Social Justice

Tens of thousand sign petition against DWP plan to snoop on benefit claimants' bank accounts

Big Brother Watch has launched a petition calling on the government to stop pushing forward with a bill giving the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) powers to spy on bank accounts

dwp/ spying

The DWP has been accused of "playing Big Brother". Image: Unsplash

Campaigners are calling on the government to axe plans giving the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) powers to “spy” on bank accounts.

Human rights group Big Brother Watch has launched a petition against the bill which has amassed more than 30,000 signatures in a matter of two weeks.

As The Big Issue has previously reported, the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill would compel banks to provide the 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 is now in the committee stage of the House of Lords.

Big Brother Watch warns that the current wording of the bill means it risks not only impacting the 22.6 million benefits claimants in the UK, but also the rest of the country.

The powers extend to other accounts linked with the claimant – such as those of current or ex-partners, children and landlords.

Campaigners argue it is a “major expansion of government power that takes away our financial privacy like never before and does away with the presumption of innocence – the democratic principle that you shouldn’t be spied on unless police suspect you of wrongdoing”.

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” and bank accounts will not be investigated unless there is evidence.

But this has done little to ease fears. The Big Issue recently reported on a case where a mother was falsely accused of owing more than £12,000 to the DWP. It later admitted that a mistake had been made, and the government actually owed her money.

This was a case where “error” was signalled, but the claimant had done nothing wrong.

Susannah Copson, legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch, explained: “The proposals to scan bank accounts on the premise of detecting fraud are incredibly concerning. With more than 22.6 million individuals in the welfare system, these measures subject people to unwarranted and suspicion-less surveillance merely for receiving benefits. However, it’s not restricted to people in the welfare system.

“Others linked to these accounts – potentially including landlords, ex/partners, or children – would find themselves tangled in this web of surveillance. In order to find these people, banks will have to conduct scans on all of our accounts.”



It comes following renewed outrage around the Post Office scandal, which evidenced the human impact of a powerful public body wrongly accusing innocent people of owing huge amounts of money.

Copson added: “Algorithms make mistakes. The consequences could be dire, resulting in people unable to afford essentials like rent or bills. The echoes of the Horizon Scandal are palpable, and these powers pose a massive risk of recreating such injustices on a broader scale. People on the poverty line, people with disabilities, who are sick or disabled, or are elderly, amongst others would be most at risk. 

“These powers have been smuggled in at a late stage of the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill and were not properly scrutinised by the House of Commons. They’ve come completely out of the blue and it’s really concerning that powers of intrusive mass surveillance are being rushed through by stealth.

“Benefits are lifesaving for many. Tackling fraud is important and the government have a range of powers to do this already. Sacrificing the public’s privacy and putting vulnerable people at risk is not an appropriate way to go about it.”

You can sign Big Brother Watch’s petition here.

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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