Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by


1. is the UK's largest people finding website, and the owner of 192business, the leading UK provider of ID verification solutions to prevent online credit card fraud. It is used by eight million people every month in the UK. was the first company to offer the Electoral Register to consumers in digital form. works closely with the Information Commissioner's Office to ensure that data protection principles are respected and that data is published in a responsible way. 192business provides services to the e-commerce industry to prevent credit card and ID fraud, for anti-money laundering checks and to verify age in the sale of age-restricted goods and services such as online gambling and alcohol. The electoral Register is an essential tool in this activity.

2. supports the proposals set out in the Cabinet Office's consultation to accelerate the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration (IER). welcomes the Government's reassurance that during the first year of the switchover process, no household or individual details will be removed from the Electoral Register.

3. has an active interest in the IER proposals with any changes in the registration process having a direct impact on the Electoral Register and the Edited Register. This data is vital to the services offers to business and consumer customers, charities and individuals.

4.  The Edited Register is a national resource that plays a valuable social and economic role in the United Kingdom. As the UK's only consented national database it is the most comprehensive and updated source of name and address data and is used to support a range of important activities by business, government, charities and individuals.

5.  The Edited Register has significant social and economic benefits. Businesses rely on it to verify potential suppliers and customers, tackle credit card fraud, meet obligations where supplying age-restricted goods or when tracing debtors. For charities, it helps reunite lost friends and families (including 3,000 found annually by the Salvation Army), underpins locating and connecting organ donors, locating natural parents of adoptees and supports fundraising. Local government relies on it for purposes not permitted with the Full Register such as debt recovery. Individuals rely on it for finding lost family members and for building trust in strangers that they are about to transact with.

6.  The introduction of IER offers an important opportunity to enhance the collection and administration of voter registration and, concomitantly, improve the Edited Register by ensuring citizens are given an annual choice on whether to opt-out and improving consent through standardised guidance.

7.  The majority of citizens favour all uses of the Edited Register except for direct marketing. The introduction of IER provides an opportunity to address this concern by promoting the Mail Preference Service (MPS) on the canvass form as the only effective way to opt-out from receiving direct marketing.

8.  Alongside the economic and socially damaging consequences of abolishing the Edited Register there are significant risks associated with restricting the use of this consented and regulated database as the massive demand for people-finding is met through alternative unlawful sources.

9.  The Coalition Government has identified the potential of data held by the public sector to generate economic growth and improve transparency. The Edited Register is a prime example of the economic and social benefits that can be generated from consented release of public data.

Why maintain the Edited Electoral Register?

10. welcomes the Government's draft proposals on IER and strongly supports the central premise set out in the draft legislation by the Cabinet Office giving the decision on registration and voting rights to the individual rather than the "head" of the household. The move to IER offers an important opportunity to improve the collection and administration of voter registration and, concomitantly, improve consent.

11.  The Edited Register came into being in 2002 after the court decision in the Robertson case,_ so that the valuable data on the register would continue to be available to serve important purposes whilst giving proper consideration to the privacy of individuals who did not wish their data to be used for other purposes. At that time, it was decided to create a new Edited Register to allow these uses to continue whilst providing people with the right to opt-out.

12.  The Edited Register is a national resource that plays a valuable social and economic role in the United Kingdom. It is the UK's only large scale, consented, source of name and address data.

13.  The previous Government launched a Consultation regarding the future of the Edited Register. This sprang solely from a claim by electoral administrators that the existence of the Edited Register acts as a disincentive for people to register to vote. When challenged through FOI requests, not a single electoral roll officer was able to offer any evidence of this assertion. Indeed some commented that they thought it acted as an incentive for some people to register.

14.  It assists businesses to reduce exposure to credit card and identity fraud, meet age-verification obligations, conduct due diligence and pursue bad debts and supports the reunification of dormant financial assets with their owners. services small businesses that are unable to access CRA data; 97% of businesses, employing 60% of the private sector work force are small.

15.  It facilitates the successful tracing of thousands of missing persons each year to reunite families and friends by charities and individuals. One division of the Salvation Army alone made 3,000 such reconnections last year and reports that people finding websites were indispensable in as many as 80% of the cases._ Furthermore, it is an essential tool in charitable activity to find and connect organ donors, enables the work of adoption organisations, as well as supporting fundraising.

