A dead-boring title… I know. But this is exciting!
While reading up on what's happening with the edited electoral register I came across a PDF entitled Pre-printing of the opt-out tick on a canvass form. The document was written by the Electoral Commission this April and provides guidance to electoral registration officers on when to exclude a voter's personal details from the edited version of the electoral roll indefinitely.
As you know - or should know - your local council is by law required to sell an edited version of the electoral register. The fact that personal data gathered for electoral purposes is sold (and may be used for any purpose) is rather dubious, and so you can tick an opt-out box on your annual canvas to prevent your personal details are treated as a commodity.
When you tick the opt-out box your details are excluded from the edited register for up to twelve month (or, to be more precise, until the next annual canvas). However, the guidance from the Electoral Commission states electors can opt-out until further notice. If you send your electoral registration office a data protection notice they'll pre-print a tick in the opt-out box.
Data protection notices
Data protection notices come under Section 11 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (
Right to prevent processing for purposes of direct marketing):
- An individual is entitled at any time by notice in writing to a data controller to require the data controller at the end of such period as is reasonable in the circumstances to cease, or not to begin, processing for the purposes of direct marketing personal data in respect of which he is the data subject.
- If the court is satisfied, on the application of any person who has given a notice under subsection (1), that the data controller has failed to comply with the notice, the court may order him to take such steps for complying with the notice as the court thinks fit.
- In this section
direct marketingmeans the communication (by whatever means) of any advertising or marketing material which is directed to particular individuals.
The Information Commissioner's Office, which is the body enforcing the Data Protection Act, has confirmed that sending a data protection notice to your electoral registration office requires them to stop (or not begin) selling your details to all and sundry. The fact that the electoral registration form includes an opt-out box is irrelevant. A notice under Section 11 of the Data Protection Act is legally binding and dwarfs the opt-out box on your annual canvas. It's for that reason the Electoral Commissions guidance requires electoral registration officers to pre-print a tick in the opt-out box on the registration form of someone who has issued a notice. Not ticking the box on your canvas wouldn't invalidate your notice; only a written request to start selling your personal details would do that.
How to write a data protection notice
Data protection notices tend to be rather formal. However, according to the Electoral Commission you don't need to write a letter (or e-mail) in legalese; a scribble on your annual registration form will do:
- The request does not have to explicitly state that the elector wishes to opt out of the edited register; it may simply state that the elector does not want their details to be passed on to third parties or used for direct marketing purposes on a permanent basis or until further notice. There is also no need for the notice to refer to Section 11 of the DPA [Data Protection Act].
- The request does not need to be made on a separate document. For example, it may be made on the canvass form itself if an elector has personally annotated their form to indicate that they wish to opt-out on a permanent basis or until further notice.
My suggestion is nevertheless to send your electoral registration office an e-mail; if only because you'd automatically have a copy of your notice. Just to be sure I'd also refer to the Data Protection Act and mention that you expect future canvas forms to have a tick pre-printed in the opt-out box. I've added an example notice to the page about the edited electoral register in the Guide to Stamping Out Junk Mail.
If there are other people in your household you should bear in mind that you can't send a data protection notice on behalf of another person. That said, also on this point is the Electoral Commission's guidance to electoral registration officers surprisingly helpful:
- Where EROs [electoral registration officers] receive an annotated canvass form where it is not clear who has made the annotation or it has been annotated by only one person but appears to make the request on behalf of everyone listed on the form, the ERO should write to all electors listed on the canvass form to enquire whether they would want to opt out of the edited register on a permanent basis or until further notice.
In other words, if they're not sure whether or not you're trying to issue a notice on behalf of other people in your household they should contact you. Very neat…
Wasn't the edited register going to be abolished?
Of course, all this should have been irrelevant by now. In July 2008 the then Information Commissioner argued in the Data Sharing Review [PDF] that selling the personal details of voters (at a subsidised price) is
an unsatisfactory way for local authorities to treat personal information. However, the recommendation to abolish the register was kicked into the long grass. It took Government until November 2009 to organise a public consultation on the recommendation, to which it then failed to respond.
The future of the edited register is still on the political agenda, but it's now part of the proposed changes to the Electoral Administration Act (which is the Act that deals with the change from household to individual registration). In November last year the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee recommended abolishing the register but - once again - Government is wavering. In February Government said it
takes the handling of personal information seriously but that this
needs to be balanced against the potential economic impact of abolishing the edited register.
In short, it's unlikely the edited register will be scrapped before 2015 - if it's to be abolished at all. Sending a data protection notice to your electoral registration officer will ensure you stay off the list whatever happens, and perhaps it sends out a signal to the people who are selling your personal details. (As an aside, I'm pretty sure they'll appreciate it. The Association of Electoral Administrators is one of the most prominent advocates for abolishing the edited register. They don't want to sell your details to junk mailers and companies such as 192.com - the simple fact is that currently they're force to do so by Government.)