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Business Comment

Mark Leftly: The Tories' handling of data protection undermines a key UK industry

Westminster Outlook The Tories were not happy with Jane Frost. In March, they said she had made "unfounded and baseless accusations regarding ethics" in an article in our Sunday sister title. These accusations were about the integrity of Conservative Party research, an issue that was overlooked in the build-up to yesterday's local and European elections.

What Ms Frost highlighted was an important example of how party political behaviour can foster negative perceptions of entire sectors of the UK economy.

Ms Frost heads the Market Research Society, a professional body that enforces ethical research standards. It has member companies in more than 60 countries.

With those stats in mind, you would have thought that the Conservatives' chairman, Grant Shapps, would have treated Ms Frost's concerns that the party had breached data protection laws with a little respect. She was ignored.

In two letters to Mr Shapps, Ms Frost argued that "What matters most to you?", an online survey conducted for the Conservative Party, was published "under the guise of research but is in effect being used as a means to build marketing or contact databases". Respondents rated what they thought were the three most important issues facing the country – but were also asked for their email addresses.

Ms Frost then complained to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which is the data privacy watchdog. This was bad news for Mr Shapps given that he was already under fire for the condescending post-Budget advert that stated "they" – presumably the working class – would enjoy tax cuts on beer and bingo.

The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, decided against the Conservatives. The ICO said: "In our view the survey's wording did not state clearly and explicitly that by providing an email address the individual was consenting to the use of their email details in any current and future campaigns."

These surveys are crucial information-gathering exercises for parties as they develop policies and target voters. For fairness, it should be pointed out that the ICO accepted some of the Conservatives' defence, such as the survey being voluntary.

But, as Ms Frost pointed out in a recent letter to the 12 biggest parties, research is a sector worth £3bn to the economy – about one-third of which is in exports. Politicians should not undermine an industry that has faced necessary but painful overhauls since the 1998 Data Protection Act due to their own shoddy standards.

Mr Graham also contacted major parties earlier this month, warning them: "The rules apply to political parties, just as they do to businesses and charities. In communicating with voters, the parties need to be clear about what their intentions are and why they are asking people for their information. We don't need election campaigns featuring nuisance calls, spam texts and canvassing under the guise of 'research'."

Politicians legislated to make sure businesses don't get away with poor standards on data protection – and they shouldn't be exempt from the rules themselves.

The ICO hit the Tories with little more than a slap on the wrist as the party eventually changed the wording of the survey, with a clearer link to privacy policy. Those changes are an admission that the standards applied to the survey were lax.

Mr Shapps owes Ms Frost an apology.