16.  Local government relies on it for purposes not permitted with the Full Register such as debt recovery. If the Edited Register were to be abolished, local authorities would suffer a significant loss in revenue or, if use of the Full Register were to be extended, the Government would likely face challenges under the Human Rights act for forcing people to register to vote whilst using their data for non-consented purposes.

17.  Individuals rely on it for finding lost family members and for building trust in strangers that they are about to transact with. In an increasingly online world millions of people transact with people that they have never met and where they need a way of building confidence that the person is who they say they are. Reference to public datasets is invaluable for this purpose.

18.  Independent opinion research demonstrates public support for the Edited Register with only 2.5 % not supporting its continuation._ It is important that the transition to IER reflects the strong level of support.

19.  Research by Europe Economics found that there would be "very considerable adverse economic effects together with social impact" if the Edited Register were abolished. It found that abolition would cost the economy between £6.7 billion-£13.5 billion over 10 years._ In addition it estimated that the number of foregone family reunifications over the next ten years would range between 367,696 and 1,451,164. It is important to use the transition to IER to embed best practice in the registration process to increase the benefits of this dataset.'s modelling shows that, but for pejorative practices conducted by the majority of electoral administrators, at least 73% of the UK population would have consented to inclusion on the Edited Register, dramatically increasing the inherent value of the Edited Register data to users of this data including charities, local authorities and businesses._

20.  Ending pre-ticking and techniques to encourage opt-out would have a significant economic impact. Europe Economics found that the cost to the economy of abolishing the Edited Register in a scenario where pre-ticking has ended would be £11.6 billion-£13.5 billion compared to £6.7 billion-£7.8 billion where pre-ticking continued and trends on opt-out levels were maintained._ This recognises that an Edited Register without pre-ticking would be £4.9-5.7 billion more valuable to the economy over the next 10 years than an Edited Register with pre-ticking continued.

21.  The Edited Register performs a vital role in meeting the ongoing demand for data through a regulated system. An independent review of the direct and indirect effects of abolition of the Edited Register identified that the following impacted parties would express a demand for alternative data sources in the event that the it becomes less effective:_

·  Asset reunification services as the costs of tracing without the Edited Register would increase by 300% making smaller companies struggle to survive.

·  Debt collection services because collecting smaller debts would become uneconomic which would mean loss of business.

·  Direct marketing firms and fundraising charities because the costs incurred by marketing companies could be as high as £365 million.

·  About 13% of the UK adult population involved in genealogy as they would remain interested in the family history research.

·  About nine million unique users per month of people finding websites because they would still seek services that would help them verify strangers or trace old friends and family.

22.  This demand would be impossible to meet with current legal data sources, such as the Phonebook or the database of UK company directors, as these are too small and the Phonebook cannot be searched nationally. Social networks, such as Facebook, are not an effective replacement because: i) they do not provide addresses so lack a geographic context, ii) profiles are easily invented (they are not formal records); and iii) coverage is skewed towards the younger generation.

23.  If the demand for people-finding is not met through a consented and regulated database it will lead to an inevitable increase in unlawful data. Three potential supply routes to an illegal market in data to meet the continuing demand include:

·  Data misuse—research found that 71.2% of local authorities who responded to FOI requests admitted to using the Full Register for issues considered by Hugh Tomlinson QC to be unlawful including assessing benefits and tracing parking fines._

·  Full Register access—copies of the Full Register could be disclosed by sources and organisations that have legitimate access to the data to those that do not. The potential for misuse is clear from FOI responses—only 32% of local authorities required employees to sign undertaking even though the Electoral Commission advised councils to implement this procedure; only 14% logged searches; and only 6% had carried out an audit in the last year to check usage logs._

·  Marketing data—offshore sources already offer unconsented databases of marketing data and this practice would increase in a landscape where there was no regulated onshore competition. This data would not only be data that was collected for other purposes but would include many people that would have opted out of the Edited Register. These sites would be outside the reach of the ICO, a point of real concern that has been expressed by the ICO.

