Data sharing and electoral registration: there should be a second opt-out

Over on the Open Rights Group blog, Jason Kitcat has recounted the recent meeting hosted by the Cabinet Office about the government’s plans to improve data sharing across the public sector in order to improve electoral registration, particularly as we shift to individual registration (the benefits of which I’ve blogged about here).

These plans could range from the helpful (such as giving people the option when, say, telling the TV Licensing Authority that they have moved also to have the information sent to update their electoral register entry) through to the very different (such as linking up tax records with electoral registration information without any notification or opting-in).

Jason reports that,

The event was bookended by talks from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg MP (LibDem) and his junior minister Mark Harper MP (Conservative). They both clearly knew their briefs and were keen to push forward the move to individual voter registration and ditch household registration as soon as possible. There’s no doubt that the ‘head of a household’ registering everyone as he sees fit is archaic and prone to fraud (and it would typically be a ‘he’). ORG has long called for a move to individual voter registration as a way to prevent fraud in our electoral system…

An electoral services officer there told me how officers used to loudly proclaim how registering to vote wouldn’t lead to the data being shared with tax, immigration or any other parts of government. Now that’s all gone, the officer said, and in the small print on the back of the form you are told that it is (quite legally) shared across local and central government, as well as with credit agencies, of course.

The next step will be to use other sources of data, particularly the national insurance database, to infer who isn’t on the electoral roll but should be. This seems worthy, of course we want to help people get registered to vote. Yet… one of the reasons why a new national identity scheme was proposed by the previous government was because none of the existing registers were particularly accurate. Of course nothing is 100% perfect, but the national insurance database is known to be full of inconsistencies and one wonders what new problems will be introduced with a head-long dive into data matching.

Electoral register formA different example of the problems is the ability of people to opt-out from the version of the electoral register which commercial direct mail firms and others can buy and use. That sounds fine and a good move, except that “and others” includes, for example, council planning departments. So if a council wants to personally write to people in an area about a planning application (and in a dense flat-land urban area writing individually can be the only way to try to get the message through to people) then it cannot use the full register.

There have even been elections in the past for organisations such as local development boards which have not been able to use the full electoral register so by opting out people have also ended up opting themselves out of the right to vote in those elections.

Myself, I would like to see a two-tier level of opting out – one from any data sharing and one from data sharing for commercial purposes, though this leads to some tricky to define cases such as charities who do fundraising. However lawyers have triumphed over far harder definitional problems in the past. Unfortunately, my response to the previous government consultation on this issue doesn’t seem to have won the day. Yet, adds the optimist in me…

For more information about who can register to vote, how to register to vote and what can be done with the electoral register see this short electoral registration guide.

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6 Comments

  • The commercial use of the electoral register should simply stop. I think that it’s beyond the pale that this kind of data can be sold in this way, even if there is an opt-out.

  • Until there is a system that use biometric data it will always be to easy to cheat the system.

  • Mark,

    I have said this before !but

    The dream of linked up databases or even one-database-to-rule-them-all is a chimera of database wonks. There are simply too many errors in each of them.
    I know that the existing electoral roll data is a mess, just too much inconsistency between the formats, and people doing data entry.
    There are errors in the PAF postcode database, Lots of errors in the NI data, and so on.

    There simply are not the resources in these times to do the complex data reconciliation, which really needs people not machines to see where the problems are.
    If only 5% of records are wrong in a 40 million item database ….

  • simonsez, you are right, but only until the Labour party gets back into office (as it will) and resurrects its ID card project. Then the dream of database wonks will come true: every government department or company will insist on seeing your ID card in order to obtain any service at all (or a proxy such as a credit card which you could only obtain by producing your ID), and they will record its number, so the ID card number will become the key that links your voter registration, your NI, your tax, your residence, your car, your purchases… everything. Just what the surveillance and marketing industry have always wanted.

  • Simonsez is right.

    Councils themselves are prevented from making any use of the register except I think for a statutory purpose related to crime prevention and law enforcement. They sometimes say that this means in effect the assessment and collection of any tax. So on this basis data processing firms like Experian have set up products which promise to ascertain whether a 25% discount under Section 11 LGF Act should apply. Various sorts of logic are used but the net result is almost always that very large numbers of people get falsely suspected of fraud.

    And mostly they are so suspected because they put a disregarded young adult on the electoral register the year they turn 18. Because there is no legal need to inform the council tax department of this event, a fact which council tax demand notices should to conform with the law make clear, people don’t.

    And then along comes the Audit Commission, compares council tax data bases with the electoral register and threatens councils with adverse public interest reports (basically) if they decline to ‘investigate’ every single ‘hit’.

