Politicians face the court of public opinion if voters’ privacy is breached

If the last 12 months have taught us anything then it is that MPs are not above the law.

Russell Parsons
Russell Parsons

The fall out from the expenses scandal has left three of our elected representatives facing actual prosecution and all tried and condemned in the court of public opinion.

A further reminder that sitting and prospective MPs and the political parties they represent are not immune from the law of the land came from the Information Commissioner this week.

Speaking at the Direct Marketing Association’s annual data protection conference, the recently appointed information commissioner Christopher Graham told delegates that political parties would be subject to the same punitive sanctions as any company that breached data privacy rules.

Thing is, the threat now has more teeth. As of the 6 April, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) will have new powers to fine organisations – public and private – up to £500,000 for serious breaches. Previously, a fine could only be handed out by a court of law if an ICO enforcement notice was not acted upon.

Graham added in his speech that up until now the political parties’ track record “has been disappointing”, adding that he intends “to make sure that everybody stays in line”.

ICO rulings against political parties are not new. It has taken action against all the major UK parties in the past – Labour, Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP for invading people’s privacy. Only last month, Labour was ordered to stop making automated direct marketing calls without consent after almost half a million recorded messages from Coronation Street actress Liz Dawn were left encouraging people to vote.

Clearly, the intensity of direct marketing activity is only going to increase in the next two months as the General Election nears. All major parties will be targeting marginal constituencies with direct mail, SMS text, emails, telemarketing and automated phone calls as they bid to tip the election in their favour.

With the polls narrowing, campaign planners could be tempted to stretch the rules to the point of breach especially as any peccadillo is unlikely to be discovered and acted up until after the May poll.

They should not and instead heed Graham’s warning and check the guidance the ICO has promised to send.

They should also learn from those companies that have been subject to sanction over data privacy breaches. Such an emotive subject can lead to an avalanche of bad PR and a huge dent to brand reputation.

And given the year politicians have had, they can ill-afford that.

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