DWP faces legal action over exposing ‘algorithms’ flagging claims of benefit fraud

Activists say people with disabilities are being unfairly targeted and living in ‘brown envelope fear’ thanks to mysterious computer processes the government has never fully explained

The Department for Work and Pensions has 28 days to respond to the final letter

The Department for Work and Pensions is facing new legal action to reveal what ‘algorithms’ it uses to flag allegations of benefit fraud.

The Greater Manchester Disability Coalition has sent a ‘pre-action letter’ asking ministers to ‘clean up’ techniques it says are throwing disabled claimants into crisis.

The campaign group says people with disabilities have had questions about their benefit claims through a phone call, email or ‘brown envelope’ in the mail without knowing why.

Sometimes they have essential cash “cut” at the start of investigations that can last more than a year, the group said.

GMCDP spokesman Rick Burgess said benefit claimants of all stripes are singled out, but campaigners believe the algorithm is “over-selecting people with disabilities for fraud investigations”.

He said in a meeting this evening: “You have no idea how you came to be investigated – none at all.

“It’s extremely upsetting when people understand that.”

Action threatened against Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey

He added: “We live in a shadow penal system that treats us like criminals for having to meet the same needs as everyone else. The fear of the brown envelope makes people with disabilities feel terrified, in a constant state of anxiety and on edge.

This is the second legal letter sent by the same group on the subject, the first due out before Christmas.

The DWP responded in December, but the group alleges the government has still not answered key questions about the technology it uses to report possible fraud.

The new legal letter – to which the DWP must respond within 28 days – challenges “the use of AI, algorithmic technology and other forms of automation” in benefit fraud investigations.

It states that the DWP uses “data matching” and “machine learning”, but other techniques may be used and the DWP is unclear as to what these are.

The letter says there is a “risk of bias” in the automated processing.

Disabled activists say they weren’t told about the processes that analyze their data


Getty Images/iStockphoto)

It requires the DWP to provide “detailed information” about its use of IT processes and put in place “adequate safeguards”.

Solicitor Will Perry, who is representing the lawsuit backed by ‘tech justice’ group Foxglove and Privacy International, said: ‘We are aware that a data matching algorithm is being used.

“The DWP seems to be experimenting with a wide range of different technologies.”

DWP Permanent Secretary Peter Schofield has previously insisted that computer systems “guide our work”, but “we take no action against anyone based on a machine”.

He added: “It always comes down to an individual.”

Universal Credit chief executive Neil Couling said last year, “It’s not an algorithm the way I think people can understand an algorithm.

“All we do is match the data,… We take what the RTI [earnings] the data tells us, and whether a person has reported income to us.

A DWP spokesperson said: “”The DWP will respond to the letter written by representatives of the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People in due course. “

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Sharon D. Cole