A key government project to allow online voting risks being seriously delayed due to confusion over implementation of the 1998 Data Protection Act.
Plans to create the UK's first national electoral register, which would underpin online voting, have been thrown into disarray by a High Court ruling last month. It ruled that the sale of electoral register information for commercial use breached data protection and human rights laws.
Local authorities have now suspended sales of their electoral register and the ruling threatens to seriously delay plans for a national electoral register, which is a key e-government initiative.
Although a shortlist of contracts for the projects has been drawn up, industry sources close to the negotiations believe that it could take up to a year before the register is in place.
The confusion over the project has also triggered a wider debate over the Government's strategy for delivering services electronically. The local government IT manager's group Socitm this week warned that data protection rules also prevented the sharing of personal public data between local government departments, such as tax and social services.
"The Data Protection Act has been something of a sword of Damocles hanging over a lot of e-government and the modernisation agenda," said Robin Carsberg, Socitm president.
The national register was due to be in place by early next year. Councils are waiting for guidance from the Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions to clarify the commercial implications of the court ruling. But this advice may take up to six months, a department spokeswoman said.
Sources close to the national register project contract believe that it will take a further three- to six months to create the national register, after the contracts are awarded. This means that the national electoral register may not be in place until early 2003.
In addition, the recent High Court ruling threatens to reduce considerably the commercial value of the national register for the companies running it. This could deter bidders, which would charge banks and credit reference agencies to check electoral roll records as part of credit checking.
One source said, "Anyone who was bidding for this process and expected a smooth ride clearly did not understand it. However, [the current confusion] is outrageous and bad news for anyone bidding in the process."
The shortlist to run four different aspects of the register is understood to include IT services firm Unisys and Intelligent Addressing, a supplier to the National Land and Property Gazetteer, another major e-government project.
The Improvement and Development Agency said it would release a timetable for the national register project in January, depending on a government Gateway Review assessing major IT projects. It was consulting users over the implementation of the project and was awaiting government clarification over the recent court ruling, it added.