“Horrific” and “sinister” plans to give the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) sweeping new powers to investigate benefit claimants could have a serious impact on disabled people’s physical and mental health, activists have warned.
Just as the social security cuts and reforms, and hostile rhetoric about claimants, of successive post-2010 Conservative-led governments led to countless deaths, physical harm and years of mental distress, disabled-led grassroots groups fear the new proposals – and the associated publicity defending them – could mirror that impact.
The plans would see DWP civil servants handed the power to carry out arrests and search people’s homes, while work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey also announced reviews into more than two million existing universal credit claims over the next five years.
Many disabled claimants with fluctuating or invisible impairments say they already feel as if they live under suspicion, and fear being investigated by DWP or reported by neighbours to DWP’s benefit fraud hotline.
Disabled campaigners, many of whom have spent years highlighting and fighting against efforts by government ministers to paint disabled people as benefit cheats, said this week that they believe DWP’s proposals will only worsen this fear.
A spokesperson for Disabled People Against Cuts said: “This has really sinister implications and is deeply worrying.
“It has caused a lot of people to be anxious about being arrested and having their house searched when they have done nothing wrong.”
She said the “terrifying” proposals were “an overreach in terms of extending powers and lowering the evidence requirements to fall under these powers”, and “could well result in a massive rise in heart attacks or suicides.”
And she said the idea of DWP officers being given the power to enter disabled people’s homes was “just too horrific to contemplate”.
John McArdle, co-founder of the grassroots group Black Triangle, said many claimants would be “plunged into abject poverty” by a finding of fraud that – if the new proposals become law – DWP would only have had to prove to itself on a balance of probabilities, which “could be life and death for a lot of people”.
Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP) is already involved in a legal challenge that questions whether DWP is “over-picking disabled people” for fraud investigations by using a secret algorithm.
GMCDP fears DWP’s latest plans – which include making greater use of “enhanced data analytics” to detect and prevent fraud – could subject millions more to discriminatory investigations.
Rick Burgess, a GMCDP spokesperson, said: “The new ‘anti-fraud crackdown’ is an obvious political initiative to excite a reactionary anti-benefits voter base.
“They mention using ‘targeted new tools’ and ‘data sharing’ to monitor people; this means our algorithm legal challenge just became even more crucial as millions more will be subjected to potentially discriminatory computer processes unless we can scrutinise and correct them.”
Details in the new policy paper released by DWP alongside Coffey’s announcement show parliament will be asked to approve new powers that would allow DWP officers to carry out arrests, execute search warrants and seize evidence.
Ministers will also seek powers to access data from banks and other organisations “on a larger scale”; and to allow DWP to access information from a wider range of organisations.
DWP will appoint an extra 1,400 staff to counter-fraud teams, who will carry out interviews and investigations, as well as “enhanced checking of high-risk claims before they enter payment”, while aiming to disrupt “criminal activity from serious and organised crime”.
Coffey also announced “targeted” case reviews of more than two million universal credit claims over the next five years – including “suspicious cases” that entered the system during the pandemic – through a new “2,000-strong team”.
And she wants parliament to approve new civil fines that DWP will be able to “impose” for cases of fraud that it decides not to prosecute “for whatever reason”, although the department will only have to prove these cases on a balance of probabilities, rather than having to prove them beyond reasonable doubt if it took them through the criminal courts.
Disabled researcher Stef Benstead, author of a “definitive” account of the harm caused to disabled people by a decade of cuts and reforms, said the government “already has all the powers it needs to investigate fraud within the social security system”.
She said: “What it is asking for is the right to be given private information on people who aren’t suspected of fraud, and then evade a fair criminal investigation following due procedure, and finally to fine someone for whom they don’t have good enough evidence to win a CPS case.
“They want to turn people’s lives upside down and put them through immense stress, strain and intrusion, just to save the government the money, time and effort required to go through due process.
“The government has to submit to the rule of law too, and not abuse its strength by evading the proper criminal justice system.
“If the government wants timelier and more thorough investigation of fraud, it should fund the criminal justice system properly.”
Activist and journalist Charlotte Hughes wrote in her blog that DWP’s proposals were “totally wrong and immoral”.
She said that giving DWP officers a power of arrest had the “potential to persecute innocent claimants” and was “extremely worrying”.
She wrote: “For many years now I’ve assisted claimants in supposed benefit fraud meetings, the majority of which showed absolutely no evidence of fraud being committed.
“I found these meetings to be yet another way for the DWP to intimidate and harass claimants and I have no doubt that if I hadn’t been able to represent these claimants they would have falsely been accused of fraud and would have faced their benefits being stopped or greatly reduced.”
Coffey claims that her £600 million plan will stop more than £4 billion in fraud over five years.
DWP’s own figures show that, last year, there was an estimated £6.3 billion in social security fraud, an increase from £2.8 billion the previous year.
Coffey said: “This plan outlines what we need to fight fraud in 2022 and into the future.
“Thousands of trained specialists, combined with targeted new tools and powers, will mean we can keep up with fraud in today’s digital age and prevent, detect and deter those who would try to cheat the system.”
McArdle said he feared that claimants targeted by DWP under its new plans would not be able to secure legal representation, and that the proposals would breach the government’s human rights obligations.
He said: “Is it OK to trawl through two million cases? I don’t believe so.
“It’s a complete violation of disabled people’s human rights.
“Hundreds of people will die as a result and that’s no exaggeration. At a time when people are suffering so much, the government wants to take even more from people.
“To have this administered by the people who have been carrying out DWP policy since 2010 is just horrific.
“They have a track record of concealment and dishonesty. They have acted in contempt of the rule of law all these years in so many different cases.
“They have not listened to the UN and now they want a blank cheque to treat disabled people as if they were subject to a totalitarian regime.
“It’s giving them unprecedented powers to interfere in people’s private lives… to go in on a whim and rifle through their bank accounts and access everything about their lives.”
He added: “It is an unprecedented intrusion into the private lives of sick and disabled people and benefit claimants more generally.
“We will fight this all the way.”
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