Social Justice

Tories accused of playing Big Brother with bill giving DWP powers to 'snoop' on bank accounts

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) could be given powers to 'snoop' on bank accounts – the bill has passed its second reading and is now in the House of Lords

spying

Campaigners fear the government will 'snoop' on benefits claimants' bank accounts. Image: Unsplash

The government has been accused of making an Orwellian “nightmare” a reality, as a bill which gives powers to “snoop” on benefits claimants’ bank accounts reaches the House of Lords.

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill would compel banks to provide the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) with data so that it can search for fraud and error among benefits claimants.

It has passed through its second reading in parliament and it is now being debated in the House of Lords.

Speaking in the House, Lord Prem Sikka said: “George Orwell’s iconic novel 1984, published in 1949, raised the spectre of Big Brother. This nightmare has now been brought to reality by a Conservative government supposedly rolling back the state.

“The government has already undermined people’s right to protest and withdraw labour, now comes snooping and 24/7 surveillance of the bank, building societies and other accounts of the sick, disabled, elderly, poor and unfortunate – all without a court order.”

This echoes fears raised by campaigners. Dr Tom Fisher, senior researcher at Privacy International, said: “This type of surveillance of bank accounts is going to be a terrifying prospect for anyone claiming benefits. Rather than targeting the powers of the state, and the DWP in particular, using a blanket approach means that every single person claiming benefits will feel insecure.  

“Through this intrusive move, the DWP is moving away from its own guidance, which stipulated that requesting information from banks was ‘a power of last resort’ and only exercisable on a case-by-case basis, where there were reasonable grounds to suspect fraud.”

Mel Stride, the secretary of state for work and pensions, clarified in parliament last month that these powers would only be used when there is a “clear signal of fraud or error”. It will not investigate claimants’ bank accounts without that evidence.

But that has not eased fears. Lord Sikka continued: “Over 22.4 million people will be targeted by this surveillance. But the account holders won’t be told anything about the frequency or depth of this organised snooping.

“In true Orwellian double-speak, the government claims that the bill allows, and I quote, ‘The country to realise new post-Brexit freedoms’ and links the surveillance by stirring up people’s fears about benefits fraud, while there is absolutely no surveillance of those receiving public subsidies mis-selling financial products, accused of PPE fraud and even a former chancellor who abused the tax system.”

Sikka said that the bills is “likely to be resisted” by the House of Lords but that the government is “not in the habit of listening and may well use its huge majority in the Commons to override the Lords”.

He added: “This bill is part of a class war that only targets low and middle income people while big beasts get government contracts.”



Experts believe the bill will do little to combat fraud. Fisher explained: “There’s also reason to doubt that this will be at all effective. It seems that the surveillance system will work by asking banks to raise red flags about suspicions of benefits fraud. But, as we’ve seen with similar measures designed to combat money laundering, this just results in a large number of ‘false positives’ being flagged by banks.

“This is a scary prospect, as the inevitable result is innocent people being sanctioned, potentially in large numbers. And we know that the result of benefit sanctions can be devastating, sometimes leading to destitution and death.”

One example is that someone could be flagged for fraud by the DWP if they send money abroad – meaning that benefits claimants who have family abroad could have their bank accounts investigated.

“As a measure for combating fraud, there’s reason to believe it’ll be ineffective,” Fisher said. “What this new measure will however certainly do is further erode the dignity of people claiming benefits. 

“It’s a chilling effect that might drive them away from formal banking, potentially marginalising people further. Rather than a measure that treats everyone claiming benefits with suspicion, we should treat human beings with the dignity and respect that they deserve.”

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.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
DWP could violate human rights with plan to snoop on benefit claimants' bank accounts
A miniature figurine businessman looking down on an information booklet for department for work and pensions
Benefits

DWP could violate human rights with plan to snoop on benefit claimants' bank accounts

Is the cost of living crisis over and will prices in the UK ever come down?
Cost of living crisis

Is the cost of living crisis over and will prices in the UK ever come down?

Long-term sickness cannot be fixed by tightening 'harsh' disability benefits system, experts warn
long term sickness/ ill
Benefits

Long-term sickness cannot be fixed by tightening 'harsh' disability benefits system, experts warn

Thousands could be owed up to £12k from DWP in backdated PIP payments. Here's what you need to know
money/ pip backdated payments
Social Justice

Thousands could be owed up to £12k from DWP in backdated PIP payments. Here's what you need to know

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know