DR UK says scrap DWP plans to use AI to scan benefit claimants bank accounts

Thu,14 March 2024
News Benefits
Disability Rights UK has joined over 40 other organisations in writing to Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology and Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride to express serious concerns regarding “extraordinary” new financial surveillance powers introduced in the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill.

In a briefing, the charity Big Brother Watch (BBW) highlights that among other serious concerns, Government amendments to the Bill would introduce new powers to force banks to monitor all bank accounts to find benefit claimants and report any one who triggers potential fraud indicators (such as frequent travel or savings over a certain amount) to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)

You can sign the BBW Stop the Government from spying on all of our bank accounts petition to the PM at 38degrees.org.uk.

The joint letter says:

We are writing to you as civil society organisations representative of a wide-range of groups and causes, to express our concerns regarding the financial surveillance powers introduced in Clause 128 and Schedule 11 of the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill.

The proposed measures involve the use of mass algorithmic surveillance to scan bank and other third party accounts, ostensibly to detect potential fags for fraud and error in the welfare system. While we understand the importance of addressing fraudulent activities, these powers are disproportionate and raise significant concerns in the context of privacy, surveillance, data protection, and equalities.

Mass surveillance, privacy, and data protection

The scope of these new powers is extraordinary. They will compel third parties including banks, building societies, and transmission companies to trawl all customer accounts in search of ‘matching’ accounts without prior suspicion of fraudulent activity, setting a deeply concerning precedent for generalised, intrusive financial surveillance in the UK.

These powers are specifically aimed at people who receive state benefits, which is about 40% of the population, as well as individuals’ accounts linked with benefit claims, such as partners, parents, and landlords. There are no restrictions on the type of information that can be requested. This wide scope of data collection could create a detailed and intrusive view of the private lives of those affected. Some financial data may constitute information designated as special category data under GDPR, revealing sensitive details like political opinions, trade union memberships, religious and philosophical beliefs, health information, and sexual orientation. The extensive sharing of such data poses significant risks to data security, especially given the Department for Work and Pensions' (DWP) history of data security issues.

The Information Commissioner has stated that he does not currently view these powers as proportionate. As such, they may be unlawful and a breach of individuals’ right to privacy under the Human Rights Act. Enacting a law that allows for disproportionate and intrusive mass surveillance would also be a substantial departure from current data protection legislation, potentially impacting adequacy status with the EU.

Impact on equality

These powers do not require someone to be suspected of fraud before their account is subject to surveillance by being scanned for “matching criteria”. Instead, the presumption of innocence is reversed, subjecting people to unwarranted scrutiny simply for receiving benefits. There are approximately 22.6 million individuals in the welfare system, including those who are disabled, sick, caregivers, job seekers, and pensioners. They should not be treated like criminals by default.  The government should not surveil any individual’s bank account without very good reason and strong legal justification. These powers set an incredibly dangerous precedent and risk treating people in- and outside the welfare system as guilty until proven innocent.

The Horizon scandal saw hundreds of people wrongfully prosecuted using data from faulty software. The Government must learn from this mistake – not replicate it en masse. Using algorithms to scan millions of accounts is highly likely to result in mistakes. The people most affected will be people already suffering on the poverty line including those who are vulnerable, sick or disabled, elderly people, those who care for people in these groups, and others. The risks to some of the most vulnerable in our society are clear. Wrongful benefits investigations can result in demanding documentation requirements. Failure to comply accurately and on time can lead to benefits being incorrectly withheld, potentially leaving innocent people unable to afford basic necessities such as food, medicine, or heating bills. In some cases, vulnerable individuals have died following the wrongful suspension of benefits.

The proposed introduction of these powers comes at a time when the DWP has been found by the Public Accounts Committee to have not done enough to “understand the impact of machine learning on customers to provide them with confidence that it will not result in unfair treatment”. DWP has also acknowledged that its ability to test for and take steps to avoid unfair impacts across protected characteristics, and therefore ensure that it is not acting discriminatorily, is currently limited due to deficiencies in its data collection.

Ineffective and disproportionate

According to the government’s analysis, if the powers work as estimated, they are expected to generate approximately £250 million in net annual revenue. This amount is less than 3% of the estimated annual loss to fraud and error, demonstrating that these powers will not be effective despite their cost to human rights and civil liberties. It is important to note that a range of state powers already exist to tackle fraud in the welfare system.

An abuse of Parliamentary process

These are exceptionally broad and invasive powers, the like of which we have never seen before.  Given the clear engagement of the right to privacy and the likely impact of these powers on some of the most vulnerable in society, it was entirely inappropriate that they were introduced late on in the Bill’s passage through the House of Commons at Report Stage - almost 9 months after the Bill was introduced, meaning that they have not been adequately scrutinised by MPs.

These powers have no place in this Bill or our democracy. They are an unprecedented and disproportionate invasion of the public’s financial privacy, the effect of which will be felt most sharply by the most vulnerable in our society. We urge you to drop Clause 128 and Schedule 11 of the DPDI Bill in their entirety.

Yours sincerely,

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK

Niki Adams, Legal Action for Women

Shameem Adhmad, Public Law Project

Mark Baggley, Choices and Rights Disability Coalition (Hull and East Riding)

Jen Beardsley, NSUN (National Survivor User Network)

Kathryn Bole, Chronic Illness Inclusion, Suffolk Coalition of Disabled People

Dr Melvin Bradley, Sara Crookdake MBE, Chris Hamnett MBA (GMDPP) Greater

Manchester Disabled People's Panel

Rick Burgess, Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People

Linda Burnip, DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts)

Lucy Byrne, Richmond AID

Sara Chitseko, Open Rights Group

Nic Cook, Difference North East

Susannah Copson, Big Brother Watch

Martha Dark, Foxglove

Ruth Ehrlich, Liberty

Dominic Ellison, WECIL (West of England Centre for Inclusive Living)

Jack Gilbert, Real DPO

Claire Glasman, WinVisible (women with visible & invisible disabilities)

Nil Guzelgun, Mind

Mark Harrison, ROFA (Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance)

Holly Harrison-Mullane, Amnesty International UK Disabled People's Human Rights


Zoe Hayward, Big Issue Group Jenny Hurst, Greenwich DPAC

Roxana Khan-Williams, Organise

Svetlana Kotova, Inclusion London

Amy Litte, Leonard Cheshire

Lisa Longstaff, Women Against Rape

Nina Lopez, Global Women's Strike

Kamran Mallick, Disability Rights UK

Edmore Masendeke, ALLFIE (Alliance for Inclusive Education)