Social Justice

DWP recruiting 'covert surveillance officers' to snoop on benefit claimants: 'I fear for the future'

The job postings come as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) continues its drive to crack down on benefit fraud

dwp mel stride

Mel Stride, the secretary of state for work and pensions. Image: Flickr/ Conservative Party

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is hiring up to 25 covert surveillance officers to snoop on benefit claimants, the Big Issue understands.

The job roles are, according to the advertisement on GOV.UK, part of the DWP’s response to tackling fraud within the welfare system.

The ad says: “The department utilises covert surveillance to gather evidence to prove/disprove offences” – although it is not clear what these offences are. The roles are based in 20 locations across the country with salaries ranging from £29,500 to £33,979.

The job’s description is very vague on detail as to what the job actually entails. It includes “leading in taking forward tasking requests”, sometimes leading “on the activities of the surveillance team” and “actively participating in surveillance operations”, with hours described as “unsociable”, starting early and ending late.

The ad does however state that hirees will be producing “evidential packages” which include obtaining and writing up witness statements to provide evidence of the activities witnessed. Successful applicants may be required to wear “covert audio equipment” and will also have to present the evidence obtained, which includes compiling and editing video and audio data.

A DWP employee with significant knowledge of the welfare system, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Big Issue that the advertising of these roles was very concerning to them as recruitment drives “can signify quite early on what their plans are”.

Currently, the Tory government is trying to push through the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, which would force banks to provide the DWP with data so that it can search for fraud and error among benefit claimants. It passed through its second reading in parliament and is now in the committee stage of the House of Lords.

The bill has received significant pushback from campaign groups such as Big Brother Watch, which warned that the current wording of the bill means it risks not only impacting the 22.6 million benefit claimants in the UK, but also the rest of the country, as the bill could see anyone connected to claimants having their accounts investigated.

A letter from Big Brother Watch and signed by many other organisations including the Big Issue, Mind, Child Poverty Action Group, Just Fair and Disability Rights UK warned that the bill will “compel third parties including banks, building societies and transmission companies to trawl all customer accounts in search of ‘matching’ accounts without prior suspicion of fraudulent activity, setting a deeply concerning precedent for generalised, intrusive financial surveillance in the UK“.

The DWP job ad does not specifically mention monitoring bank accounts, instead focusing on gathering evidence.

“To see these covert surveillance roles being advertised makes me fear for the future of not just myself but all of the customers I support,” said the anonymous employee, who is themselves disabled.

This latest recruitment drive comes after the government has upped its commitment to benefit fraud with its Fraud Strategy, which was released last year. According to GOV.UK the plan “sets out bold new measures to fight fraud against the welfare state” and they say it will save the DWP £1.3bn.



But the Big Issue’s source in the DWP isn’t convinced benefit fraud is as pressing an issue as the government claims. “In my role I always put our customers at the heart of everything I do and in the five years I have worked in DWP, I can honestly count on one hand how many people are ‘defrauding’ the system.”

Instead, the source says they see daily how disabled people are found capable to work, and whose conditions deteriorate as a result.

The source also wanted to highlight how hard it is for disabled people to stay in work, something they have struggled with themselves. The source described themself and other disabled people who are “desperately trying to stay in work” but are battling to get reasonable adjustments.

It comes at a time when the DWP is accused of pushing to get disabled people back to work. It has also been reported that the DWP was found to have lost more disability discrimination cases than any other organisation between 2016 and 2019, paying out £953,000.

The job advertisement nor the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill specifically mentions disability benefits claimants.

The DWP source was also concerned at how well equipped these officers would be to correctly monitor disabled people. “When so many conditions fluctuate from day-to-day and someone may need to use a wheelchair one day and a walking stick the next, these officers will not be medically trained to understand this nuance”.

They are concerned that intense surveillance will make disabled people fear living their lives in case they lose their benefits. “Are we really going to go back to the years when disabled people were scared to leave their homes in case their benefits are taken away?”

Upon request for comment, the DWP pointed the Big Issue towards a similar job advertisement on the government’s website – however, this specifically references economic serious organised crime. The ad in contention does not make any reference to criminal gangs and also has a different job reference number, signifying they are separate jobs. There are also much fewer roles available for the job tackling organised crime.

Dermot Devlin from Disabled People Against Cuts Northern Ireland, told the Big Issue: “The DWP plans for anonymous posts for surveillance officers are a gross invasion of our privacy. This goes against our human rights and the very basics of CRPD, which the government has been hauled over recently in Geneva by the UN.”

Paula Peters from DPAC said: “Benefit fraud is less than 3%. Yet tax avoidance by the most wealthy and big corporations goes unchallenged. These covert surveillance officers should be targeting the tax avoiders and the millionaires not disabled people and benefit claimants.”

The DWP declined to comment further.

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