Fraud warning on electoral changes

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THE GOVERNMENT has been warned that retail fraud could rise by pounds 1.5bn a year if it goes ahead with proposals to prevent commercial organisations using the electoral roll to check names and addresses.

Hitachi Credit, one of the country's biggest providers of retail credit, has written to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, urging him to veto the plan. It estimates that retail crime, currently running at pounds 1.4bn a year, could double if the proposal was implemented.

A recent report from a Home Office working party on electoral procedures recommended that electors should be able to opt out of allowing their details to be used for commercial purposes.

Thousands of commercial organisations buy the electoral roll and use it as a tool for sending out junk mail. But it is also the main source for confirming the identities and addresses of customers to prevent fraud and money laundering. David Anthony, managing director of Hitachi Credit, said if this facility was denied, then it could lead to an increase in fraud and extra costs for consumers.

In the first quarter of this year, retail fraud increased by 20 per cent, according to estimates from the credit industry. Mr Anthony said the problem could be tackled if Britain introduced a system of identity cards similar to the one which operates in the US, although he conceded this might not yet be "politically feasible".

A Home Office spokeswoman said Mr Straw had expressed support for reform of electoral procedures and pointed out that the working party had been chaired by a Home Office minister, George Howarth.

However, she said that any changes in procedures would require primary legislation.