Britain Votes: Junk mail keeps 2.5m off voting roll

Electoral register
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The Independent Online
AS MANY as 2.5 million people could not vote yesterday because they want to avoid junk mail. To stop unsolicited post from companies that have bought electoral rolls, growing numbers of people are failing to register to vote.

George Howarth, Home Office minister, commenting on the sale of registers, said: "This practice is controversial and unpopular with many members of the public. So much so that some people may be reluctant to vote."

Local councils sell electoral rolls for anything between pounds 2.50 and pounds 18 per thousand names to direct marketing firms and other organisations such as charities and insurance companies who regularly send junk mail.

Last year alone, companies of all sizes in the United Kingdom spent pounds 1.6bn on direct-mail campaigns to boost sales. The electoral register reveals how many adults live in a house and how long they have lived there. Specialist companies then refine this information to produce target lists of potential customers.

A working party chaired by Mr Howarth is looking into a series of issues surrounding the availability of the rolls. One issue has been how the register helps criminals target their victims. The person who killed the television presenter Jill Dando last week, for example, may have found her home address using an electoral register.

David Smith, assistant registrar at the Data Protection Agency, is a supporter of stopping the sales but concedes that some access to rolls may be necessary to combat criminal activity.

"The case for having the register available is strong enough where things like money laundering are concerned. Rolls are useful for establishing the identity of people depositing large sums of cash," he said.

However, he believes that a "tick-box" on the electoral register would give people control over who their details are sold to, and would prevent members of the general public gathering names and addresses without a valid reason.

Robert Mayes, spokesman for WWAV Rapp Collins Group, Europe's largest direct-marketing company, said banning access to electoral registers would cost UK businesses pounds 55m a year. Yesterday, he said that voters who chose to tick the box suggested by Mr Smith could be doing themselves a disservice.

"The register is used a lot for credit referencing. If you are not on the electoral register, or the information is not available, then it will affect your chances of getting a loan," he said.

He also argued that ending commercial access to the registers would actually lead to an increase in junk mail as targeting of potential customers or donors to charities would be severely hampered.

"Charities obviously like to spend as little money as possible to get as much money back as possible. One of the key ways of doing this is to construct a profile of your best donors, often they will have a lot of things in common.

"For example, they could be single people who have their own property and have owned it for five years or more. This sort of information can be found on the electoral roll. It means the charity spends less money on mail to fewer people," said Mr Mayes.

His company estimates that charities will lose pounds 5.4m annually if rolls became secret.