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Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I have sympathy for some of the arguments that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) presented, and we have joined him in tabling the amendment. However, we approach the matter from a fundamentally different angle. We do not propose that there should be a separate, edited version of the register because we do not believe that such a document would be useful. The point of the electoral register is that it is comprehensive, and carries some

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authority because it has been assembled by government in a detailed manner. That is different from any other register of names and addresses. Such a comprehensive register should be available for some of the purposes that the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) mentioned. There is a point in making the register widely available for credit referencing, for example.

We are worried that the proposed opt-out will be widely misunderstood by the public and that people will believe that they are opting out of junk mail. The right way of doing that is through services such as a mailing preference service. There should be a system--similar to the current telephone and fax preference services--whereby people can state that they do not wish to receive a specific sort of mailing. Preventing the circulation of the electoral register will not stop junk mail. We need a system whereby people who carry out direct marketing license themselves and are required to check the names of individuals who have chosen not to receive such material.

We understand why the working group reached its conclusions. We should take a stroll through the Data Protection Act 1998--a fascinating document, which doubtless kept us all awake as we prepared for the debate. We should examine schedule 1 and the principles of data protection. It becomes clear through reading the schedule that there is a problem with the use of the electoral register in recent years. It states:

Data have been collected for one purpose and used for others, but that should not prevent us from reconsidering whether there should be a national register of names and addresses that is available for specific, tightly controlled purposes within the framework of data protection legislation.

Schedule 2 of the Data Protection Act makes it clear that exceptions can be made and that the use of data can be justified when doing that is necessary to protect the vital interests of the subject of the data. There is a problem with the use of data, but the legislation suggests possible solutions.

We want to consider whether the details for the electoral register should be collected openly as data that will be used for other purposes. That gets round the problem of collecting data for one purpose and using it for another. The form that people fill in could make clear the range of purposes for which the data will be used. We should maintain a comprehensive document that carries some authority and can be used for specific, critical applications.

The credit and banking industry needs secure name and address data. It is unpleasant to write to Experian or Equifax and send them £2 when they send back a thick file that says more about one's financial standing than perhaps one would like them to know. However, when someone buys a car and wants to drive out in it immediately, the finance can be organised there and then if the data is available. In today's society, such data has to be available to enable us to be spontaneous and irresponsible consumers and rack up huge amounts of debt.

Most people, including hon. Members, would take advantage of such a system. We all need to declare an interest on credit. The credit and banking industry needs secure data. I have no fundamental problem with the data

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being used in the way in which I described if controls exist and the data are not abused. There is currently a good framework for managing that. If the Government move from their current position, they should do more to regulate the data rather than trying to prevent the data from being accessible.

Direct marketing companies mainly use other information. They send surveys out to people, in which one respondent in a thousand can win a free holiday, or collect names and addresses when people go into shops. The electoral register is used for cleaning such data up. That is a public interest use because it prevents junk mail from being delivered for years after someone has left a house. Companies do not want to send such mail out and people do not want to receive it, and the electoral register is the annual census against which they can run their other information and achieve a clean list. That is in everybody's interest.

The direct marketing issue is critical and we should not allow it to distract us into saying, "We need to have this opt-out for direct marketing purposes." We should look at the positive ways of making improvements in respect of direct mail and intrusive direct mail. That involves having better rather than less data and giving people options such as preference services so that they can say what they want and do not want to receive. The working group considered that, and said that, ideally, people should be given the chance to say what sort of information they do not want to receive. It wanted a multiple choice opt-out, but accepted that that could not be achieved through the electoral register. Such an opt-out could be achieved through the other services that I mentioned. People would be better served by that rather than the blunt instrument of an opt-out from the electoral register, because they could say that they do not want this or that information sent to them.

The other element is charities. I hope that the Government will look closely at our amendments Nos. 77 and 78. The Data Protection Act is clear about not handing out personal data, but I suggest that there is no problem at all in handing out lists of address points. They can be obtained in other ways--through the post office address file, for example--but the numbers of people in households are not available. If names were not being given out, I would have no problem with allowing charities in particular and other organisations that use such data to have lists of address points and numbers of occupants, which is what they need to know. That information should not necessarily be excluded, even accepting the concerns of the Data Protection Registrar, which do not relate to such anonymous data.

We suggest possible solutions in amendments Nos. 77 and 78. The first is to include the word "personal" to make it clear that other data, such as address points, can be given out and the second is to be more explicit, using the words "names and addresses" instead of "information" in respect of the restricted categories of data. I hope that the Minister may be able to inform the Committee that such anonymous data can be given out on a comprehensive basis anyway; if not, I hope that he will seriously consider whether it was his intention and that of the working group to exclude such anonymous data, rather than personal lists of names and addresses, from being handed out.

I accept that there are individuals who, for specific purposes, do not want to have themselves or their addresses identified, but we need to revisit the whole issue

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of a comprehensive list that carries authority. As the hon. Member for Ryedale said, we do not have identity cards in this country. I support that, but whether we have identity cards makes a difference. Other countries operate in a different way because they use such cards. The electoral register has become a de facto system that is equivalent to identity cards in another country and we ought to consider whether that should become a de jure system and whether we need to authorise it and bring it within the data protection framework. However, we would not necessarily be in a better position and nor would the public interest necessarily be served by simply abandoning the idea of having a register against which people could check information.

Another key point is that other people will fill the gap and other sources of data will be obtained. People will fax paper electoral registers across the globe and type them up. Mistakes will inevitably be made and those sources will be inaccurate. We need to consider that because another key principle of data protection is that data should be accurate. That is in the public interest; data subjects want data to be accurate. As a public body, we should seek to obtain accuracy at all times and more problems will be caused to individuals if other sources of data become the standard. People will find, for example, that they have a bad credit rating because someone has miskeyed a name and they have been matched against an inappropriate person. The chances of that happening with the electoral register, which is generally of better quality, are less.

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The Data Protection Registrar has referred to the growth in the use of CD-ROM and internet sources of personal data checking. People are concerned about that. Some of those sources are of very poor quality, although some are reasonable. Many are outside the framework of our legislation: they are produced abroad and shipped in. I believe that the removal of the register, rather than calming things down, would encourage the use of sources of that kind. It occurs to me that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire may achieve his objective if the words that he wishes to remove are allowed to remain: it is possible that so many people will choose to opt out of the register that it will no longer have a useful purpose.

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