I got an email this morning advertising online access to the electoral roll, and extolling the virtues of being able to check names, addresses and postcodes at the click of a mouse… This is a downstream consequence of the practice whereby local councils (who have a statutory duty to compile the electoral roll as part of their responsibility for running elections) sell name and address information on to – well, anyone prepared to buy a copy, for – well, whatever they want to do with it. Mostly what they want to do with it is spam me with mail-order catalogues for all-in-one dog lead, poop-scoop, bag dispenser and ‘special compartment with freshener’, if today’s mail is anything to go by. Nice.
Naturally I headed over there for what is possibly the most unrewarding form of vanity surfing ever, and typed in my name and home town. Sure enough, it returned a record for me, and also named my wife as a registered co-resident at that address. This came as a bit of a surprise, as we’ve been diligently ticking the opt-out box ever since it appeared in 2003.
According to Eurodirect, an offshoot of the Skipton Building Society, the percentage of people opting out of having their electoral roll details ‘sold on’ has been rising steadily since the option was introduced, and currently stands at around 43%. That’s an average across the country, though, and opt-out rates vary extremely widely – for instance, Eurodirect’s figures say that in 2007 the highest rate of opt-out was in Kennet Council in Wiltshire (79.81%), and the lowest was in North Tayside and Angus (5.89%). I have no idea whether that reflects a greater awareness on the part of Kennet residents, greater trust among the Taysiders, or whether some other incentives are at work behind the headline figures.
Either way, I was somewhat miffed to see that opting out appeared to have had no effect, and emailed the advertisers to ask where they had got my record from. The answer was blindingly simple: it’s from the roll of 2002, when we didn’t have the choice of opting out.
If I really want to try and put the toothpaste back in the tube, I’d have to find out who bought copies of the electoral roll prior to 2003 and chase round them all requesting that they delete my records from their system. In other words, the opt-out might sound great in principle, but in practice it’s worth a lot less than it seems.