the businesses that utilise it.  I returned to the issue at Report stage yesterday.   The debate can be read here.  I got some cross-party support, but the minister again resisted it.  This time, though, he expressed sympathy with the arguments against maintaining the register, but again argued the need to consult before making a move to get rid of the register. 

It was, he said, the Government’s intention to consult on the matter before the Summer recess.  Given that consultations are normally expected to last twelve weeks, and the recess is less than five weeks away, I am not sure how this is going to be achieved effectively.  Nonetheless, there now seems to be some movement and I intend to pursue the issue until we eventually get rid of the edited register.  When the consultation gets under way, do feel free to submit your views.

16 comments for “The edited electoral register

  1. Tharkun
    18/06/2009 at 4:49 pm

    Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: “I declare that I am a foot soldier in the army commanded by my noble friend Lord Norton.”

    Wow Lord Norton… you have an army now! I’m impressed.

  2. Croft
    18/06/2009 at 4:54 pm

    The government argument seems either confused, misleading, contradictory or perhaps some element of all three.

    Taking the statement that ‘direct mail is worth £8.6 billion to the UK economy and accounts for 182,000 jobs’ as accurate – a risk with official figures – it’s a sleight of hand. That X is worth Y doesn’t actually tell us anything about the cost of the proposal – ‘there could be an economic impact’ is vague, almost anything could be the case. Indeed that the industry is worth a huge amount may be an argument that it could well afford theoretical costs that might harm a much smaller or more fragile industry. Certainly if the industry is worth so much and this data so valuable then why can they purchase it for so little that councils get only a (claimed) average £1,900?

    The suggestion that it might cause large amounts of ‘wrongly addressed correspondence’ made me smile. I’m sure like many other people I receive large amounts of junk mail – addressed to the ‘owner or occupier’ or to former occupants or my neighbours as it is.

    I don’t find the argument that charities have a right to solicit money from me persuasive. I seem to run into quite enough chuggers in the my near by city as it is so they seem to do that with or without any proposed changes. The threat that direct mail companies might want to cold call on my door step is not worrying. I’m perfectly happy to tether a very angry looking bull (but in reality an old softy) to my gate. It may not be everyone’s solution but I suspect it may have the desired result. 😀

  3. lordnorton
    18/06/2009 at 5:01 pm

    Tharkun: I am not an honorary Lieutentant-Colonel ADC in the Alabama State Militia for nothing.

    Croft: I could not agree more. Your thoughts mirror mine. I did think of raising as a second-best proposal increasing the fees for the register so that councils made a profit from the exercise. I decided against, since I wanted to concentrate on the point of principle. I wasn’t persuaded by any of the points the minister made; to be fair, I wasn’t persuaded by my own front bench either.

    • Croft
      19/06/2009 at 9:16 am

      I was perfectly convinced by the argument on principle but rather suspected that government was counting the assumed pennies – or lost tax receipts. I take your point a simple clear argument is possibly more effective than one as accurate but spread over many points. Are we to assume both the government and the opposition front bench have been successfully deluged with lobbyists to keep them backing the status quo?

      I never can understand the Data Protection Act. My experience of the system suggests that if you are the ‘women’s knitting circle’ at the village hall they’ll force you into a pointless amount of bureaucracy if you want to write down your neighbours phone numbers. By contrast if you are the state you appear to be able to do almost anything with personal data. I suspect I know which of the two most people would trust not to lose data or misuse it but the law apparently has a different opinion.

      Are we to assume you were a visiting prof in Alabama at some point?

  4. 19/06/2009 at 2:42 am

    At least it’s possible to opt out the edited register. The scandal is that one cannot register purely to vote. One can only register to vote and give their details to the credit reference agencies. Extending this to debt recovery, as you’re advocating, is likely to push more people not to register and hence not be able to vote.

    br -d

  5. 19/06/2009 at 9:19 am

    Where can we enlist?

  6. 19/06/2009 at 11:12 am

    Having used the electoral register extensively in the past, both as a councillor and as a local journalist, I am in favour of a return to old ways. Until recent years, the register was available for inspection at the local library, in hard copy form of course.

    I concur entirely with the view that the ‘edited version’ should be done away with. It seems to me, though, that the publication of the register and its availability to all is (was) an important part of our democracy, but that what is needed is regulation of the uses of the register, coupled perhaps with restrictions on its distribution in electronic format.

  7. skistar123
    19/06/2009 at 12:27 pm

    Surely most of the people who allow their name to go on the edited register do so because they don’t realise that it will be used for things such as junk mail – who wants junk mail?!

  8. lordnorton
    19/06/2009 at 4:59 pm

    Thanks to everyone for their further comments. I am heartened by the responses.

    Croft: I think your assumption about both front benches is correct; indeed, Lord Bates more or less admitted as such from the Opposition Front Bench. I agree with you on the Data Protection Act. There is a problem not only with the holding of data by the state but also with the security of that data. As to Alabama, I happened to be visiting and, as I was apparently deemed to be a distinguished guest, I was made an honorary lieutenant-colonel ADC to the Governor (then George Wallace!) in the Alabama State Militia. Apparently, if I had asked, I could have been made an Admiral instead.

    David Mery: I am conscious of the implication of extending access. My ideal situation is a purist one, very much along the lines you mention. However, I think we may have to accept as a compromise distinguishing between allowing access in relation to what may be deemed matters of civic responsibility and denying access where it is nothing to do with civic responsibility.

    Matthew Oliver: I plan to circulate details of the consultation once it gets under way. I shall be pursuing the Government on the issue.

    stephenpaterson: I rather share your views, both in terms of a return to the old ways and also in restricting access to the register.

    skistar123: One of the problems is that we don’t know if people do realise that. The information provided about the edited register is not as prominent as I believe it should be and, as electors have to opt out, it is not clear that they are aware of the implications.

  9. Croft
    20/06/2009 at 9:30 am

    Matthew Oliver: You’d better read the small print – Lord Norton’s army might be teetotal 😀

    Lord Norton: I seem to remember reading of another peer was(is?) also a col. in one of the US state militias but it escapes me for the moment. With your connection with Hull perhaps Admiral would have been a better match – though the image does rather require a peg leg and a parrot 😉

  10. 22/06/2009 at 8:31 am

    Croft: True but the quality and range of tea will make up for it!

  11. lordnorton
    24/06/2009 at 2:30 pm

    Croft: There may well be other peers who hold similar positions. I know some MPs do, since Peter Hain holds exactly the same position I do: we were in Alabama as part of the same group.

    I should add that I know that Matthew Oliver is well aware of the value of holdings meetings sustained by tea!

    • 24/06/2009 at 2:49 pm

      Dont forget the biscuits!

      On a serious note I see that the Govt cancelled Third Reading of the PPEB a day before it was scheduled. I have an idea why but have you heard anything on the grapevine?

  12. lordnorton
    29/06/2009 at 9:06 pm

    Matthew Oliver: It’s not just biscuits nowadays but cake! On the Political Parties and Elections Bill, I believe the Government, having seen some of the amendments tabled, are concerned that the Bill will not get through in the way that they would wish and have therefore delayed Third Reading. Given the pressure on time, it now looks as if it may have to be taken after the summer recess.

  13. lordnorton
    01/07/2009 at 3:02 pm

    Matthew Oliver: The Government have now managed to find time for Third Reading: it is being taken next Thursday, 9 July.

    • 01/07/2009 at 3:21 pm

      Thanks for the update.

      I understand there are plans afoot for amendments as well at this late stage.

      Hope Mullin goes ok

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