Ministers to end blanket ban on companies accessing electoral register

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The Independent Online

The Government is preparing to end its blanket ban on access to the electoral register for commercial organisations after concerns that the fight against money laundering is being hampered.

Ministers are understood to have agreed to allow access to the full register for a limited number of "permitted purposes". These include verifying the identity of people applying for credit and checking the identity of rail passengers to prevent fare-dodging.

However, the final decision on whether to lift the ban still rests with Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. There are indications that Nick Raynsford, the minister in his department with direct responsibility, would like to keep the restriction in place.

The ban was introduced last year after a High Court judge ruled that a council taxpayer in Wakefield would have his human rights violated if the electoral register was passed on to private organisations for commercial gain.

Access to the register will still be denied to direct marketing companies, who use it to send out junk mail, and most other commercial organisations. But credit checking agencies such as Equifax and Experian would have access. The police and banks use the credit reference agencies for checking the identity of people opening bank accounts and combatting money laundering rings.

Despite the court ruling, the Government is understood to have obtained independent legal advice indicating that limited commercial access could be permitted without breaching either data protection or human rights legislation.

However, there has been a delay in bringing forward the necessary regulations. Mr Byers' department had been due to publish its proposals in late January but they are not now expected to appear until Easter at the earliest.

In the meantime, the Electoral Commission, which is under the jurisdiction of the DTRL, has instructed all electoral officers not to allow access to the latest electoral register to commercial organisations.

The temporary ban has already caused friction between Mr Byers and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who has made it a priority of the Government to clamp down on money laundering. Credit rating agencies, financial companies and high street stores have been leading a campaign for several months to permit continued access to the register because of its value in combatting fraud.

A recent survey carried out by the Finance and Leasing Association found that eight in 10 people wanted to know instantly whether or not they have been accepted for credit when a check was made. It also found that 64 per cent of people would be deterred from applying for credit if they had to send important documents such as passports or driving licences off in the post to prove their identity.