Ian Clayton column: A peculiar letter

10th Febuary 2011.'Wakefield Town Hall'Picture: MATTHEW PAGE
10th Febuary 2011.'Wakefield Town Hall'Picture: MATTHEW PAGE

I had a very peculiar and confusing letter sent to me by Wakefield Council recently, perhaps you have had one sent to you too.

Mine concerns the electoral register and informs me that the way we register to vote is changing. Joanne Roney OBE, the electoral registration officer, who signed my letter, informs me that she is writing to let me know that I have been automatically re-registered under the new system.

The next paragraph starts in bold lettering and says: “You don’t need to do anything else.” I stopped reading at that point, thinking: “Oh that’s alright then, they’ve done everything for me and I’ll just getting a voting card at the next election.” I left the letter on my kitchen table and later on when I’d had my lunch, finished my crossword and was drinking my tea, I glanced at the letter again.

I’m glad I did, because there was something I’d missed. The letter went on to say that there are in fact now two registers, one for election purposes and one called the open register.

On this open register are your name and address details and these details can be sold to companies and organisations or anybody who wants to buy them.

The council’s letter helpfully suggests that these details can be used, for example, by businesses who might want to confirm your address details.

Oh yeah and what do you think that means? My guess is that if you allow your name to go on that register you will be bombarded by even more junk mail than you are already. But more concerning is if these companies who buy your details have your name and address, what else might they get up to?

In the third paragraph of the council’s letter to me, it says “your details are not on the open register.” I thought: “well that’s alright then, because I don’t want to be on it.” But then when I read further, under a heading entitled “the open register,” it said “your name and address will be added to the open register unless you ask for them to be removed.” This is the bit that confused me and it’s the reason I call this a peculiar letter.

Why would I have to ask to be removed from a list that I have already been told I’m not on and why would they tell me they will add me to it if I don’t tell them I don’t want to be on it? Are you still with me?

I decided to phone the council. A very polite young man answered and I told him I was confused by the letter. He said: “You’re not the first one.” I asked him to explain it to me. He said: “It’s a standard letter.” I said: “What does that mean?” He paused. I asked if he’d heard me. He said: “Yes, I’m just trying to word this right.” I said: “Take your time, I’ll hold.” He said: “Basically, although it reads like you might be put on the open list, you won’t be if you tell us you don’t want to be.”

I said: “So how will I know if I’m on it or not?” He said: “They will write to you to confirm that you are not on it.” Then there was another pause and he said: “No, wait a minute, you’re not on it so they won’t.”

I then said: “How will I know then that you are not going to put me on it?” He said: “We won’t.” I said: “How can I be sure?” He said: “You have my word.” I thanked him. So, there you have it. The young man who answers the phone at Wakefield Council’s electoral services department tells you that he won’t put you on the list if you don’t want to be on it.

In passing he mentioned there were two other people in my house who were eligible voters. I told him that they didn’t want to be on the open list either.

If you have had this peculiar letter as well, I suggest that you give the number on the top of the letter a ring too. Just make sure that you tell them you don’t want to be on the open register.

Then again, if you don’t mind having your name and address sold to anyone who wants to buy it, ignore what I’ve just said.

I’m not sure who actually sells these names and addresses to anybody who wants to buy them. The council’s letter doesn’t tell you that, it just says they can be bought.

I suppose it might be the council itself that sells your name and address.

Imagine the pressure that will be on cash strapped councils to sell names and addresses if this idea really takes off.