DWP snooping powers ‘are cruel, dangerous and illegal’

Parliament_11The Government’s controversial plan to allow the Department for Work & Pensions to access benefits claimants’ bank accounts – included as one of the hundreds of last-minute amendments to the data reforms bill – has been branded cruel, dangerous, disproportionate and illegal.

Privacy group Big Brother Watch says it has commissioned legal advice from barristers Dan Squires KC and Aidan Wills of Matrix Chamber, and that, if passed, it would amount to “an unprecedented regime of intrusive generalised financial surveillance across the population, not restricted to serious crime at all”.

It also raised questions about the levels of legal safeguarding and oversight in the new powers and, “in the absence of these safeguards, it is difficult to see how the exercise of this power could ever be in accordance with the law”.

The plan is due to be debated in the House of Lords this week as part of the committee stage of the bill. Big Brother Watch said that amendments have been tabled to remove the new powers.

Silkie Carlo, the organisation’s director of civil liberties, said: “These powers are a disaster for financial privacy and the presumption of innocence, and could lead to Horizon style injustice on steroids. It is breathtaking that a Conservative government is so recklessly creating Big Brother-style spying powers to intrude on the population’s bank accounts.

“Everyone wants fraudulent uses of public money to be dealt with, and the Government already has powers to review the bank statements of suspects. However, this is a completely unprecedented regime of intrusive generalised financial surveillance across the population, not restricted to serious crime or even crime at all.

“The legal advice is clear that the bank spying powers seriously risk Britons’ privacy rights. We urge the government to go back to the drawing board and scrap these Orwellian powers.”

Baroness Kidron, former director of civil liberties group Liberty, described the powers as “cruel, dangerous and disproportionate” and that they are focused on poor people.

“Cruel,” she said, “because they put the most vulnerable in society in a situation where family, landlords and employers will withdraw support to protect their own ‘connected accounts’ which will be open for scrutiny.

“Dangerous, because we have seen how digital systems, such as Horizon, can easily provide false signals.

“Disproportionate, because the DWP has powers to get this information if they suspect wrongdoing. This is a phishing exercise at eyewatering scale, its presence in a data protection bill is contradictory to the bill’s stated purpose.”

In response, a DWP spokesperson said: “Big Brother Watch’s claims that DWP will use these measures to reveal information about people’s movements, opinions, and medical information are entirely false. The Government remains committed to these powers as a method of reducing fraud and error in the benefits system, which will save the taxpayer £600m over the next five years.

“These measures will require third parties to provide only limited, relevant information that may signal whether benefits are being improperly paid. It does not give DWP access to anyone’s bank account or see how claimants are spending their money.”

However, Information Commissioner John Edwards has also stepped into the row, amid concerns the proposals ride roughshod over consumers’ data protection rights. Back in January, he said: “While I agree that the measure is a legitimate aim for Government, given the level of fraud and overpayment cited, I have not yet seen sufficient evidence that the measure is proportionate.”

The move is the latest obstacle in the Lords struggle to complete the line-by-line scrutiny of the current version of the Bill, which contains the 240 last-minute amendments waved through on the third reading in the Commons in November.

Parliament has already added a further four days to the five days originally allotted to the Lords committee stage but whether this will be enough is a moot point.

Once the committee stage is complete, the Bill then goes to another report stage, which gives all members of the Lords a further opportunity to examine and make amendments. After that, the Bill will have its third reading in the Lords, and then pass back to the Commons for any amendments made by the second House to be considered.

Only when the exact wording has been agreed by the Commons and the Lords, is the Bill is ready for royal assent before becoming an Act of Parliament.

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