Politics

DWP plans to spy on benefit claimants' bank accounts must 'never be resurrected'

'The next government must recognise the immense public outcry and parliamentary resistance these powers provoked and commit to rejecting mass bank spying powers for good'

Person using an ATM

Proposed DWP powers to spy on benefit claimants’ bank accounts must ‘never be resurrected’ after election, campaigners say (Eduardo Soares/Unsplash)

Campaigners are celebrating a “huge win” as proposals to give the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) powers to snoop on benefit claimants’ bank accounts have been dropped ahead of the general election. 

The Data Protection and Digital Information (DPDI) Bill, which contained a passage allowing the DWP more power to scan benefit claimant’s bank accounts, has been dropped as a result of Rishi Sunak calling the election, with campaigners saying similar bills should “never be resurrected” by the next government. 

The proposed changes included allowing the DWP power to not only snoop on claimant’s accounts, but those linked to them, such as the bank accounts of current or ex-partners, children or landlords. 

Before the bill was dropped, more than 170,000 people signed a petition calling on the government to ditch the plans. 

Describing the proposals as “incredibly cruel and intrusive”, Big Brother Watch, a campaign group which fiercely opposed the bill, explained that if it had gone through, it would have had a “vastly disproportionate impact upon vulnerable people in the social security system”. 

“Following months of fierce campaigning, it was a huge victory to see the government forced to drop its plans to spy on the nation’s bank accounts,” a spokesperson for the group told Big Issue. 

The group added that the government in power after the general election on 4 July must not push through similar bills after the DPDI Bill was shelved. 

It is not yet clear whether the Labour Party has plans to implement a similar bill if elected.

“These proposals must never be resurrected, now or in the future,” the group said. “The next government must recognise the immense public outcry and parliamentary resistance these powers provoked and commit to rejecting mass bank spying powers for good.”

What new powers did the government propose for the DWP?

The controversial financial surveillance powers, which the government said would help prevent cases of fraud, were included in a late stage amendment to the DPDI bill. This is despite fraud rates for disability benefits reported as being only 0.2%.

The proposed rules would reportedly have allowed the DWP to issue “account information notices” to banks and building societies requiring them to scan all customers’ accounts in search of signs that might indicate the possibility of welfare fraud or mistakes.

Information in bank accounts may reveal people’s movements, opinions, medical information – though the DWP claimed that the information provided would only have been be “limited and relevant”.

Legal experts explained before the bill was shelved that the plans may have amounted to “unlawful discrimination”, because they will have a “disproportionate impact on particular groups, including disabled people, people of colour, women and older people”.

Ahead of the bill being dropped, a number of MPs and peers expressed their “deep concern” in a letter to work and pensions secretary Mel Stride and science, innovation and technology secretary Michelle Donelan.

The letter said: “While we are sure this is not your intention, the broad and far-reaching nature of these powers would be highly intrusive. Issuing an account information notice would require banks to sift through tens of millions of bank accounts in order to identify people in the welfare system, around 40% of the population, in pursuit of indicators of fraud or error.

“There is a real risk that such efforts to fight fraud will come very much at the expense of the poor, the disabled, and the elderly.”

Mikey Erhardt, campaigner at Disability Rights UK, explained that the proposals to allow the DWP to spy on benefit claimants’ bank accounts were a “digital sledgehammer to crack the tiniest nut”. 

“They would have had a serious impact on the lives of disabled people,” he said, adding that disabled people have been “demonised” by similar policies. 

“We should all be proud of the social security system, a piece of social infrastructure that 22 million people across the UK draw on to live the lives we all have a right to.

“Politicians should spend less time demonising our community and instead commit to creating a system underpinned by a new ethos of dignity, respect, trust, and support. This system should focus on supporting disabled people to live the lives we want – with no sanctions, conditionality, or caps. It’s the least we deserve.”

Big Issue has contacted the Labour Party for comment. 

Big Issue is demanding an end to poverty this general election. Will you sign our open letter to party leaders?

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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