It's interesting how major news stories sometimes completely disappear off the radar. The super-duper opt-out scheme for unaddressed junk mail is a case in point. In November 2011, the announcement that a new opt-out website would be launched got newspapers such as the Guardian and Daily Mail all exited - but when the scheme was eventually postponed indefinitely they didn't say a word (the Beeb was the only one to write about the saga). It's poor journalism, if you ask me. Though it's still pretty decent compared with how everybody - me included - missed the news that the edited electoral register won't be abolished.
I only found out last night, by chance, that Government has decided to keep the edited register. On the 25 June Graham Allan MP - who was the chair of the House of Commons Committee that, in November 2011, recommended the edited register is abolished, asked the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, Mark Harper, why Government hadn't accepted the recommendation:
The edited register is available for general sale, and is used by organisations for the purpose of commercial activities such as marketing, as well as for campaigning purposes by all of us here who are members of political parties. It is also used for purposes such as the tracing of missing persons. I am sure that Members who are in the Chamber have received a number of representations from certain bodies about that. Electors who do not want their details to appear on the edited electoral register need to opt out.
When my Committee conducted its pre-legislative scrutiny of the [Electoral Registration and Administration] Bill, it recommended the abolition of the edited electoral register. We did not feel that it was appropriate for personal details gathered by the Government for electoral purposes to be sold to commercial organisations. Sadly, on this occasion the Government did not accept our recommendation, and that is why I am pressing the Minister tonight. I want to understand this thinking and to establish whether he wishes to think about the issue further, either now or at a later stage. The Government did, however, say in their response that they wereaware of and considering the finely balanced arguments on the future of the edited electoral register.
My Committee feels that while the edited version of the register continues, it is important for people who are being invited to register to realise that it may be sold—I am sure that many do not know that—and that it could be used for commercial purposes. It is also important for them to know exactly how they can opt out of the edited register.
I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to respond to the points that I have made, and to tell us whether he has had any further thoughts of the sort that he outlined in his initial response to my Committee.
To which Mr Harper replied:
It is relevant to amendment 34, standing in the name of the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, to confirm that the Government have concluded that the edited version of the electoral register should be retained. We have discussed whether it should be abolished with interested parties on both sides of the debate and received numerous representations. The previous Government consulted, but did not have the opportunity to take a decision before leaving office. There are those, particularly in the electoral community, including the Electoral Commission, who argue that having an edited register acts as a disincentive to people registering, but we have seen no convincing evidence of that. On the other side of the argument, some argue that it provides significant wider social and economic benefits, and in the previous Government's consultation, 7,447 of about 7,600 responses favoured the edited register's retention for those reasons. On balance—it is a finely balanced decision—the Government believe that keeping the edited register from which voters can choose to opt out is the right decision. I know it will be disappointing to some and welcomed by others, but that is the decision the Government have made.
To be fair, I'm not too sure there's any
convincing evidence that the existence of the edited roll is putting people off registering for elections. As far as I'm concerned the question is also irrelevant. The debate shouldn't be about whether or not people refuse to register to vote because they fear their local authority may pass their personal details to junk mailers. It's a matter of principle: should local authorities be forced to sell an edited version of the electoral roll? This was, in fact, the main argument of the Information Commissioner, who sparked the debate in 2008 when he recommended the scrapping of the edited roll in the Data Sharing Review:
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'.
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 so should be abolished. This would not affect the sale of the full register to political parties or to credit reference agencies.
The Government's decision to keep the edited roll was briefly debated in the House of Lords on 24 July, during the second reading in the House of Lords of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. The first noble Lord to ask a question about the edited register was Lord Norton of Louth, AKA Philip Norton:
The other omission is a provision dealing with the edited electoral register. This is something that I have raised on a number of occasions. An edited register is produced as a by-product of citizens fulfilling a statutory obligation. There is the option not to be included in the edited version, but it is an opt-out process and one exercised at the moment by the head of the household. The move to IER [Individual Electoral Registration, JB] will at least ensure that individuals are exercising their right to opt out. None the less, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons as well as the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators have argued that the edited register should be abolished. A survey by the Local Government Association and the AEA found that almost 90% of electoral officers surveyed believed that the practice of selling the register discouraged people from registering to vote.
