Tuesday, December 01, 2009

UK government consultation on sharing data on electoral roll

The UK Ministry of Justice is running a consultation on whether it would be a good idea to abolish the edited version of the electoral roll, in other words the version that the government sells to commercial and other organisations. The consultation document explains the context in its foreword:
"In July 2008, Dr Mark Walport1 and Richard Thomas2 undertook a review of the framework within which personal information is used in the public and private sectors: the Data Sharing Review3. As part of that Review, they recommended that the Government should remove the provision in law which allows for the sale of the Edited Register4 and abolish the Edited Register. As a result of the Review’s findings, the Government committed to consult on the future of the Edited Register.
The Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators have argued that the electoral register should primarily be used for electoral purposes. Dr Mark Walport and Richard Thomas argued in the Data Sharing Review 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.”
Any proposal that would change the nature and operation of the Edited Register could have an effect on those organisations that currently use it, as well as the public. This consultation is intended to enable us to build a firmer evidence base about the advantages and disadvantages of the Edited Register and the impact of any changes, and to consider the way forward on the basis of the responses we receive."
Also from the executive summary:
"The Edited Register came into existence in 2002 when the Government introduced Regulations to establish a new framework governing access to and the supply and sale of electoral registers. This followed the recommendation made by the Final Report of the Working Party on Electoral Procedures5 (“The Howarth Report”) and the judgment made in a court case (Robertson6) brought by an elector concerned about the use of his electoral data for commercial purposes. Prior to 2002, the full electoral register could be made available for a variety of purposes. Any company, organisation or person could buy a copy.
As a result of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 20027 (subsequently referred to as “the 2002 (Amendment) Regulations”) there are now two versions of the electoral register: a full version, and an edited version of the full register. The latter is known as the Edited Register and shows only the names and addresses of those on the full register who have not ‘opted out’ of inclusion in the edited version.
Unlike the full electoral register, the supply and use of which is strictly regulated in law, the Edited Register is available for sale to anyone for any purpose. Members of the public may choose to have their details omitted from the Edited Register by ‘opting out’ by ticking the box included for the purpose on the form used for the annual canvass, which is sent to each household on a yearly basis to determine the names of those to be included on the electoral register. Once produced, the Edited Register is used by a number of groups like charities and businesses for a variety of purposes including, but not limited to, compiling mailing lists."
So the consultation is being set up in response to criticisms about the sale of electoral roll details but interestingly, amongst the options in the questionaire the government is using, option 3 considers widening the commerical access to the details on the full register:
"Question 6. From the list below, which options are your most and least preferred? Please give reasons.

Options abolishing the Edited Register

Option 1: Abolish the Edited Register as soon as practicable.

Option 2: Set a timescale or ‘trigger point’ for abolition of the Edited Register.

Option 3: Abolish the Edited Register as soon as practicable, but extend access to the Full Register for other purposes to be decided in light of the consultation.

Options retaining the Edited Register

Option 4: Retain the Edited Register, but impose restrictions in legislation on who can purchase it and for what purposes.

Option 5: Replace the current ‘opt out’ provision with an ‘opt in’.
Option 6: Improve guidance for the public about the Edited Register."
I tick the opt out box on the form every year, so would be firmly opposed to extending access to the full register, i.e. option 3 above.

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