01 February 2000

INCLUSION OF a direct mail opt-out box on electoral registration forms now looks a virtual certainty in the wake of a gallery-playing denunciation of 'junk mail' by Home Office minister Michael O'Brien.

In last month's Commons debate on the Representation of the People bill, O'Brien rhetoricised: 'The ability of commercial companies to use the [electoral] register for sending junk mail is one of the main complaints to returning officers and the Home Office. People are sick of junk mail and they want something to be done.' He also wrote to DMA chief executive Colin Lloyd warning that future use of the full version of the electoral roll would 'only be available for electoral purposes, for law enforcement and crime prevention, and in con-nection with applications for credit.'

Meantime, the Bill progressed to the House of Lords, where a second reading took place on 31 January, moving to the committee stage the following day when the hardier peers were treated by the DMA to a briefing. Chaired by Lord Borrie QC, former director general of the Office of Fair Trading and the Direct Marketing Authority, the briefing focused on damage limitation: 'What we don't want to see [on electoral registration forms]', said the DMA's Lloyd, 'is a section saying, 'if you don't want to receive junk mail, please tick here'. The Government has asked us to discuss the format of any accompanying literature'.

In the interim, the dm industry has not been sitting on its hands. A practical alternative, a Royal Mail Popu-lation Register, has been proposed by Shane Baylis, managing director of The Database Group. He suggests that the RM write annually to all UK households asking them to confirm their name and address details, ex-plaining that the data is required to ensure they do not receive direct mail intended for other people - and at the same time offering an opportunity to opt-out if they so wish. This, Baylis believes, would be more pro-active than the present Mailing Preference Service. Such a scheme could be administered by the DMA, with postage paid by the Royal Mail, and print, enclosing, and processing costs met by data-users.