There are thus significant problems arising from the generation and publication of an edited register. I am familiar with the arguments for its retention. The magazine Parliamentary Brief has regularly rehearsed them, albeit ignoring the fundamental objection of principle adumbrated by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and one that I have previously advanced. The arguments for the edited version were also repeated at Second Reading of the Bill in the other place by Dan Rogerson.
The Government are seized of the issue and have undertaken a consultation on the future of the register. In response to the report of the Constitutional and Political Reform Committee, they said the arguments were "finely balanced". During the Committee stage of the Bill in the Commons, Mark Harper [the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, JB] reiterated the point in saying that the Government had decided to retain the register. That decision is one that we need to explore in some detail. There is the argument of principle. If the edited register is to be retained, then we need to address a number of changes that may be necessary. At present, the edited register can be sold to anyone. Direct marketing companies - generators of junk mail - are on a par with charities and other bodies pursuing functions that may be as meritorious as those of some of the bodies that are entitled to copies of the full register.
Inclusion in the edited version is automatic unless one makes the conscious decision to opt out. The information provided to electors as to the nature of the register and their right to opt out is not as clear as it could be-I gather practice varies. If the edited register is to be retained, then these are all points that need to be addressed. Again, it would be helpful if my noble friend could indicate the Government's thinking.
The Minister, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, AKA William Wallace, didn't want to discuss the principle. As far as Government is concerned it's a purely pragmatic issue:
He [Phillip Norton, JB] also asked about the edited register, to which we will clearly return in Committee. The edited register is much beloved of charities and voluntary organisations. Now that I have to speak for the Cabinet Office, I have learnt that the lobbies in the charities sector are as determined and uncompromising as the lobbies in any other sector. They are very strong on maintaining the edited register, but the Government are committed to maximising registration rates, although we recognise that there are a number of issues about the names that appear. Perhaps that is another question for discussion in Committee.
The charity argument again… Because charities want to continue to use the electoral roll as a junk mail list everybody should be able to use it as a junk mail list - even though the charity sector is responsible for only 10% of all 'direct mail'.
Anyway, at this point Baron Empey of Shandon, AKA Reginald Empey, interrupted:
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. Could he address the issue of whether any research has been or will be undertaken to establish why people are not registering to vote? Do we have any detailed research or is any being planned?
To which William Wallace replied:
That is a very good question to which I do not have the answer, so I will write to the noble Lord about it. I suspect that there is a multitude of reasons. Of course, some people have good reasons for not being on the register, including people in witness protection programmes and some celebrities. A range of issues can be cited, and there are others who are simply moving around too quickly, are not interested or who do not want to have contact with the state.
A little dubious, if you ask me. Despite the fact that William Wallace didn't know the answer to the very good question his Government had already concluded in June that there's
no convincing evidence that having an edited register
acts as a disincentive to people registering.
As said, though, I think the question is rather irrelevant. A question that has become rather urgent is this:
How do I opt out of being on the edited register?
If you've read this far you can probably spare another two minutes to make sure you're details aren't on the edited register and never will be. To do so, you need to send your Electoral Registration Office a data protection notice:
- Step 1: Find the e-mail address of your Electoral Registration Office by going to the About my Vote website and entering your postcode in the box you'll see in the top-right corner. This will give you the contact details for your local office. Copy the e-mail address.
- Step 2: Send an e-mail. You can use this blab as a template (but please do change the dummy text between the square brackets).
Following these two steps will make sure you're opted out of the edited register indefinitely, rather than for just the next 12 months. More information about opting out is available in the Guide to Stamping Out Junk Mail.