Lords to challenge controversial DWP benefits bank account surveillance powers

Members of the House of Lords are pressing for changes to legislation that will give the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) new powers to require banks to monitor the accounts of every person who receives benefit payments, including the state pension.

The government claims financial surveillance powers in the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill (DPIP), currently going through Parliament, will save £600m over the next five years by reducing overpayments to people claiming benefits and reducing fraudulent claims.

But the proposals have been criticised for giving government powers to order the monitoring of bank accounts of a large section of the population when there is no suspicion of wrongdoing against the individuals targeted.

Crossbench peers including the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson KC, shadow attorney general Baroness Chakrabarti and Liberal Democrat technology spokesman Lord Clement-Jones are backing an amendment to block the DWP’s proposed surveillance powers.

The peers have raised concerns that UK citizens may have their bank accounts monitored irrespective of any wrongdoing, and the use of automated systems to monitor bank accounts and make decisions could have adverse consequences.

While the DWP has given reassurances, the bill gives little detail in its text on how the powers will be used in practice and what information the DWP will request.

Surveillance powers a ‘fishing expedition’

Lord Clement-Jones told Computer Weekly the government has made over £50m in savings by tackling fraud using existing powers, and not shown why it needed new powers to monitor bank accounts. “This is a classic government fishing expedition,” he said.

A separate series of amendments proposed by the shadow work and pensions secretary, Baroness Maeve Sherlock, aim to limit DWP powers to order banks to disclose information on benefit claimants to cases where there is a prior suspicion that benefits payments are not being correctly paid.

Baroness Sherlock is also calling on the government to develop a code of conduct on the use of its powers, which would have to be approved by both houses of Parliament and for the Secretary of State to report to Parliament annually on the use of the powers, their proportionality and effectiveness.

The amendments, due to be debated on 22 April, follow concerns raised by information commissioner John Edwards, who has questioned whether ministers have shown powers to require financial services organisations to disclose information on benefit claimants are “proportionate”.

Legal advice from barrister Dan Squires KC and Aidan Wills of Matrix Chambers published by campaign group Big Brother Watch on 17 April warned the powers proposed in the bill could reveal information about people’s movements, opinions and medical information.

They could also breach privacy rights as well as individuals’ rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and protection from discrimination.

“It is clear that the purpose of the new proposed powers is to carry out monitoring of bank accounts where there are no ‘reasonable grounds’ for believing a particular individual has engaged in benefit fraud or has made any mistake in claiming benefits,” the barristers argued.

DWP expects 74,000 prosecutions

The Department for Work and Pensions said it will use the new powers to require banks and financial organisations to identify benefit claimants with more than £16,000 in savings or who claim from abroad for more than the four week limit.

It estimates the programme, which will identify benefit claimants who may have committed fraud or received overpayments for further investigation, will lead to 74,000 prosecutions and 2,500 custodial sentences over the course of 10 years.

Baroness Kidron, who is also backing amendments to the bill, said the powers to give the DWP access to tens of millions of UK citizens’ bank accounts were “cruel, dangerous and disproportionate”.

She said the bill could mean the bank accounts of employers or landlords of vulnerable people could also be monitored, as they would be considered “connected accounts” under the legislation.

“My inbox has been inundated with people who hold money for disabled family members, are concerned about the willingness of landlords to continue to house them if landlord bank accounts can be surveilled, and bewildered that even benefits that are not means-tested are included,” said Kidron.

Impact on people with disabilities

The bill has also come under fire from civil society groups. Silkie Carlo, director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, described the powers as “Orwellian”.

Mikey Erhardt, a campaigner at Disability Rights UK, said that with the fraud rate of disability benefits running at 0.2%, there was no need for new powers to monitor people claiming disability benefits.

“These new powers would see disabled people deprived of the presumption of innocence, adding to the victimisation we already face in a punitive welfare system that often seeks to sanction people into work, whether they are able to or not,” he said.

DWP dismisses ‘false claims’

The DWP said Big Brother Watch’s claims and legal advice suggesting that the DWP would use the measures to reveal information about people’s movements, opinions and medical information were “entirely false”.

A spokesperson said: “These measures will require third parties to provide only limited, relevant information that may signal whether benefits are being improperly paid. It does not give DWP access to anyone’s bank account or see how claimants are spending their money.

“The government remains committed to these powers as a method of reducing fraud and error in the benefits system, which will save the taxpayer £600m over the next five years,” they added.

Data adequacy

Lord Clement-Jones told Computer Weekly that the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill was problematic in multiple ways, and could have consequences for the UK’s data protection adequacy agreement with Europe.

“This government has got this bill completely and utterly wrong,” he said. “If it was scrapped tomorrow morning, nobody would shed any tears at all.”

Source link

Leave a Comment