The government has issued a dismissive response to a petition on the Parliament website in relation to surveillance of claimants’ bank accounts, claiming that concerns are based on misconceptions. The response also ignores the fact that the DWP have provided a blueprint for any fraudsters who wish to avoid the measures .
The petition on the parliament website is one of three petitions currently open on the subject. It has had just under 20,000 signatories, far short of the 100,000 required to be considered for a debate in Parliament.
In its response, the government argues that:
“There are a number of misconceptions about this measure, namely, it does not grant DWP access to any bank accounts and it does not allow DWP to see how claimants are spending their money.”
Benefits and Work has always been clear that the current plan is restricted to checking whether accounts have gone over the capital limit and whether claimants have been using their account abroad for an extended period.
However, many people would consider this requirement for banks to share data on claimants of means-tested benefits to be over-intrusive and discriminatory in itself, regardless of the nature of the data.
After all, wealthy individuals do not have their accounts monitored to ensure that they have declared all their income, even though tax avoidance costs the UK a great deal more than benefit fraud.
Moreover, the DWP admit themselves that the surveillance will be trivially simple for fraudsters to avoid and, to ensure that is the case, have even provided instructions on how to do so.
To start with, in their impact assessment they have provided a list of all 15 banks that they plan to monitor, leaving fraudsters free to simply to bank elsewhere. The DWP have said that they may include other banks in the future, but fraudsters know that they have at least several years of worry free banking.
Additionally, the DWP also admit that they will only be monitoring the account that the claimant has their benefit paid into. There is nothing to stop fraudsters moving money into another account to stay below the capital limit. As the impact assessment explains:
“. . .claimants may split capital across multiple bank accounts to ensure that there is not £16,000 or above with one provider. This would allow claimants to go undetected by this measure and reduce its effectiveness.”
As an anti-fraud measure, banking surveillance of this sort seems designed solely to catch those who innocently or mistakenly break the rules, not those who do so in a deliberate and organised fashion.
And the measure raises other issues, such as cases where a carer has the claimant’s money paid into their own account. If their combined income takes them over the capital limit, will this lead to suspension of benefits whilst fraud investigations take place?
Perhaps more worrying still, though, is the blanket nature of the legislation, which allows the DWP to require any organisation to hand over any data the DWP requests or face a large fine.
It means that the DWP may be starting small with its data collection, but there are literally no limits to how far it could extend its reach. With the growing power and prevalence of AI, there will be a strong temptation for the DWP to harvest and process huge amounts of data to catch a small number of fraudsters.
From what we know of the DWP, we suspect they will not resist that temptation for long.