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DWP benefits crackdown could lead to Post Office-style scandal, campaigners warn

A disability rights charity said the government’s crackdown on benefits was a “looming scandal”, similar to the Post Office Horizon IT system debacle.

This week the government updated its welfare system “tackling fraud plan” by announcing £70m of 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 Bill, which is expected to give the government “greater access to vital data held by third parties, such as banks” to detect fraud.

As well as privacy concerns, Disability Rights UK warned that an “irresponsible digital system” would likely result in claimants’ bank accounts being incorrectly reported, meaning they could temporarily lose access to vital benefit payments.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is already using machine learning – since 2021/22 – “to flag potentially fraudulent Universal Credit claims”. The National Audit Office said this creates “an inherent risk that algorithms may be biased towards selecting claims for review from certain vulnerable people or groups with protected characteristics”.

Disability Rights UK said extending fraud detection to bank accounts could lead to a situation comparable to the Post Office scandal, where Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon computer system made it appear that money was missing from its branches. This led to the wrongful prosecution and criminal convictions of 700 deputy station chiefs between 1999 and 2015.

The DWP, which claims to have saved £1.3 billion by tackling benefit fraud and errors over the past year, rejected the comparison as “completely misleading” and said members staff would “always” make decisions regarding the suspension of benefits.

But Mikey Erhardt, head of policy at Disability Rights UK, told Yahoo News UK: “The reason this is akin to the Horizon scandal is the reliance on automation, digital systems, irresponsible 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 care policy.  As the UK's largest civil 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 care policy.  As the UK's largest civil 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, pensions and child care policy. (Getty Images)

“When someone is flagged in the system, it can take a lot of time for (a staff member) to check on them.”

More than 20 million people claim benefits in the UK, including 3.3 million who claim Personal Independence Payment (PIP), aimed at people who need help with daily activities or getting around due to of a long-term illness or disability.

Erhardt continued: “To analyze 20 million bank accounts, which is about the scope and reach of this metric, and you have an error rate of, say, 1%, that’s 200,000 accounts of people reported to the Department for Work and Pensions. He does not have the power to monitor this.

“Many people’s accounts will be flagged in error, meaning it is highly likely their support will stop during this period until staff assess whether it is (correct) or not.

“That’s why we’re so worried, it’s an irresponsible digital system, like Horizon was. We don’t know how it’s developed, we don’t know anything about the system they use.

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

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

Erhardt added: “Trying to shrink more and more of a pool of (applicants) by using an irresponsible digital system to do so…this is a scandal waiting to happen.

“The best we see is murmurings about protection and advice, but I’m sure when Fujitsu was selling technology to the Post Office, arguments were made about the robustness of the system.

“But there is no way to secure such digital surveillance.”

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 investigated thoroughly before action is taken.

“We have a duty to treat taxpayers’ money responsibly, which is why we are tackling fraud with our £900 million fraud plan, to strengthen our fraud operations and eliminate those who steal the most vulnerable.”

A senior MP this week called on the DWP to “take control” of overpayments to carers, which have led to many people unwittingly accumulating debt.

Work and Pensions Committee chairman Sir Stephen Timms said the government had “allowed” many unpaid carers to fall into debt, despite knowing about the problem for years.

A DWP research report, written in 2021 but only published this week, says 3% of its sample of claimants received an overpayment of childcare allowance. With around 1.3 million people receiving this benefit, the Carers Trust said this could equate to tens of thousands of people having been overpaid.

Timms said: “The government has been aware of the flaws in the carers’ benefit payment system for years, but it has just allowed many unpaid carers to unwittingly accumulate unmanageable levels of debt.

“The DWP must now act without delay to bring the problem under control and ensure that carers are no longer subject to the distress that such overpayments can cause. »

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