DWP’s crackdown could lead to some kind of post office scandal, campaigners have warned

A disability rights charity has said the government’s crackdown on benefits is a “scandal in waiting” on a par with the Post Office Horizon IT system debacle.

This week the government updated its ‘fraud plan’ for the welfare system, announcing £70 million funding for ‘advanced data analytics and new data sources to prevent fraud’.

This will be used in conjunction with the Data Protection and Digital Information Act, which aims to give the government “better access to vital data held by third parties such as banks” to detect fraud.

Apart from privacy concerns, Disability Rights UK has warned that an “unexplained digital system” is likely to lead to claimants’ bank accounts being wrongly flagged, meaning they could temporarily lose access to essential benefits.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been using machine learning “to flag potentially fraudulent Universal Credit claims” since 2021/2022. The National Audit Office said this “creates an inherent risk that the algorithms may be biased towards selecting claims for assessment against certain vulnerable people or groups with protected characteristics”.

Disability Rights UK has now said that extending fraud detection to bank accounts could lead to a situation similar to the Post Office scandal, where Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon IT system made it appear as if money was missing from its branches. It led to 700 sub-postmasters being wrongfully prosecuted and criminally convicted between 1999 and 2015.

The DWP, which says it has saved £1.3 billion by tackling benefit fraud and errors in the past year, has dismissed this comparison as “completely misleading” and said staff will “always” make decisions regarding suspension of benefits.

But Mikey Erhardt, policy officer at Disability Rights UK, told Yahoo News UK: “The reason it is akin to the Horizon scandal is the reliance on automation, digital systems, unexplained technology and algorithms.

Department for Work and Pensions on July 24, 2022 in London, United Kingdom.  The Department for Work and Pensions, DWP, is responsible for welfare, pensions and child support policy.  As Britain's largest public service department, it administers the state pension and a range of working age, disability and sickness benefits.  (photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)Department for Work and Pensions on July 24, 2022 in London, United Kingdom.  The Department for Work and Pensions, DWP, is responsible for welfare, pensions and child support policy.  As Britain's largest public service department, it administers the state pension and a range of working age, disability and sickness benefits.  (photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

The Department for Work and Pensions is responsible for welfare, pension and child support policy. (Getty Images)

“If someone is spotted on the system, it can take a long time [a staff member] to monitor it.”

More than 20 million people claim benefits in Britain, including 3.3 million claiming Personal Independence Allowance (PIP). This is intended for people who need help with daily activities or getting around due to a long-term illness or disability.

Erhardt continued: “If you scan 20 million bank accounts, which is roughly the scope and scope of this, and you have an error rate of, say, 1%, then those are 200,000 people’s accounts flagged with the Department for Work and Pensions. It doesn’t have the power of the staff to oversee that.

“There will be many people’s accounts wrongly flagged, meaning it is highly likely that their support will stop before then until staff assess whether or not this is the case. [correct].

“That’s why we are so concerned about it: it is a digital system that is not accountable, just like Horizon. We don’t know how it was developed, we don’t know anything about the system they use.

“What needs to be made clear is that there is no way to make something like this safe… because there will always be mistakes… that can lead people to incredibly stressful circumstances. The PIP process is already incredibly difficult to go through.”

The MS Society has said that 65% of claimants report that the application process has had a negative or very negative impact on their physical and mental health.

Erhardt added: “I’m trying to form a group [claimants] ever smaller and using an inexplicable digital system to achieve that… it’s a scandal waiting to happen.

“The best we see is the muttering about protection and guidance, but I’m sure when Fujitsu sold technology to the Post Office, points were made about how robust the system would be.

“But there is no way to make this kind of digital surveillance secure.”

A DWP spokesperson responded: “This is a completely misleading comparison.

“Under these rules, a member of staff will always make any decision regarding the suspension of benefits, and any signals of potential fraud or error will be comprehensively reviewed before any action is taken.

“We have a duty to use taxpayers’ money responsibly. That’s why we’re cracking down on fraud, backed by our £900 million fraud plan, to strengthen our anti-fraud operations and root out those who steal from the most vulnerable.”

A senior MP this week called on the DWP to “get a grip” amid overpayments to healthcare providers, which have led many to unknowingly build up debt.

Sir Stephen Timms, chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, said the Government was “allowing” many unpaid care workers to build up debt after knowing about the issue for years.

A DWP research report, written in 2021 but only published this week, found that 3% of the sample of claimants received too much healthcare benefit. With around 1.3 million people receiving the grant, the Carers Trust said this could amount to tens of thousands of people being overpaid.

Timms said: “The Government has been aware of the shortcomings that have plagued the Care Allowance payment system for years, but has just allowed many unpaid carers to unwittingly rack up unmanageable levels of debt.

“The DWP must take action now without delay to get to grips with the problem and ensure that healthcare providers are no longer exposed to the distress that such overpayments can cause.”

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