    There were over 440000 cases on the last set of ‘hit’ lists sent out. In the vast majority of cases there was full entitlement and no evidence of any fraud or error.

    The Audit Commisson appears to be the worst culprit here, and before you respond that it is being abolished, the data matching powers that it has, which are already being used in ways certainly not contemplated by Parliament, will be privatised.

    The Audit Commission is in theory governed by a statutory code of data matching practice. This says various things like where a match is found it indicates that there is an inconsistency and that participants should eliminate coincidental cases. The Audit Commission has now developed the concept of the ‘potential match’. This is not well defined but the Independent Complaints Reviewer of the Commission thought, having read their accounts of it, that there were two investigations: one to find whether the potential inconsistency is an actual inconsistency and another to find out whether the actual inconsistency arises from fraud or error or from some other cause.

    Apparently because the Independent Complaints reviewer decided that the statutory code was ambiguous between ‘might be an inconsistency’ and ‘is an inconsistency’ and suggested that this problem should be sorted out, the new Scottish version of the code has been freed from all those awkward requirements for matches to indicate inconsistencies. They have the power to write their own delegated legislation, and so in Scotland they simply wrote in the delegated law ‘when the Act says ‘match’ it means ‘potential inconsistency’.

    This means that when data matching powers are delegated/privatised the data merchants will have a field day, with powers to demand data on pain of criminal penalties, and then to use to in any form of processing however statistical to indicate that a person might be in an inconsistent situation … and therefore should be subjected to a fraud investigation, I suppose.

    Nightmare? Yes, that sort of word does ring true,

    I think if this blogger does care, then he ought to ask the Coalition partners to jump as quick as they can and make sure not just that privatised data matching is subject to a statutory code, but that that code is monitored independently, with a requirement that nobody can be ‘assumed’ to be fraudulent without sufficient evidence for a prosecution, and that there is a right of appeal against such an assumption, with rights of compensation to those falsely assumed. If possible, a complete register of matches and the underpinning logic should be published, with only ‘matches’ and ‘algorithms’ which can be clearly demonstrated to show situations which actually are on the face of it unlawful, and not simply ones that are inconsistent with, say, some administrative process which the data matcher or the auditor wants to impose upon participants and has no other way of enforcing.

    Do it now, or in another year or so councils will be alienating yet more residents as they work their way through another half a million or so abortive investigations, following half baked advice and using model investigation letters which are wrong on so many ways that one can hardly count them.

  • Ironically Tessa Munt MP is just one of the victims of NFI-related incompetence and misunderstanding, much of it fuelled by the inaccurate information circulated to investigators by the Audit Commission.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-11199129

    Since, depending on what side it got out of bed the Audit Commission may deny that people on its ‘hit’ lists are even suspected of fraud or ‘labelled’ as potential frauds (yes they do sometimes deny it) the way in which this was reported was appalling, and not least by the council, which insisted that it had to investigate ‘irregularities’. Once again, misunderstanding. There is nothing at all irregular in a person being on the electoral register and not on council tax data bases.

    However so many people believe that there is something irregular that I have had to refuse to put my own undergraduate child, whose sole or main residence is naturally the university town on the electoral register, even though a) my council encourages students to register in two places b) this would be perfectly legal c) this would not affect the basis of my council tax discount d) this would not be anything requiring notification to the council tax department simply because if I did I should end up falsely suspected of fraud and required to eliminate myself.

    Ms Munt herself appeared to think that there was something irregular as she said she could see that the council ‘had’ to investigate. MPs ought to take the trouble to read Sections 6 and 11 of the Local Government Finance Act. Though I sympathise with her need to be seen to cooperate once the **** started being slung, in fact this data processing does not indicate any anomalous or discrepant situation. It is perfectly proper in fact for the data in these two data bases to be different. the actual reason for the investigations is a priori beliefs that some people in the population set identified by the processing will be thieves: this is statistical reasoning and the search for fraud works by a process of elimination: they suspect you and you have to fill in their forms to eliminate yourself.

    Miss Munt said that some people had muddled the difference between council tax and electoral registration. This is only part of the truth. The whole truth is that there is no such thing as ‘council tax registration’. Councils have no legal duty at all to maintain council tax registers which is one reason that hundreds of thousands of abortive investigations arise when the NFI issues its ‘hit’ lists.

    By the way the NFI gets upset when you call them ‘hit’ lists but if you send for their minutes you will see that the term does originate with them.

    So now one of your own MPs has been falsely suspected of fraud, and it would appear by a council which did not understand or publicly pronounce fairly and accurately upon the personal data it was sending to the NFI and investigating into, perhaps, just perhaps, you will consider doing something about the other 400,000 cases sent out by the NFI?

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