Page last updated at 15:48 GMT, Wednesday, 17 September 2008 16:48 UK

Lib Dems defend phone poll plan

Nick Clegg
The Democratic Party in the US has used the same method

Lib Dem chief executive Lord Rennard has defended the party's plan to contact 250,000 homes to ask for opinions on his party's policies.

Parties are not allowed to make automated marketing calls without consent but the party argues that they are for market research.

The SNP, which has been reprimanded for "robocalls" in the past, has complained to the Information Commissioner.

Lord Rennard said his party wanted to listen to what people were saying.

He told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme the calls, due to be made hours after Mr Clegg's first conference speech as party leader, were for "genuine market research purposes".

Policy questions

The aim was to "guide" them to the issues concerning voters in 50 seats that the party is campaigning hard to win or hold at the next election.

An automated voice message will be played out during the early evening, with recipients tapping numbers on their handsets to respond to questions.

Those selected by the Lib Dems to receive a call will hear a 30-second message from Mr Clegg, followed by questions on education, health, tax, crime, environmental and economic policies.

This is the usual utter hypocrisy all other parties have come to expect from the Lib Dems
Tricia Marwick

Lord Rennard argued it was "quite different" to what the SNP and Labour had done previously.

"In the same way as perhaps MORI or ICM or organisations such as that might ring people and ask them which issues concern them most and what are their views on those issues - that is exactly what we are doing."

He added: "We want to hear from people and our prognosis of the government is it's out of touch and not listening and Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are a party who do want to listen to what people think."

He said many people were happy to respond to market research organisations and they were free to end the call if they wanted to without taking part.

Democratic convention

But the Scottish National Party, which was reprimanded for unsolicited automated calls which used the voice of actor Sir Sean Connery to urge people to vote SNP, has written to data protection watchdog The Information Commissioner, asking him to investigate. It was the Lib Dems who complained about their use of the calls.

SNP Central Fife MSP Tricia Marwick said: "This is the usual utter hypocrisy all other parties have come to expect from the Lib Dems. They complain about other parties campaigning and then do exactly what they have complained about."

The Information Commissioner's office said it was "concerned" to hear of the plan and had made clear that promoting political parties counted as marketing - but it said there was no rule against using automated calls to carry out market research.

'Appropriate action'

A spokesman added that they had contacted the Lib Dems to "clarify the nature of the calls" but had not yet seen the proposed script.

"Once we have considered the script and the target audience we will be able to establish whether in our view the calls are for market research purposes or for the purpose of promoting the Liberal Democrats. We will then take whatever action is appropriate," he said.

The Lib Dems sent several observers to the recent Democratic Party convention in Denver, where the technique was used.

And Lord Rennard said the party had recently made 50,000 calls to people in south west England, using the voice of former leader and former Yeovil MP Lord Ashdown, which he said had not prompted any complaints.

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