Ultimately, those that have a strong desire for privacy will have their wishes abused and the Government may face criticism for failing to safeguard personal data.

Role of IER in Improving the EER

24.  The Government can utilise the introduction of IER to improve the quality of the Edited Register in support of the benefits outlined above. This will involve addressing some of the systematic practices that have been used by the overwhelming majority of electoral administrators to achieve increased opt-out rates.

25.  Foremost among these is the practice of pre-ticking the canvass form for people that have previously opted-out. Rather than give citizens an annual choice a number of electoral administrators admit that if a person has previously opted-out of the Edited Register the canvass form is pre-printed with an opt-out tick. This is despite clear guidance from the Electoral Commission that pre-ticking is a breach of regulations._ The effect of this policy is clear: opt-out rates for councils that pre-tick are around 47% compared to just 27% for those that do not pre-tick._

26.  If the majority of electoral administrators had not ignored Electoral Commission advice then all the evidence suggests that the Edited Register would now be growing in size as more and more people became comfortable with its use. In June 2010 the AEA finally advised its members that the practice is illegal. Nonetheless it is for each electoral administrator to make a decision: to remove any doubt the Government should take immediate action to ban the practice of pre-ticking.

27.  Opinion research clearly shows that a majority of consumers favour all uses of the Edited Register except direct marketing. 72% of those people that had opted out had done so in order to avoid direct marketing._ This reflects that the current Canvass Form and guidance notes to the public consistently focus on the use of the Edited Register for direct marketing giving the false impression that opting out will prevent direct mail when it will not.

28.  The introduction of IER provides an opportunity to address this concern by promoting the MPS on the canvass form as the only effective way to opt-out from receiving direct marketing. The Direct Marketing Association operates MPS because it positively removes those people who do not want to receive direct marketing. These people are unlikely to respond positively to direct marketing and MPS allows it to be more targeted and to operate more efficiently.

29.  Currently only Direct Marketing Association members are obliged to use MPS to suppress those addresses that do not wish to receive direct mail. A statutory obligation could be placed on all direct marketing companies to make use of the MPS, rather than just the proportion of industry signed up to a professional Code of Conduct.

Use IER Implementation to Improve Consent

30.  As the only consented national database in the UK it is essential that the shift to IER is used to enhance citizen confidence in the Edited Register. The accelerated introduction of IER will enhance the completeness and integrity of the Electoral Register. supports the proposals to require each elector to register to vote individually rather than by household. This will provide the opportunity for each individual to make an informed choice on whether to opt-out of the Register, rather than leaving the choice to whoever responds on behalf of the household as is presently the case.

31.  It is clear that the language on canvass forms and guidance given by electoral administrators is inaccurate,_ fails to properly inform the public of the purposes to which the Edited Register might be put (not least the positive uses) and thereby misleads the public. For example, the current statutory wording says the Edited Register can "be used for any purpose …by any person, company or organisation". This is inaccurate as any user has to be a registered data controller under the Data Protection Act 1998 and it may only be used for any purpose that is permitted under the DPA. In addition, the layout of the canvass form varies across local authorities.

32.  The introduction of IER provides an opportunity to address the significant variation in the canvass form and guidance notes. The public would benefit from the introduction of clearer, more accurate and more balanced wording allowing a properly informed choice to be made. therefore welcomes the proposal for legislation to require EROs to provide potential electors with canvass forms that are of a consistent standard designed by the Electoral Commission, or such manner as may be prescribed, as this would enhance integrity in the electoral system. All written communication with voters affecting the Edited Register should be standardised.

33.  In implementing IER the Government should ensure canvass forms address the following consistently:

make clear that the Edited Register only contains an individual's name and address and will not include any of the personal information required as part of the IER (such as National Insurance number);

explain the benefits of being on the Edited Register such as improving credit rating, and making it easier to buy goods and services on-line to address years of consistently misleading information;

reassure citizens that their information will only be used in accordance with the highest standards of data protection principles. The data may only be used by companies registered with the Information Commissioner's Office and within the provisions of the Data Protection Act; and

signpost citizens to the MPS as the way to opt-out from receiving direct mail.

