1984 is long gone, but Big Brother is still watching. A new bill authorising the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to access people’s bank accounts has passed its third reading and is now in the House of Lords, ready to become law.
The DWP say they will scrutinise the accounts of benefit claimants to prevent fraud. But in November 2023, the number of recipients of Jobseekers’ Allowance and Universal Credit who need to seek work was just 1.58 million. Even so, the DWP intend to put the bank accounts of nine million benefit claimants under continuous surveillance, while retaining the right to monitor the accounts of 22.4 million people on any kind of state benefit – including child benefit and the state pension. In other words, all of us at some point in our lives.
Dangers and implications of the bill
On 29 November 2023, debating on the new data protection bill in the House of Commons, Sir Stephen Timms said:
“… new clause 34 will give the government the right to inspect the bank account of anyone who claims a state pension, which is all of us. It will give the government the right to look into the bank account of every single one of us at some point during our lives, without suspecting that we have ever done anything wrong, and without telling us that they are doing it.”
He spoke of the dangers and implications of the bill, but what was unsaid is that tax-dodgers and wealthy people’s bank accounts will remain unscrutinised.
Draconian new powers
Using powers under the bill, the DWP will begin continuous surveillance of the bank accounts of claimants of pension credit, universal credit, employment and support allowances. People could have their accounts monitored without cause, a court order or their knowledge.
Currently, the DWP may only request access to people’s bank records on a case-by-case basis, if there is evidence to suspect fraud – like other criminal investigations. But this new law gives them access to any claimants’ bank account details without cause – while the accounts of tax-dodgers, bankers, money launderers and politicians go unmonitored.
Potential for disaster
These new powers could also be used to penalise benefit claimants automatically – there are no legal caveats to suggest otherwise. This is a recipe for disaster – especially given the Post Office scandal, in which IT system glitches ruined innocent lives, causing distress, trials, imprisonments and the deaths of people wrongly accused of fraud.
And once our private information is in the hands of the government, we cannot assume it will be safe. The Foreign Office was recently hacked over several months by suspected Russian and Chinese agents.
The DWP and the Home Office seem to be competing to see which government department can be the cruellest. It’s hard to call, but the DWP has form with targeting the poorest and most vulnerable in society, as shown by investigative media reports and the high number of discrimination cases they have lost.
A BBC Panorama Investigation found that between 2016 and 2019, the DWP lost more disability discrimination cases at employment tribunals than any other public or private sector employer in Britain and paid out almost £1mn in discrimination cases to former employees with disabilities. Basically, the DWP lost one in eight disability discrimination cases that its own employees brought.
DWP’s record shows little respect for employees and claimants
In one case, the Department for Work and Pensions paid £400,000 to a former employee, a victim of racism and ageism. What message does this send, if a government department can’t respect its own workforce, and demonises and discredits one of its own staff who had asked for support? In 2020, the DWP said it was “shocked” at these findings and was reviewing processes.
The DWP’s track record with vulnerable claimants is even worse – from its refusal to make reasonable adjustments to a blind individual, to its repeated cruelty to and sanctions against vulnerable people who have the audacity to make benefit claims.
The fatal flaws still exist
According to Disability Rights UK, deaths due to DWP flaws are still high. People are still dying of hunger and suicide while the DWP doubts, accuses and sanctions them, while making it incredibly difficult for people to access the welfare payments and claim benefits to which they are genuinely entitled. The system is not only flawed – it is downright dangerous. Giving the DWP more power, by law, makes no sense.
Looking into claimants’ accounts is not only undemocratic – it demonises the poor and marks a slippery slope into an Orwellian UK. It also sets a dangerous precedent that could result in a tidal wave of other acts of huge government intrusion.
Government cannot be trusted with our data
Spying against UK citizens has already been sanctioned by this government – with army surveillance under the guise of ensuring Covid-19 compliance. This showed unprecedented governmental overreach and tyranny. The so-called ‘Counter Disinformation Unit’was found to have effectively spied on people: monitoring the free press, elected politicians and ordinary UK citizens who questioned the government’s confusing and often ridiculous Covid-19 policies for the best part of two years. Giving government departments more power to snoop on innocent citizens, particularly the most disadvantaged of us, seems a very dangerous idea.
Freedom from surveillance only for those truly abusing the system
We are supposed to live in a democratic country, but this bill could be straight out of the dictators’ playbook: another way to scapegoat the poor and vulnerable, while real frauds go unchecked.
We need less government interference. We want a free press and a democratic small state, not more government intrusion. This bill targets the ordinary person for unwanted and unnecessary scrutiny while ignoring the biggest frauds in society. We want the basic human rights of safety and confidentiality, without worrying that our government is pushing us into an Orwellian dystopia.