Social Justice

DWP sparks outcry with plan to hire 2,500 'agents' to investigate universal credit claimants

Campaigners fear the government is 'sleepwalking into another Horizon scandal' as it announces an expansion of its plans to crack down on error in the benefits system – including the use of machine learning, automated checks and a new civil penalty to 'punish fraudsters'

rishi sunak and mel stride/ dwp

Rishi Sunak and Mel Stride, as they were about to announce a set of welfare reforms. The government has laid out plans for a series of changes to the benefits system, including the latest on tackling fraud. Image: Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) plans to hire 2,500 external agents to tackle fraud and error in the universal credit system.

Combined with the DWP’s own agents, it takes the headcount to nearly 6,000 people hired to investigate universal credit claimants.

It comes as the DWP expands its plan to crack down on people it is calling “benefit cheats”. It claims this will save the taxpayer £9bn by 2028, but campaigners fear the government is “sleepwalking into another Horizon scandal“.

There will also be a new civil penalty to “punish fraudsters”, partly-automated checks, and £70m invested into “advanced data analytics” which will see machine learning used to detect fraud.

Mel Stride, the secretary of state for work and pensions, said: “We are scaling up the fight against those stealing from the taxpayer, building on our success in stopping £18bn going into the wrong hands in 2022-23.

“With new legal powers, better data and thousands of additional staff, our comprehensive plan ensures we have the necessary tools to tackle the scourge of benefit fraud.”

But the DWP makes mistakes in accusing people of fraud. The Big Issue previously spoke to a single mother and universal credit claimant who was falsely accused of a £12,000 debt to the DWP, when she was actually owed more than £2,000.

The government is not only proposing to tackle fraud but also error in the benefits system – including people who were overpaid their benefits either because of mistakes made by themselves or the DWP.

This includes tens of thousands of unpaid carers who have been forced to pay back huge sums and have sometimes been prosecuted for fraud – such as in the widely-reported recent case of Vivienne Groom, who had her £16,000 inheritance seized because she did not declare her minimum-wage supermarket job while caring for her mother.

The DWP overpaid £8.3bn to benefit claimants between April 2022 and 2023. Alleged fraud accounted for £6.5bn of this, but many people face debt because of mistakes made by the DWP.

The department has admitted that £600m of benefit overpayments during this time period was a result of its own errors, while a further £1.4bn was because of innocent mistakes by the claimant.

Mikey Erhardt, campaigner at Disability Rights UK said: “At the end of the day, we all want the right support when we need it. We know that polls report that everyone wants extra spending on benefits, not more groundless anti-fraud measures, which, if allowed to pass, will make the UK’s social security system, already one of Western Europe’s least generous, even worse.”

The DWP is exploring a new civil penalty to punish fraudsters, broadening the scope of cases that can receive a penalty and increasing the value of the penalty.

It will also make changes to universal credit, including partly automated checks on self-employed income, new online prompts for carers to redeclare their circumstances, and increasing checks on capital when people claim benefits to ensure they are eligible.

The measures will be backed by “advanced data analytics”, using machine learning to detect and prevent fraudulent claims, but it has said any final decisions on accepting or stopping a claim will be made by a member of DWP staff.



Meanwhile, the government is pushing ahead with its Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, which will compel banks to give the DWP information to search for fraud and error in the benefits system.

The DWP will be able to request details around benefit claimants and any connected bank accounts, which could include those of landlords, family members, partners or ex-partners.

Erhardt added: “It looks like we’re sleepwalking into another Horizon scandal. The government’s latest dalliance with untested, unscrutinised, and potentially unlimited powers for new ‘bank scanning’ algorithms will be used to tackle an issue seemingly so out of control that the fraud rate for disability benefits is only 0.2%. Their plans are essentially a digital sledgehammer to crack the tiniest nut. 

“With such widespread support for change, this should be our moment to create a system built on respect, dignity and support that enables us to live the lives we deserve – not spend millions to create an uncontrollable digital panopticon.”

Big Brother Watch, backed by more than 40 charities and organisations including the Big Issue, is set to hand a petition to the Downing Street calling for the government to scrap the proposed “bank spying powers”. It has been signed by 270,000 people.

Mark Johnson, advocacy manager at Big Brother Watch said: “These Orwellian plans will compel banks to monitor all of our bank accounts and will subject millions of innocent Brits to surveillance, treating them like criminals in the process.

“Everyone wants to see fraud tackled in the welfare system and throughout society more broadly but as the government has shown, there are existing powers which can be used to do this based on reasonable suspicion. The proposed new financial surveillance powers are an affront to privacy in the UK. The government should listen to the calls of rights groups, legal experts and parliamentarians and junk these plans.”

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

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