MRS chief executive Jane Frost has written to the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham asking for a formal investigation into work carried out by prisoners at Oakwood prison, which is run by G4S.

This follows an article in the Daily Mail in which it was revealed that prisoners were employed to conduct telephone surveys.

Subsequently MRS raised concerns directly with G4S that prisoners were involved in ‘sugging’ – selling under the guise of research.

In her letter to the ICO, Frost writes that G4S has admitted that its activities are 'life-style surveys', but has failed to respond to queries and give even anonymised examples of scripts used.

The request for an investigation follows an agreement made between MRS, ICO and Ofcom in June 2013 whereby - in an effort to combat nuisance calls - MRS would report instances of suspected ‘sugging’.

Copying her letter to the culture minister Ed Vaizey, Frost writes: “Since this may be a case where the activities of one government department’s agencies are conflicting with yours, I have also drawn this matter to the attention of your colleague Jeremy Wright MP, Minister responsible for Prisons & Rehabilitation.”

The letter to the ICO was also copied to Ofcom, the DMA and ministers in DCMS.

You can read the full letter to Christopher Graham, ICO below:

"The agreement that was made between representatives of your office, Ofcom and MRS held at Ofcom on 5th June 2013, agreed that one action that would be taken as part of the plan to combat nuisance calling would be for MRS to draw to your attention instances that we believe to be “sugging” (selling under the guise of research).

As you know, this practice relies on consumer confusion that they are participating in genuine market or social research by the practice of call the activity “research” or “life-style survey” or similar and omitting clear explanation that the respondent’s data will be used for commercial sales purposes.

The market and social research market in the UK is worth approximately £3bn GVA to the UK economy and is a world leader. It relies on the trust and cooperation of the public which practices such as “sugging” and other nuisance calls undermine. Genuine research is well regulated and MRS is active in seeking to combat sugging and maintain the professional standards of the sector.

The Daily Mail recently broke the story of G4S use of inmates at HMP Oakwood as telephone interviewers (attached below). The article states that prisoners are undertaking phone work in which they allegedly claim they are working for a “market research” company.

I have written to G4S twice to seek reassurance as to the nature of these calls and the scripts used. 

I have explained my concern that G4S may, unwittingly or not be undertaking a “sugging” exercise. G4S admits its activities are “Life-style surveys” but refuses to give even anonymised examples of scripts used. I attach both of my letters and G4S reply to my first letter. I have not received, despite reminders, a response to detailed queries set out in my second letter.

As a result, and in accordance with our agreement, I would like to refer this practice undertaken by G4S for your formal investigation. I am also sending this letter to Fareed Ahmad and Ihtsham Hussain at DCMS, Lynn Parker at Ofcom and Chris Combemale at the DMA who have a clear interest in the nuisance calls issue. I will be alerting the relevant ministers in DCMS and Ministry of Justice."

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