UK Register of Electors—above the law?

Yesterday morning, on receipt of our regular reminder to update our entry on the UK register of electors (voter registration), I attempted to complete my submission on the internet (the method most strongly encouraged on the paperwork).

Despite always having specified that I did not wish to have my details published on the public or “Edited Register” (having always specified “YES” to opt out of the “Edited Register”) my details appeared on the registration renewal website as though I had permitted my details to be made publicly available!

Immediately, I called the council by telephone to find out how this error had come about and to rectify the problem.  The poor council employee on the other end of the telephone at the office of the local electoral register had been receiving complaint phone-calls all morning about the same issue.  She claimed that the council had not been permitted to include voters' existing privacy preferences in the database of the online registration process.  The council employee agreed with me that this decision effectively forced me to submit the paper form by postal mail (the least convenient option) if I wanted to retain my personal privacy.

My question now is, who forbade the councils from helping people to maintain their existing opt-out?  And why would they do this?  This is a break from previous policy, so who authorised the change?  I normally find Kirklees Council to be effectively and fairly administered, so I was surprised by the underhand tactics apparently employed to influence people into doing something which they had previously taken the initiative of explaining was against their will.

Unfortunately this is not the first occasion when I have found discrepancies between the administration of the Register of Electors, and the spirit of the Data Protection Act (an important privacy law in the United Kingdom).  There is a highly developed grey-market trade in personal details within the United Kingdom.  Many advertisers pay good money for each set of valid and up-to-date contact details they receive, especially where those details are received through “legal” means, and most especially if the records contain personal names and dates of birth.

Prior to 2002, the government department administering the Register of Electors decided that people shouldn't be allowed to have any privacy at all.  In direct contravention of their own privacy laws, they decided that people shouldn't be able to “opt out” of the Edited Register.  The consequence of this decision is that every person in the country (including those who always explicitly specify their requirement for privacy) had their personal details published by the British government, in direct contravention of the spirit and purpose of the Data Protection Act (DPA) then in force.

What is the point of the DPA if not to prevent precisely this kind of purloining of personal privacy, especially on such a grand scale as the Electoral Register represents?  You don't believe they did this?  If you are a UK citizen who voted in 2001 and 2002, search for yourself at 192.com and you may be surprised to see that they are offering your personal contact details, for a price; details they originally obtained from the electoral roll which then offered UK voters no opportunity for opting out of being sold down the river.

It appears that someone in government or the UK's civil service has decided to refill depleted government coffers by deliberately tricking millions of people into removing their opt-out from the Edited Register (we do hope that we are wrong about this).  At the very least, it appears that someone in the civil service has decided that inconveniencing millions of people is a worthy price to pay for marginally improving the UK government's near-term cash-flow position.  Who is this person?  And what makes them think themselves immune from the law?


We offered the UK's Electoral Commission the right of reply.


12th August 2011: Updates from correspondence with the Electoral Commission:

Dear Mr Slyman,

I was sorry to read of your frustration with the annual canvass form this year.  …

You can still keep you details private by ticking the box to be on the ‘edited’ register.  I realise that in previous years, your form may have looked different, and local authorities do differ across Britain in how they set out their forms.
We advise people to read the forms carefully before completing them, …

If you want to raise this issue with the Information Commissioner then you can get their contact details from this link: https://www.ico.gov.uk/Global/contact_us.aspx

You may be interested to read our response to a Ministry of Justice (now Cabinet Office) consultation last year on the future of the Edited Register where we called for it to be abolished (para 11) or failing that for the opt-out to become an opt-in (para 19). I have attached a link for your information
http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/86927/Response-to-the-Ministry-of-Justice-consultation-final.pdf

We did not find this reply to be an entirely adequate response to our original query.

…Your reply does appear likely to ultimately answer my central concerns about the Edited Register, and I would certainly support the policy direction advocated by the document you cited.

[However,] some less important questions do remain however about why the online system for re-registering does not permit me to exclude my details from the Edited Register this year, when on previous occasions it has been possible to renew an existing opt-out in this more convenient way.  It appears that this aspect of operational implementation has not followed the Electoral Commission's general policy direction in this case.  Am I wrong about this?

…[text removed, including a more detailed explanation of the identity fraud risks that have been aggravated by the Electoral Commission's errors.  Removed text included suggested methods of partially mitigating these risks]…

15th August 2011: Further correspondence:

…It is up to the Electoral Registration Officer how they run the canvass provided they take all the steps required by legislation.  I have spoken to the Electoral Services Manager at Kirklees and she explained that historically they have had problems with people not understanding what they are opting out of so Kirklees decided for clarity that everyone who was opting out needed to post the form back.  She did say, however, that they will review how effective this has been at the end of the canvass so it may change in the future.

In response to your other question about the removal of names from old registers.  I am unable to comment further as this falls outside the remit of the Electoral Commission and would be a policy matter for Parliament to decide upon.  You could write to the Cabinet Office about it, alternatively you might like to bring it to the attention of your MP.  You could also write to the Information Commissioner…

While the Electoral Commission's response directly contradicts what I was told by the Electoral Services staff at Kirklees, their communications have been straightforward, reassuring and professional.  Government employees who behave as public servants and communicate with disarming honesty, assisting members of the public to take genuine grievances to the attention of the relevant authorities; are a credit to their country.

Thank you…— I cannot ask any more of you, than what you have done.  I will append [agreed excerpts of our correspondence] to my blog tomorrow, so that anyone else who searches the internet for information about this situation may know the current state of affairs.

We hope to append correspondence with the Cabinet Office soon.

One thought on “UK Register of Electors—above the law?

  1. I work in an electoral registration office and I agree that it is totally wrong that the default position should be that your details are automatically included on the edited register, and can be sold to anyone, unless you actively opt out of the edited register.  Where I work the annual electoral registration forms used to be pre-printed with the opt out tick if you had previously opted out, but as from last year none of the opt out ticks were pre-printed so if you did not tick this you were automatically included on the edited register so your personal details would be available to anyone who wanted to buy this information.  Contrary to what many people seem to think, this is not a ploy by councils to generate revenue, as councils sell very few edited registers.  The big winners are credit reference agencies.  You may not be aware that all registered credit reference agencies have a right to buy the full electoral register from councils for a statutory fee (a tiny fraction of what it costs the council to compile the register).  They then use this to provide a credit check service to financial institutions and individuals who want a credit check.  In addition to using the full register in this way these credit reference agencies can also sell the edited register (i.e. personal details of anyone who has not opted out), and therefore make even more money. 
    So this change of policy seems only to benefit the credit reference agencies.

    Finally, your correspondent might be interested to know that you can ask your council to opt you out permanently from the edited register.  You just have to make your request in writing, email counts as a written request, and each person must make their own request.  You can’t request a permanent opt out on behalf of someone else.

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