The Information Commissioner told MPs that the Conservative Party’s collection of the personal data of 10 million voters around their ethnicity and religion before the 2019 general election was illegal.
Elizabeth Denham said the Conservatives had deleted the data following a recommendation by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) in a report last year.
‘Illegal to collect the ethnicity data’
When speaking to MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) sub-committee on online harms and disinformation, Denham said that it was unacceptable that the party had used people’s names in an attempt to derive their ethnicity and religion.
Denham said: “In our audit work, where we looked at the practices of all political parties, our recommendation was for any kind of ethnicity data to be deleted and the Conversative Party - I’m told and we have evidence that the Conservative Party have destroyed or deleted that information.”
She explained that the Conversative Party had destroyed the information voluntarily following a “recommendation” from her office.
Denham said: “Religion and ethnicity are both - like health information - special category data that requires a higher standard for a legal basis to collect.
“So again, ethnicity is not an acceptable collection of data, there isn’t a legal basis that allows for the collection of that data.”
When asked to confirm if this was illegal, the Information Commissioner said: “It was illegal to collect the ethnicity data and that has been destroyed.”
2019 general election
Before the 2019 general election, the Conservative Party purchased data which estimated a person’s country of origin, ethnic origin and religion, based on their first and last name.
This was applied to the records of 10 million voters.
SNP MP John Nicolson said: “The ethnic and religious profiling of voters by the Tories was always morally and ethically abhorrent. We now know from the Information Commissioner that it was illegal.”
Nicolson added: “Conservative Minister, John Whittingdale, told me on the floor of the Commons that his party had not broken the law. That is wrong.
“I will be writing to him to ask that he withdraw his false claim, acknowledge that the Tories’ ethnic profiling was illegal, and undertake not to break the law again.”
Whittingdale, Minister for Media and Data, told MPs in December 2020 that the “Information Commissioner examined all practices of all political parties and made comments against all of them
“However, it did not find that any breaches of the law had occurred”.
‘Racial profiling of voters was illegal’
Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said: “The Conservative Party’s racial profiling of voters was illegal.
“Elizabeth Debham finally confirmed the unlawful nature of this profiling by the Conservative Party under pressure from MPs on the DCMS committee.
“Yet the ICO still has not explained what parties can and cannot do. Mass profiling of voters continues, even if this data has been removed. The ICO needs to act to stop unlawful profiling practices. That’s their job.”
A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “The Conservative Party complies with all prevailing electoral, data protection and electronic marketing legislation.
“The Party has assisted the Information Commissioner in its review of political parties’ practices and have taken on board the constructive feedback from the review.”