The UK Government is planning to introduce a new law that would allow the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to access the bank accounts of benefit claimants and check for fraud. The law change is expected to be announced in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement later this month.
Why is the Government doing this?
The Government claims that the new law would save the taxpayer £500 million in the first five years by cracking down on so-called “benefits cheats” who are fraudulently claiming benefits while sitting on savings. The Government is concerned about the number of people on out-of-work benefits, which has increased to 5.4 million people since the pandemic.
According to the current rules, people are barred from claiming Universal Credit if they have more than £16,000 in savings, but the Government says it is hard to verify this information. Under the new system, the DWP would be able to run monthly or weekly checks on the bank accounts of benefit claimants and look for red flags, such as regular transfers of money abroad.
How will the Government access the bank accounts?
The Government will use the powers of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which gives certain public bodies the right to conduct surveillance activities under limited circumstances. The DWP already has the authority to conduct “directed surveillance”, which means covert but not intrusive surveillance of a specific person or group for the purposes of a specific investigation.
The DWP has designated “surveillance teams” that can carry out this type of surveillance, which can involve monitoring, listening or following an individual or a group either with or without a technical device. The DWP also has the power to request data from private companies, such as airlines, PayPal, supermarkets and bingo clubs, to gather evidence of fraud.
The new law would require banks to cooperate with the DWP and provide the data of benefit claimants on a regular basis, without the need for a specific request or suspicion. The DWP would then use data analysis and artificial intelligence to detect patterns of fraud and flag up cases for further investigation.
What are the implications of this plan?
The plan has been met with criticism and opposition from various groups and individuals, who have raised concerns about the privacy, human rights and ethical implications of the Government’s surveillance of benefit claimants. Some of the issues raised are:
- The plan could violate the right to privacy and data protection of benefit claimants, who would have their financial transactions and personal information exposed to the Government without their consent or knowledge.
- The plan could create a climate of fear and suspicion among benefit claimants, who would feel constantly monitored and judged by the Government and could be deterred from claiming the benefits they are entitled to.
- The plan could lead to discrimination and stigmatisation of benefit claimants, who would be treated as potential criminals and fraudsters by the Government and the media, and could face harassment and abuse from the public.
- The plan could result in false positives and errors, as the data analysis and artificial intelligence used by the Government could misinterpret legitimate transactions and activities as signs of fraud and trigger unnecessary investigations and sanctions.
- The plan could divert resources and attention from the real causes and solutions of poverty and inequality, such as low wages, insecure employment, inadequate social security and lack of affordable housing, and instead blame and punish the most vulnerable and marginalised people in society.
What are the alternatives to this plan?
Many critics and campaigners have argued that there are better and more humane ways to address the issue of benefit fraud, which is estimated to account for only 1.2% of the total benefit expenditure, according to the DWP’s own figures. Some of the alternatives suggested are:
- Improving the design and delivery of the benefit system, such as simplifying the rules, reducing the delays and errors, increasing the adequacy and accessibility of the payments, and providing more support and guidance to claimants.
- Investing in the prevention and detection of fraud, such as enhancing the training and supervision of staff, strengthening the verification and audit processes, and encouraging the reporting and whistleblowing of fraud.
- Promoting the education and awareness of the benefit system, such as informing the public and the media about the facts and figures of benefit fraud, the rights and responsibilities of claimants, and the benefits and contributions of social security.
- Engaging in the dialogue and consultation with benefit claimants, such as listening to their views and experiences, involving them in the decision-making and policy-making, and respecting their dignity and autonomy.