MPs and peers call on Government to drop new welfare bank spying plans

Big Brother Watch Team / April 22, 2024

A cross-party group of parliamentarians has called on the Government to scrap new plans to monitor all bank accounts under the premise of searching for welfare fraud and error in a joint letter to the Government.

Key points:

  • Signatories highlight the example of the Horizon scandal urging the Government to drop measures which “risk replicating this disaster on a much broader scale” and state that the measures threaten “threaten financial privacy and the presumption of innocence in Britain”
  • Signatories share common concern about the rights of those in the welfare system and include crossbench peer Baroness Kidron, DWP Select Committee member and Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, long-standing civil liberties campaigner Baroness Chakrabarti, Conservative MP Sir Charles Walker and Lib Dem DWP spokesperson Wendy Chamberlain MP
  • Parliamentarians raise concerns ahead of a debate on the powers during committee stage scrutiny of the Government’s Data Protection and Digital Information (DPDI) Bill taking place in the House of Lords on Monday

The new powers, sought by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), would compel banks and other third parties to monitor all account holders to find and then flag people who meet certain secret criteria to the government directly. Flagged accounts could then be subject to further investigation.

In a letter led by prominent digital rights campaigner, Baroness Kidron, the group calls on the government to scrap the proposed new surveillance powers, raising concerns about privacy, the impact on vulnerable people and due process. Other signatories to the letter include Lib Dem DWP spokesperson Wendy Chamberlain, former Director of Liberty Baroness Chakrabarti, Conservatives Disability Group champion Sir Charles Walker and DWP Select Committee member and Labour MP Debbie Abrahams.

Raising concerns about the impact of the powers on the right to privacy the peers write that the powers “would reverse the well established presumption of innocence”, the democratic principle that individuals should not be spied on unless the police or authorities suspect them of wrongdoing.

Highlighting the Horizon scandal as an example of where automated systems have resulted in the suffering of innocent people, the letter states “In the face of such opacity and absence of any safeguards, it is inevitable that mistakes will be made. Incorrectly flagged accounts could have disastrous consequences from intrusive investigations, to heightened stigma in the welfare system, to the wrongful suspension of benefits.” The DPDI Bill is due to be scrutinised at committee stage in the House of Lords on Monday where peers led by Baroness Kidron have laid an amendment to the legislation which would see the proposed new powers removed from the Bill.

The Government added the new welfare bank surveillance powers to the Data Protection and Digital Information (DPDI) Bill during Report Stage in the House of Commons in December of last year, preventing them from receiving full democratic scrutiny. Over 165,000 people have now signed a petition created by privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch calling for the new powers to be scrapped. Last month 42 charities and campaign organisations wrote to the Government echoing this call. Earlier this week a legal opinion, commissioned by civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, cast doubt over the legality of powers by suggesting they were likely to be in breach of privacy laws.

The UK privacy regulator, the Information Commissioner, has said that he has “not yet seen sufficient evidence that the measure is proportionate.” The Information Commissioner’s Office has responsibility for enforcing data protection legislation including the UK GDPR, leading to questions about the legality of the proposed new powers. The Equality and Human Rights Commission have also called for the powers to be scrapped.

Commenting, Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch said:

“This is a vital intervention by parliamentarians to try to prevent Horizon-style injustice and mass financial spying in Britain.

“These are Orwellian spying powers that are unjustified, cruel and unworkable.

“Everyone wants fraud to be dealt with, and the government already has strong powers to investigate the bank statements of suspects.

“However, this is a completely unprecedented system of mass bank spying that will impact the whole population, without any need for suspicion of crime at all.

“This action by parliamentarians shows that opposition to bank snooping spans across all parties and both Houses of Parliament. The Government must avert this disaster and drop their bank spying plans.”

Commenting, Baroness Kidron said:

“The DWP powers were added late to the Bill, have not had proper scrutiny by the Commons. They raise significant issues of privacy, proportionality and practicality, and it will impact primarily on the old, the disabled and the vulnerable. In a time of increased automated decision making and the backdrop of a bill that reduces UK citizen’s ability to see, understand or take action against unfair uses of their personal data.

“The government has a right, and already has the power to tackle benefit fraud, but the powers as drafted are cruel, dangerous, and disproportionate.”



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You can find a copy of the letter here.

You can find a link to Big Brother Watch’s petition here.