Proposals which will allow the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to monitor and routinely access benefit claimants’ bank accounts have resulted in two online petitions. These have achieved well over 10000 signatures to date. The ‘Do not introduce regular bank account checks for benefit claimants’ petitionsays that the proposed new changes to the Bill takes “too aggressive an approach towards benefit claimants” and is “undermining their rights”. Both petitions are now entitled to a written response from the government.

The contentious amendments were slipped through at the last minute to the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill. They will give the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) the right to access the bank accounts of all those in receipt of means tested benefits, including State Pension credits, without their permission

It is not just the right to access the bank accounts without permission or independent oversight that is included in this Bill. The DWP will have new powers to oblige the UK’s top 15 banks to regularly monitor the accounts of all benefits claimants and report every time an account goes over the capital limit or is used abroad for more than four weeks.

The proposed changes are seen as a red flag, yet another erosion of people’s rights to privacy. They have been criticised by various organisations, such as Privacy International, Liberty, and the Information Commissioner’s Office. The groups argue that the bill is unnecessary, disproportionate, and incompatible with human rights standards. They also point out that the impact on the mental health and financial security of claimants, who, despite being innocent of any fraud, will worry that any unusual spending will trigger a visit or sanction from the DWP.

Yet these new surveillance powers for the DWP enjoy cross party support. Only 51 MPs voted against the amendment, with 30 of those being from the SNP and just 7 each from Labour and the Lib Dems.

Almost 9 million claimants will be caught in the surveillance net, including:

  • 5.8 million universal credit claimants
  • 1.6 million employment and support allowance claimants
  • 1.4 million pension credit claimants

Any bank failing to collect and pass on data to the DWP will be subject to heavy fines.

The new system will begin to be rolled out in 2025, though all banks may not be fully involved before 2030.

The DWP estimates that it will cost around £30 million a year for them to investigate potential fraud identified by the new system but say they will save £500 million a year through reduced fraud and error.  

They also estimate that over the first ten years, the new powers will result in 74,000 prosecution cases and 2,500 custodial sentences.  

There is no doubt that the DWP intends to use these new powers widely.  The impact assessment for the new powers says that:

“This measure is drafted broadly . . .  to enable DWP to apply this measure to non-financial organisations in future if it is deemed appropriate and proportionate”

However, Mel Stride, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has offered reassurance. He said “that these powers will only be used in instances where there is a potential risk of fraud and error, and that only a minimum amount of data will be accessed.”

Benefits and Work, an advice organisation for claimants is not convinced.  “Anyone who imagines that the DWP will use such sweeping powers reasonably and proportionately probably hasn’t ever claimed benefits”.

The group use the example of the misuse of the powers given under the ‘Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act,’ which was brought in to combat terrorism and organised crime and ended up being used to spy on dog walkers, pigeon feeders and people putting out their wheelie bins too early.

The reality is that the DWP will be less concerned about individuals’ rights than proving that the huge investment can be assessed as ‘value for money.’

The powers will give them an increasingly heavy hammer to break a very small nut.

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