Is your council selling your personal details?

Polling stationDanny Lawson/PA Wire

Councils have made £3 million in the past five years from selling personal details from the electoral roll. A newspaper investigation found they were selling the information on to organisations including estate agents, solicitors and religious groups.

So are you being exploited by your council, and is there anything you can do about it?
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Selling details

The details were unearthed by the Mail on Sunday, which says that more than 20 million people have had their details sold on like this.

Individual councils have published details only when they have been specifically challenged. Stafford Borough Council, for example, responded to a question in September, saying that voter details had been sold 11 times in the 2011/2012 tax year - and made the council £1,849 in that time. In the same month, Freedom Of Information requests sent to all Welsh Councils from the Western Mail revealed that they had made £143,689.50 over the past four years from selling details on.

Is this right?

This seems an odd way for councils to be making money from people - and subjecting them to junk mail - however, there's nothing new to this. The government has the right to sell on any details provided on the register.

However, there is a way to avoid being exploited like this. There are two registers, the full register - which includes everyone who is eligible to vote. This can only be used for specific things such as electoral purposes, investigating a crime, or credit checks. The second one is the edited register, which is the one that can be sold on to companies to enable them to send you junk mail.

When you complete your canvas form to go on the register, you have the option to opt out of appearing on the edited register for the next 12 months by ticking a box. It's simple, and well worth doing, as it means your council can no longer sell your details. You'll need to remember this, however, so you can be sure to tick the box every year you complete the form.

Why?

The edited register was only actually brought into existence in 2002, after a court ruled that it was unlawful for details to be sold on without giving people an opportunity to opt out. It pointed out that it flew in the face of the Data Protection Act of 1998. Instead of stopping councils selling the details, the government came up with the idea of the edited register.

There are those who argue that instead of having a second register, the practice should be outlawed entirely. They say that it could put people off registering to vote if they know their details could be sold on, and that many people don't understand the relevance of the tick box to opt out of the edited register.

Objections

A number of organisations have spoken out against the edited register, including the Information Commissioner, Association of Electoral Administrators, Electoral Commission, and House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee.

It was debated as part of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill (due to become law next year) but the government decided not to do away with the edited register. It must have been hard to look that particular gift horse in the mouth.

There is currently an epetition on the government website calling for the banning of the edited register. At the moment it has 160 signatures, which leaves it some way off its target if it is going to open up a debate in the House of Commons.

Clearly, waiting for electoral law reform is going to mean waiting for quite some time. For now, therefore, it's well worth ticking the box and saving yourself an awful lot of hassle and recycling.

But what do you think? Should this be allowed? Let us know in the comments.
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