Maintaining Opt-Out as Default Option

34.  The Edited Register was created following the Robertson decision to allow households to make an informed decision on whether their details should be available; the right to "opt-out" protects their right to privacy while maintaining the effectiveness of the Edited Register.

35.  One of the options put forward by the last Government was to move from the current opt-out system to an opt-in system. Inevitably, this will lead to a significant further drop in the size of the Edited Register thus reducing its economic and social value.

36.  Behavioural economics explains how people act in response to an opt-in mechanism compared to an opt-out model. A Cabinet Office commissioned report explained: "Many decisions we take every day have a default option, whether we recognise it or not. Defaults are the options that are pre-selected if an individual does not make an active choice. Defaults exert influence as individuals regularly accept whatever the default setting is, even if it has significant consequences."_

37.  In the context of Edited Register those people with a strong desire to privacy will ensure they are not listed and those with a strong desire to be listed will ensure that they are. But there is a large group whose natural inclination leads them to adopt the default position. The Government's Behavioural Insights Team has accepted this noting "A key insight from behavioural science is the tendency of individuals to go with the flow of pre-set options, or defaults…"_

38.  This can be illustrated with reference to organ donation mechanisms: where countries operate presumed consent the numbers of people registered to donate are dramatically higher than in those that operate an opt-in model._

39.  In framing public policy government should seek to structure the default option to maximise benefits for citizens which can influence behaviour without restricting individual choice. In the case of the Edited Register, it is clear there are significant economic and social benefits. If government accepts that the availability of a national database of names and addresses is beneficial to society, it should retain the "opt-out" mechanism, the same as the Phone Book.

40.  Despite the clear evidence of public support for continuation of the Edited Register, behavioural theory indicates strongly that moving to an opt-in system would "kill" the effectiveness of the Edited Register. All of the economic and social benefits enabled by the Edited Register depend upon a critical mass of users. Because the majority would tend to follow the default option, an opt-in system would ensure that critical mass is lost.

41.  For eight years voters have been presented with an opt-out box on the canvass form. Reversing this mechanism by changing it to an opt-in will create further confusion at a time of significant change with the introduction of IER. People that have previously opted out will opt back in because they expect the tick box to mean the same as before, and many of those that previously decided to be on the register by not ticking will effectively remove themselves. Any resulting confusion may undermine the shift to IER.

42.  If, as a result of an opt-in mechanism being introduced, the number of people on the Edited Register drops dramatically, there are implications for the revenue earning opportunity for local authorities In the event of a smaller Edited Register, the Electoral Administrators will be faced with the same cost and workload to create it but will not receive the rewards that could be made available. Moreover the broader opportunities, identified by the Government's focus on open data, to generate economic value by access to this resource will be significantly undermined.

43.  For this and many other reasons, if the Edited Register is retained it should remain an opt-out system thereby maximising the size of the database and the benefits that can be derived by society and the economy.

September 2011

_ Robertson v Wakefield Metropolitan Council

_ An input to a full impact assessment on abolition of the Edited Electoral Register Europe Economics 31 March 2011

_ Survey conducted in Feb 2010 by Opinion Matters see Annex 1, I-CD Publishing response to MoJ Electoral Register Consultation CP 46/09 Feb 2010

_ An input to a full impact assessment on abolition of the Edited Electoral Register, Europe Economics 31 March 2011

_ I-CD Publishing Response to MoJ Electoral Registers Consultation CP 46/09 Februrary 2010 paras 143-6

_ An input to a full impact assessment on abolition of the Edited Electoral Register Europe Economics 31 March 2011

_ Ibid

_ Rumbled: the councils that don't register they are breaking the law Parliamentary Brief 28 April 2011

_ Ibid

_ Managing Electoral Registration in Great Britain, Guidance for EROs Electoral Commission Part C, Paras 130-1

_ I-CD Publishing response to MoJ Electoral Register Consultation CP 46/09, para. 143 February 2010

_ Ibid, Annex 1 Q4

_ Ibid paras 144-146

_ Mindspace—Influencing behaviour through public policy Institute for Government March 2010

_ Behaviour Change and Energy Use Cabinet Office July 2011 p.23

_ Ibid p.23

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Prepared 4 November 2011