The Labour leadership is embroiled in a murky polling operation run by a senior MP who has instructed volunteers to deliberately deceive people about their identities and the reason for their calls.

The polls were being run from Parliamentary offices by former Cabinet minister Rick Barker, who has admitted instructing staff to use false names and claim they were calling from a company that no longer exists.

Labour Party president Andrew Little last night said all polling was out of Phil Goff's Leader's Budget. Little said he knew nothing about the operation. "It would concern me very deeply," he said.

Details of the polling emerged after a volunteer involved approached the Herald on Sunday claiming the practice was "unethical".

The volunteer, who is a Green Party member, said it was run by Barker and, when the volunteer participated, took place in Barker's office at Parliament on October 14.

The volunteer said Barker instructed all the helpers, including a Parliamentary staffer, to say they worked for a non-existent company called "Data Research", and to not disclose that they were really working for the Labour Party.

Barker also told staff members they could make up names to use when calling members of the public.

Barker, when questioned, initially said: "I don't know what you're talking about". When provided with details, including dates, Barker said he would call back.

Two hours later, Barker rang and admitted he had encouraged the use of false names by callers. He said he did so to make people feel more comfortable cold-calling.

"I told them: 'You could use another name, if it makes it easier for you to make phone calls. For example, I could be Bill'."

Labour whip Darren Hughes, who sits on the party's leadership council, said he was aware of the polling. He said Barker had spearheaded three polls.

But Hughes defended the use of false names and for callers to not identify that they were representing the Labour Party.

"The name of Data Research was used to get as close to a scientific result as you could, to not influence results because of the way that people feel about a particular party."

He said the use of false names in polling was common: "I'm sure that half the people try to sell us things on telemarketing aren't giving us their real names."

Hughes said the polling was legitimate use of Parliamentary resources because the results were used to understand what the public was thinking and to formulate policy.

The Labour Party once ran a business called Data Research as a polling company but the Companies Office Register says it was struck off in 1997.

A spokesman for Goff said the leader of the opposition was not available to answer questions, but he had consulted members of the leadership council and been told the method of polling carried out by Barker was a mistake. "It won't happen again."

Bryce Edwards, a politics lecturer at the University of Otago, said that the episode appeared to show a misuse of Parliamentary resources: "I would say that any phone polling at Parliament would fall foul of the rules."

"This is very clearly partisan political activity, and pretty hard to sell as a legitimate use of Parliamentary resources."

Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff said the details of Barker's polling operation raised serious questions and could breach the Privacy Act.

- HERALD ON SUNDAY