New powers that would allow the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to “snoop” on the bank accounts of benefit claimants would treat disabled people like criminals and further destroy trust, say campaigners.
They spoke out this week against measures in the data protection and digital information bill, which will give DWP powers to force banks to scan all their accounts to find those receiving benefits, and people connected with those accounts.
They will then have to report anyone who triggers what are seen as potential indicators of fraud to DWP.
These powers – which again are likely to involve the use of artificial intelligence by DWP or its agents – would allow the department to see how benefit recipients are spending their money.
Under current rules, DWP can only request details of a bank account holder’s transactions if there are reasonable grounds to suspect them of fraud.
Opposition to the new powers is growing, with a petition set up by a disabled woman having secured nearly 80,000 signatures.
Mandy*, who set up the petition, said the threatened new powers had left her anxious and worried about “what the DWP will be allowed to do with the information they gain from scrutinising our bank accounts”.
She said: “I fear that if they do not approve of my spending, that they will take my benefits away, or will cut it when they see I am able to save a little, because they’re giving me more than just the ‘necessaries’.”
She receives personal independence payment and is in the employment and support allowance support group.
She said: “Genuine claimants should have nothing to fear from the DWP. But we are kept in a constant state of anxiety because the system wants us that way.
“We are dragged in for assessments, we are expected to fill in reams and reams of paperwork, we have to fight and fight for what we are, by law, entitled to.
“This further intrusion into our privacy, when we are already struggling with the effects of our disabilities, is cruel and unnecessary.”
Disabled people’s organisations are working with the civil liberties campaign organisation Big Brother Watch to fight the government’s proposals.
Big Brother Watch has warned that the potential for “expansive surveillance, high rates of error, and disproportionate impact on people in vulnerable positions is huge”.
It says that this “level of financial intrusion and monitoring affecting millions of people is highly likely to result in serious mistakes and sets an incredibly dangerous precedent”, and it has described it as “a frightening level of government overreach”.
It says the new powers “would put some of the most marginalised and vulnerable people on trial through intrusive bank surveillance”.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “Disabled people shouldn’t be treated like criminals and have every single expenditure they make monitored by DWP, although many of us are used to having to justify direct payments spending every few months to social services.
“It seems to me that many MPs are much more likely than disabled people to commit fraud and have unacceptable spending habits of taxpayers’ money, so if they want to see our spending, we say, show us yours too.”
Ken Butler, welfare rights and policy adviser for Disability Rights UK, said: “The widespread nature of the bill’s snooping powers are very concerning.
“The responsibility for undertaking catch-all data searches will be in the hands of unaccountable private banks and building societies.
“The search criteria are likely being drawn up by automated and secret algorithms with the concern that inherent bias could result in disabled people being disproportionately targeted.
“All this happening without any prior ‘evidence’ that any of those then targeted may have been engaged in fraud.
“Most disability benefit fraud allegations are false and the level of such fraud itself is minuscule.
“But there now is a danger that being caught up in any subsequent artificial intelligence investigations could result in metal distress and physical harm of disabled claimants.
“The DWP has repeatedly acknowledged in recent years that it badly needs to build the trust of benefit claimants.
“Secret surveillance of their bank accounts with no cause is a way to destroy this.”
The new powers were only introduced to the bill as part of 240 government amendments, introduced at the final stages of its passage through the Commons, which means MPs were not able to carry out line-by-line examination of the proposed new powers.
Labour’s Sir Stephen Timms, who chairs the Commons work and pensions committee, said during the last debate on the bill, in November: “As we have been reminded, the state has long had powers where there were grounds for suspecting that benefit fraud had been committed.
“The proposal in the bill is for surveillance where there is absolutely no suspicion at all, which is a substantial expansion of the state’s powers to intrude.”
He added: “The amendment gives the government extremely broad powers, with no checks in place, and it has been done in a way that minimises parliamentary scrutiny of what is proposed.”
The SNP’s Patrick Grady said there was “a good chance that minority groups or people with protected characteristics will find themselves most at risk of those checks and of coming under the proactive suspicion of the DWP”.
But Sir John Whittingdale, the then minister for data and digital infrastructure, said it was a “targeted and limited measure” that would enable DWP “to identify fraudulent benefit claims and, as a result, will save the taxpayer a significant amount of money”.
He said earlier that the government estimated that the measure would save about £500 million by the end of 2028-29.
The bill has now reached its committee stage in the House of Lords, where the new measures should receive detailed examination.
*She has asked for her surname not to be used
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