The government is planning to spy on Universal Credit claimant bank accounts in a “Big Brother”-style scheme to root out fraud, according to reports.
The Daily Mirror says that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is proposing new laws “to snoop” on banking data in order to enforce the cap on savings for claiming the payments and reduce fraudulent claims. People are currently banned from claiming Universal Credit if they or their partner have more than £16,000 in the bank, and payments are reduced for claimants with £6,000 or above.
But DWP officials told the Commons Work and Pensions Committee yesterday that enforcing the cap is one of the “biggest challenges” facing the department and that losses are “higher than we anticipated”, with undeclared or unnoticed savings accounted for almost a third of Universal Credit overpayments in 2019-20.
The issue has become a “flashpoint” during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the number of Universal Credit claimants doubling to six million this year, says the newspaper.
DWP Permanent Secretary Peter Schofield told MPs that officials trying to make it easier for claimants to declare savings, “putting the onus on them”. But the department is also lobbying for legislation that paves the way to obtain “bulk” bank account data.
John Paul Marks, the DWP’s director general for work and health services, told the committee that having access to more data from banks would be “fabulous”. A “real-time information type system” would mean that “every time you declare you don’t have capital, we could see whether or not you actually did”, he said.
The plan has been met with opposition, however. Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, who sits on the committee, described the proposal as “very worrying”.
She said: “The government having access to social security claimants’ bank accounts smacks of a Big Brother state. Where could this lead, I wonder?”