Social Justice

DWP faces 'outrage' and 'paranoia' if it continues plans to 'spy' on bank accounts

The government could be given powers to "spy" on benefit claimants' bank accounts and any connected accounts. It claims it is cracking down on benefit fraud, but organisations fear it sets a "dangerous precedent"

DWP

The Department for Work and Pensions is facing calls for urgent change. Image: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images

Campaigners have warned the government it risks causing “paranoia” if it refuses to axe plans to “spy” on benefit claimants’ bank accounts.

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 would also give powers to search any bank accounts connected to claimants, such as those of landlords, family members, partners or ex-partners.

Campaign group Big Brother Watch, backed by more than 40 charities and organisations and more than 100,000 signatories, has warned the government that the approach risks repeating mistakes made in the Post Office scandal.

Susannah Copson, legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch, said: “These spying powers are as immense as they are unprecedented.”

Big Brother Watch held an event in the House of Lords on Wednesday (13 March) to brief parliamentarians on their fears.

Speaking at the event about updates to the bill which widened the powers given to the DWP, Baroness Beeban Tania Kidron said: “I was absolutely outraged. Too broad. Too vague. Too intrusive. It seemed to me very much at the expense of the poor, the disabled, the elderly.”

Kidron said she feared it would become another Horizon scandal and added that she feared the “danger of what will happen at pure scale”.

“The implementation of this is very problematic,” she said, adding that the law needs to step in to protect people’s rights to privacy. Baroness Kidron also wants to overturn a previous intervention in the law which presumes that a computer is reliable, the impact of which was seen during the Horizon scandal.

In an open letter sent last week to the secretary of state for work and pensions Mel Stride and the secretary of state for science, innovation and technology Michelle Donelan, civil society groups called on the government to drop clauses which would give the DWP “invasive powers” to investigate bank accounts.

It was signed by organisations including The Big Issue, Mind, Child Poverty Action Group, Liberty, Age UK, Public Law Project, Just Fair and Disability Rights UK.

“The scope of these new powers is extraordinary,” the letter warned. “They 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.

“These powers are specifically aimed at people who receive state benefits, which is about 40% of the population, as well as individuals’ accounts linked with benefit claims, such as partners, parents, and landlords. There are no restrictions on the type of information that can be requested. This wide scope of data collection could create a detailed and intrusive view of the private lives of those affected.”

More than 100,000 people have signed a Big Brother Watch petition calling for the clauses in the bill to be dropped.

A DWP spokesperson said: “These changes do not allow direct access to any bank accounts – instead, third parties will be required to share data with us only when it signals potential fraud or error.

“This is a data sharing measure, not a decision-making measure, and a member of staff will always take any decision related to suspending benefits after a review has taken place.

“We have a duty to treat taxpayers’ money responsibly – which is why we are cracking down on fraud. This is backed up by our £900 million fraud plan, which will bolster our counter-fraud operations and root out those who steal from the most vulnerable.”

According to the government’s statistics, if the powers work as estimated, they are expected to generate approximately £250m in net annual revenue. This amount is less than 3% of the estimated annual loss to fraud and error.

Charities and community groups have raised fears about the human impact it could have if people risk having their benefits stopped after being accused of fraud. The Big Issue has previously reported on mistakes made within the welfare system, which have left claimants accused of owing thousands of pounds to the DWP.

A single mother was left “devastated” after being falsely accused of owing the DWP more than £12,000 in benefit overpayments.

There are fears that innocent people could be mistakenly accused of fraud and have their benefits suspended. Rick Burgess from the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People said: “It’s going to instil fear and paranoia and worsen the distress of people with mental health conditions.”

The House of Lords event was attended by a number of civil society organisations, alongside peers and MPs including Conservative MP David Davis, Labour MP and chair of the work and pensions select committee Stephen Timms and the shadow minister for tech and digital economy Chris Evans.

Timms told The Big Issue: “The way that it’s been done has been appalling. Those changes were slotted into the bill after it finished going to the committee, so the committee never got a chance to look at it. It came back to the report stage in the Commons and I spoke in that debate to oppose what the government was doing. The minister from the DWP was there but wasn’t allowed to speak.”

He added: “I think parts of what the government wants to do are reasonable but parts of it are going way too far. I’m hoping the House of Lords will remove the egregious features of what the government are trying to do.”

Timms said in the House of Lords event that he “accepts” what the government is trying to do insofar as universal credit is concerned, in principle, but that “much more troubling” is that the government is planning to expand powers to include other benefits. That includes those which are not means-tested such as personal independence payment and state pension.

Timms called it an “unjustified overstretch to be including those benefits”.

Shadow minister Chris Evans said it was “ill thought-through” and that he is “very worried about it”.

“It’s far too wide,” he said. “Banks don’t want to do it. What happens if a bank comes back with 5,000 names? Would all those people then be suspended from their benefits?”



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”. Stride claimed the DWP will not investigate claimants’ bank accounts without that evidence.

But this has not eased fears. The open letter claims that the government risks treating benefit claimants as criminals.

“These powers set an incredibly dangerous precedent and risk treating people in and outside the welfare system as guilty until proven innocent,” it said. “The Horizon scandal saw hundreds of people wrongfully prosecuted using data from faulty software. The government must learn from this mistake – not replicate it en masse. Using algorithms to scan millions of accounts is highly likely to result in mistakes.

“The people most affected will be people already suffering on the poverty line including those who are vulnerable, sick or disabled, elderly people, those who care for people in these groups, and others. The risks to some of the most vulnerable in our society are clear.”

Sign Big Brother Watch’s petition here.

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