Protecting personal data

22831 - 1 Lord NortonIn her comment on the preceding post, ladytizzy comments on the poor response of the Government to amendments to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill dealing with overseas voters.  I was one of those supporting the amendments and was not impressed with the Government’s reply, either in committee or at report stage.  (You can see a summary of committee stage in this note from the House of Commons Library.)  Nor was I impressed by the Government’s response to my amendments on the edited version of the electoral register.

In completing an electoral registration form, electors have to decide whether they wish to have their names excluded from an edited version of the electoral register.  This register is sold to anyone who wishes to purchase it, not least commercial bodies.   Data collected by Government and supplied as part of a civic responsibility by electors is available for sale to third parties.  My view is that this is in principle objectionable and have pressed for the abolition of the register.  In this I am not alone: the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the House of Commons have also argued for its abolition. 

The Government, having listened to the third parties who purchase the register, have resisted attempts to abolish it.  Realising in committee that the Government was not going to shift on this, I pursued at report stage my amendment to provide that in future electors had to opt-in to the register rather than, as now, opt out.  As I argued, we have no evidence that electors have given their consent to having their personal data sold to whoever wishes to purchase those details.  Consent is assumed.  I therefore argued that electors should give their consent explicitly.  In this, I had the support of the Electoral Commission. 

The Government resisted the amendment.  The basis of the minister’s response?  The issue of principle was ignored.  Instead, he contended that electors are not bright enough to understand an opt-in provision and not enough are likely to tick the box in sufficient numbers to make the edited register viable.  I paraphrase, but that basically was the import of his comments.  (See the debate here and decide for yourselves.)   It was one of those occasions where I felt like asking the minister if he realised he was speaking out loud.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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7 Responses to Protecting personal data

  1. Jonathan says:

    I completely agree with this. It’s a ridiculous situation whereby information we are required to give by law can be sold to marketers for them to send junk mail. All of the arguments involving charities sound like excuses. I haven’t been able to figure out which Regulations set out the precise rules, but I seem to remember that the credit reference agencies are permitted to use the full register. (In fact, I know they are because I checked my credit file last month and it says I am on the register, yet I’ve never been on the edited register.) So Lord Wallace’s claim that his son couldn’t obtain credit because he wasn’t on the edited register is nonsense. As for organ donations, I fail to see the relevance. They don’t need to contact you when you are ready to donate your organs as it usually means you are already there and, shall we say, not in a state to be contacted about anything.

    If there is really a need for charitable organisations to have access to the electoral register, perhaps there should be separate provisions for them to have access to either the full register or an edited register, after strict checks to ensure they need it and the use is appropriate. However, commercial companies should never have access. If asked whether they wanted to sign up for additional junk mail, most people would decline. Otherwise, the direct marketing companies could simply hand out their own forms for people to fill in. If so many people feel it’s good to be on a commercial register, why don’t companies compile their own?

    Incidentally, it’s interesting to note that Lord Wallace and his entire family have been on the edited register ever since 2002, when it was introduced. So I can’t see how his wife can have opted them all out. Here’s the entry from, which I don’t hesitate to reproduce here, given that Lord Wallace is such a fan of the edited register:
    William J Wallace
    Age Guide: 60-64
    Address: Saltaire – Full Address
    Other Occupants: Edward W Wallace, Harriet K Wallace, Helen S Wallace
    Electoral roll: 2002-13

    For a small sum, I could buy credit to allow me to click the “Full Address” link and publish that here too.

  2. ladytizzy says:

    Lord Norton, just as I think I’m getting to grips with the nuts and bolts of Parliament, along comes a debate that is seriously short of bolts. Your efforts, along with those from Lord Lexden, are more widely appreciated than is obvious here. Thank you.

    Meanwhile, back to Planet Howmuchdoesamemberofparliamentcost:

    In a recent post*1, you included the average annual cost per member of HoC (£0.59m) and of HoL (£0.13m), from figures given in answer to a Written Question*2. Yesterday, Full Fact*3 looked at figures used by a newspaper and concluded that the annual cost of maintaining 50MPs is £13.6m, or £0.27m per MP, based on figures prepared by the Government for use in connection with HoL reform.*4

    Full Fact also linked to a comment by Mr Sadiq Khan (29 Jan, 2013) which included the following line:

    “The new peers alone cost at least an additional £18 million a year, exceeding the £13.6 million that might be saved had there been 50 fewer MPs with the prospect of even more new peers in the pipeline.”*5

    Are you able to shed light on the apparent discrepancies?


    • Jonathan says:

      Surely it depends which costs you attribute to individual member? How about the cost of heating the building? How does that divide between the two Houses, and should it be divided by the number of members and added to the per-member cost? That will explain any discrepancies. Sadiq Khan’s figures are hardly surprising given that there were well over 100 new peers for just over the price of 50 MPs.

      I feel this cost per member is a fairly meaningless measure anyway. The best would be cost per unit of work output, but that’s hard to quantify. You may as well quote the total cost per House. However you measure it, the Lords come out as costing less. Perhaps the anti-Lords brigade should concentrate on issues such as whether we need a second chamber, and the fact it isn’t elected, rather than continually banding about figures that you can fiddle to show whatever you want.

      • ladytizzy says:

        Jonathan, the exercise is one thing that may or may not be especially interesting though I do find it annoying when ‘facts’ based on a dubious source, laziness, or mischief are picked up and repeated as if true, particularly if a person or organisation is presenting him/her/itself as honest and trustworthy.

        However, the figures used by *1 and *2 (above) have the advantage of being traceable to a (publicly available) set of certified accounts. Those used by *3 and *5 are based on *4, an explanation to the impact assessment for the draft Lords Reform Bill. Unless Parliament changed (or regularly changes) its method of accounting it would be good to know if one or all impact assessments are following a completely different set of rules.

        The red wire option is I’d like to know where I’ve gone wrong so I won’t do it again.

  3. maude ewes says:

    Government cannot be trusted with any information, not yours or mine, and ask yourself, do they have a ‘right’ to demand your private thoughts, your details and then sell it on without your permission or even knowledge to whom.

    The census was taken by a US arms company. Does that make you feel safe?

  4. maudie33 says:

    Dear Lord Norton,

    I put up a response to this thread this morning, which was accepted and on the page. It has now disappeared. Has it gone into you spam box?



  5. Liam says:

    Isn’t this an issue you’ve been trying to make better for a number of years, Lord Norton? I do admire your tenacity.

    “Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, the last Government did consult on the future of the edited register and received some 7,600 responses, of which 7,450 were in favour of its retention.”

    Uh-huh, all from parties with a vested interest in keeping the register.

    They concluded, as had their predecessor, that the edited register should be retained. We saw no evidence that people are put off registering and agreed with those who highlighted the wider social and economic benefits that it provides.

    WeveAlreadyDecided™ followed by (what appears to be) an appeal to ignorance and some unsubstantiated claims about social benefits. I am sceptical of Lord Tylers’ claims of the register re-uniting families and whatnot, it all sounds very woolly, lacking in detail and evidence to support their position.

    Also, that anecdote about what Lord Wallace of Saltaire’s wife said, wowza it takes some strange mental gymnastics to come to the conclusion that all the people who fail to opt-in will suddenly get bad credit ratings. Surely they must realise that if the register becomes unreliable, credit ratings agencies will stop using it. Isn’t that kind-of the point of this amendment in the first place?

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