In 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.