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Research into MPs' responsiveness to constituents

This is a response from Professor Evelyn Welch, Interim President and Principal of King’s College London, on behalf of the university and the Chair of its Research Ethics Committee, to concerns expressed about a research project studying the responsiveness of the offices of Members of Parliament to emails.

We understand and recognise the concern put on record to us by Parliamentarians, MPs’ staffers, alumni, and members of the general public about research by King’s College London and other institutions, as part of a multi-country study, into the responsiveness of MPs to constituents’ emails.

Professor Rosie Campbell, the lead researcher for this project, has apologised for any distress and additional workload that may have been caused to MPs and the staff they directly employ as a result of the research. We fully echo this apology and would add our own apology to anyone – be they a Parliamentarian, a member of staff in an MP’s office, or a constituent – who has experienced inconvenience or distress.

While we fully stand behind the vital principle of academic freedom, and recognise that this is a valid research method with precedent around the country and around the world, we do recognise, with hindsight, that the situational context and timing should have been more fully taken into account as part of the decision-making process.

It is normally considered in the academic profession that researchers themselves are best placed to consider the potential impact on their participants within the context of events occurring at the time of the research.

While the university’s Research Ethics Committee followed procedures and research council guidance correctly when considering the matter, we will reflect carefully on the lessons to be learned.

We do acknowledge and take very seriously the challenging impact, and strains on capacity, that the circumstances of the pandemic have placed on casework undertaken by Parliamentary offices.

The intention of this social research was to evaluate responsiveness of MPs to constituents, a matter which is in the public interest given the importance of members of the public receiving equal treatment from their elected representatives. The research method utilised is a valid professional research method approved for use by UKRI research councils, including the ESRC who funded the project. The Research Ethics Committee made its approval contingent on ensuring that subjects were debriefed that the emails received were not from actual constituents and given the right to withdraw their data from the study. This issue emerged publicly because the researchers began the debriefing process as agreed.

We do regret any additional work created and the inconvenience or distress this research has engendered. King’s College London undertakes to reflect on how to best ensure our ethical framework for research project approval takes into account the importance of time period and appropriate situational context in future. On the broader issue of the ethics of the academic practice of using fictious identities as part of research, we feel this is a wider question that UKRI and the Research Councils, who permit this, are best placed to consider.

We appreciate, respect and admire the crucial work that Parliamentarians and their staff do in the service of society, including the many hours to best help their constituents with all manner of issues, regardless of background or voting choice. We are very proud of our alumni who are engaged in these important activities as either Parliamentarians or staff employed by MPs.