Fireworks at the Houses of Parliament

On the very evening that the ‘unelected, unconstitutional’ House of Lords had the temerity to protect the UK’s vulnerable from the evil Guy of Osborne (I know, it’s Gideon, but let’s not get too fussy), the great and the good of the market research society gathered at the House of Commons to engage in a formal debate sponsored by the Market Research Society and organised by the Debating Group.

It was my first visit to the House of Commons and was a bit taken aback to find myself shuffling through airport-style security: computer out of the bag, jacket and belt off, everything through the scanner, me through the body scanner, being frisked. If I’d been asked to strip to my undies and sing God Save the Queen, I would not have been surprised.

The motion was ‘Personal data is safer in the hands of market research than government.’

It was a good old fashioned debate with a proposer and opposer each given ten minutes to speak, backed up by their respective seconders. Speaking for the motion was that famous researcher from the telly, Ben Page of IPSOS MORI, backed up by Stephen Shakespeare of YouGov. Speaking against the motion was Jo Swinson, Vice Chair of the Prime Minister’s Digital Task Force 2015 and Director of Clear Returns, and Jo was seconded by Hetan Shah, Executive Director of the Royal Statistical Society.

The venue for the debate, Committee Room 10, was like a mini-version of the main chamber, with the speakers at the high table and the audience split into two halves, a sword’s length apart.

The profile of the audience for the debate was similarly reminiscent of the main chamber, being dominated by one party, namely the Market Research Party. Chief Whip Jane Frost sat on the High Table, noting the names of any dissenters from her own ranks (of which there were, actually, quite a few). Given the less than balanced audience, it was hardly surprising that the motion carried the day.

Having said that, it wasn’t clear cut. By my estimate at least a quarter of the audience voted against the motion. Given that the audience was almost entirely from the market research industry, that does seem a bit alarming.

Ben and Stephen focused on the importance of people trusting us to protect their data to the industry and our good track record of offering confidentiality to people taking part in research.

The main thrust of the counter-argument from Jo appeared to be that, while the market research industry may be good at protecting data, it is not necessarily better than other sectors, including the public sector. Furthermore Hetal was alarmed by the misuse of information by ‘dodgy data analysts.’

Ben and Stephen tended to distance themselves from these analysts, which may have suited their arguments but was slightly disingenuous, given that the dodgy data analysts, by which I assume he meant content analysts, social media monitoring, online companies and the like, have become an important part of the market research industry (not that there appeared to be many dodgy data analysts in the audience).

In case you’re interested, your humble correspondent voted against the motion, mainly as I didn’t think the case was proven. The fact that we have had no major data protection scandals compared to the government probably reflects our low profile in the public eye rather than any particular vigilance. The fact that our industry depends on public trust doesn’t necessarily make us effective in protecting data. After all, and we now return to events in the House of Lords that same night, the Government relies on public trust and it doesn’t stop them messing up.

However it was well worthwhile having the discussion. Data protection is a very topic and increasingly important issue for the market research industry and for our clients. In the age of online communications and the cloud, it is very easy to get it wrong. Which is why initiatives like the MRS ‘Fair Data’ kitemark are very important. As the market research industry becomes more fragmented, with new entrants from the fields of database building, data analysis and online services playing an increasingly central role, there is a real need for clear guidelines on legal requirements and best practice.

As in the House of Lords, Committee Room 10 of the House of Commons therefore witnessed some fireworks that night, albeit of the sparkler and banger variety rather than the cluster bombs launched by the Lords.

Very appropriate as November 5th approaches. Happy Fireworks Night.