politics

MPs criticise academics for sending them fictitious emails for research


MPs have criticised a project by academics that involved sending emails from fictitious constituents claiming they were concerned about financial support during the coronavirus lockdown.

Researchers at King’s College London (KCL) and the London School of Economics (LSE) sent emails to every MP’s inbox from invented characters including a cleaner and lawyer.

Copies of messages seen by the Guardian showed the purported senders – who signed themselves off with names including Paul, Thomas and Maryam – wrote that they worked for large companies but were “worried about the long term” and saw “people all around me who are losing jobs or experiencing pay cuts”.

All emails ended with the request: “I’d like to know what you and the Conservative party are going to do to get us through this crisis in the best possible way.” Some added they were a “Conservative supporter”.

Staffers in different MPs’ offices discovered the connection only when they replied with a standard question, asking for the sender’s address so they could confirm they were the right person to help, and received no response.

Tory MP Tim Loughton, a former minister, challenged the academics – and asked them to confirm the messages were fake, adding: “Publicly funded offices of MPs or the MPs themselves were requested to respond to those emails.”

Prof Rosie Campbell of KCL said in her reply that a similar project was being run in Germany and the Netherlands to “investigate the link between voters and constituents through the email experiment and analysis of parliamentary speeches”.

Campbell explained her LSE colleague was “sending out debriefing emails at present”, and added: “We received the funding before the pandemic and deliberated as to whether we should go ahead.

“We concluded that the issues we were studying were still relevant during the pandemic and that the basic emails without follow-up were not too burdensome. We sincerely apologise if this is not your view.

“We are very aware how busy MPs are and raising awareness of the extremely high levels of responsiveness among MPs in the UK is one of our anticipated outcomes … It is absolutely not our intention to waste MPs’ valuable time.”

Labour MP Navendu Mishra said the research coming “when staff in all MPs’ offices are working so hard to process record levels of correspondence” was “disgraceful” and called on KCL and LSE to apologise.

The Unite union’s parliamentary staffer branch said workers “do not deserve to be treated as guinea pigs in some time and motion study on top of that”. The MPs’ staff branch of the GMB union sent a letter to KCL calling the project “ethically dubious”.

Neither KCL nor LSE replied to requests for comment.

• This article was amended on 24 February 2021 because an earlier version misnamed Prof Rosie Campbell as Prof Rosie Cooper.



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