UK DMA Fights Restrictions on Use of Electoral Roll

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Free commercial access to Britain's electoral roll is under challenge from the Labor government, which is likely to soon pass legislation restricting its use by direct marketers and other merchants.


The roll is one of the most valuable tools marketers have because it contains information collected by all 360 local authorities in the country and is the most up-to-date record available, said Colin Lloyd, president of the United Kingdom Direct Marketing Association.


"The information is available in public libraries and from local authorities either free of charge or for a small price," Lloyd said.


Two main uses of the electoral roll by marketers, he said, are for data cleaning and determining creditworthiness.


"The credit industry has argued long and hard that without this information a great tranche of British society wouldn't be given credit because the industry would not have enough information about them," he said. "This would affect ethnics and those who live lower down on the economic scale."


As a data cleaning tool, Lloyd said, the electoral roll is the only definite database in the UK of personal details, home addresses and other individual information. Both the data protection act and the financial services act require that this kind of information is kept up to date. Without roll access, it will be harder to comply.


Government interest in commercial use of the rolls was triggered several years ago, Lloyd said, when it was looking to update the electoral process.


"That was the starting point for their argument, because, they said, the British public had the impression that their information was being used for commercial purposes and thus it was affecting their appetite to vote," he said. "We pressed for evidence and of course there was none forthcoming, ergo the British public is not affected by the commercial use of the roll. However, having started the ball rolling, the government feels inclined to keep it rolling."


Last month the government published regulations covering the sale and supply of Electoral Register information that detailed which bodies, organizations and business sectors are entitled to access and what restrictions apply.


The UK DMA and other interested organizations argued without success with the Home Office, which drafted the bill. The Home Office is the government department responsible for internal affairs in England and Wales.


Lloyd thinks the credit industry will be allowed continued access to the files, but he said use of the files for list cleaning and prospecting is still being argued. Questionnaires that voters fill out will have an opt-out box and information on commercial use of the data.


This will result in two files: one for the credit industry and a secondary file for commercial use.


"The unknown is consumer response," Lloyd said. "If too many opt out, what is left in the file will be too small or too inaccurate for normal use."


The DMA met with government officials this month to argue its case again against major change. It has won a promise from the government to consult with the industry "and perhaps be involved in ensuring that copy going to consumers represents a fair balance."


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