Watchdogs lay down stats and data law to party leaders

UK Statistics Authority and ICO issue election warning ahead of five-week information onslaught

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By Jim.Dunton

07 Nov 2019

Leaders of the UK’s main political parties have been handed carefully-worded warnings from the nation’s data and statistics regulators, urging them to keep their general-election campaigning within the law.

Both UK Statistics Authority chair Sir David Norgrove and Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham have published letters sent to party leaders reminding them of their legal obligations not to misuse official data, or break data protection rules.

Norgrove reminded leaders of his obligation to publicly flag the misuse of statistics in election and referendum campaigns, with repeated exchanges relating to claims that the European Union would save the UK £350m a week during the 2016 referendum the most notorious recent example.


Norgrove added that arguing about the incorrect use of official figures also took attention away from policy issues during the campaigning period.

“Statistics can be a powerful support for an argument but misuse damages their integrity, causes confusion and undermines trust,” he said.

“It can also lead debate to focus too much on the statistics themselves, distracting from the issues at hand. This is particularly important during the intense public scrutiny of an election campaign, where misinformation can spread quickly.”

Norgrove said it was important that campaigns did not pick out single numbers that differed from “the picture painted by the statistics as a whole” – which is a criticism that has been levelled at the Department for Education ministers in recent months.

Norgrove added that he had also sent his letter to cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s letter focuses on political parties’ use of people’s personal data as part of their campaigning and reminds leaders that data-protection and electronic marketing laws continue to apply during election periods.

She said the ICO’s recent investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes found a number of concerns relating to the use of commercial behavioural advertising techniques and the lack of transparency of profiling during recent political campaigns. 

“The investigation identified a number of areas where action was required to improve each of the political parties’ compliance with data protection law. I outlined these concerns in warning letters to political parties in July 2018,” she said.

“Following on from the warning letters, we carried out data protection audits on a number of political parties as we promised to do in our investigation report.”

Denham said it was particularly important for political parties to ensure people were provided with clear and accessible information about how their personal data was being used – both in the case of data acquired directly and that bought from third parties. She said individuals had to be made aware of how their personal data was shared with social media platforms for the purposes of targeted political advertising.

“You must be able to demonstrate your compliance with the law,” she said. “And you must be able to demonstrate that any third party you use to process personal data on your behalf – including data analytics providers and online campaigning platforms – similarly complies.”

Denham said parties must be able to provide a fully auditable record of how personal data had been obtained and was being processed; ensure that appropriate records of consent were maintained; and identify lawful bases were identified when special category data was processed. 

“We are aware of the importance of having accessible resources on compliance for all those involved in campaigning,” she said. “We have therefore set up a webpage with advice specifically for political campaigners.”

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