DPDI Bill: New ‘welfare surveillance’ proposals target vulnerable people

The UK government is proposing to give the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) powers to force financial institutions to hand over personal information belonging to people who claim benefits from the state. The plans have been presented as an amendment to the Data Protection and Digital Information (DPDI) Bill, which returns to the House of Commons for its third reading and report stage on Wednesday 29 November.

The proposals will remove safeguards and accountability for requesting financial data from institutions, meaning that DWP would be allowed to bypass the safeguards enshrined in UK data protection law and gain access to UK residents’ bank accounts arbitrarily. ORG believes that this data could easily be misinterpreted and benefits sanctions incorrectly imposed.

Migrants, refugees, and people who are disabled, sick, or in need of care, may encounter additional challenges when navigating the welfare system. This policy treats these vulnerable populations as potential criminals rather than individuals in need of support.

ORG’s Policy Manager Mariano delli Santi commented:

“These proposals could see people’s private banking information being shared with DWP. Welfare surveillance further stigmatises people who receive benefits, many of whom already face discrimination and negative stereotyping.

“It could lead to some of the most vulnerable people facing unjust accusations of fraud, and potentially having their benefits removed and their lives destroyed.

“This is not just a hypothetical risk. In 2021 the Dutch government resigned amid an escalating scandal over child benefits in which more than 20,000 families were wrongly accused of fraud by the tax authority.”

Netherlands benefits scandal

The Netherlands benefits scandal saw thousands of people being unjustly accused of fraud and have their benefits incorrectly withdrawn after errors involving data sharing and automated decision making. If passed, it is possible that DWP could see itself embroiled in a similar scandal where benefits have been unfairly revoked and individuals wrongly convicted of fraud.

Impact on migrants and refugees

Refugees, who may have endured years of waiting without the right to work or access to public funds, often rely on benefits to embark on their new lives. Subjecting refugees, to continuous scrutiny of their bank accounts poses a risk of discriminatory behaviour, potentially triggering red flags on their accounts without valid reasons.

For example, red flags that are triggered in the context of transferring money overseas, could disproportionately affect migrants and refugees engaged in international transactions for legitimate reasons, such as sending money to family members abroad. This may result in unwarranted suspicion and discrimination based on financial activities that are entirely legal.

The fear of constant surveillance and potential errors in the welfare system may also deter eligible migrants and refugees from accessing the support they require. This could lead to increased poverty, homelessness, and other adverse outcomes.

Insufficient time for scrutiny

The amendment is just one of hundreds of new additions to the DPDI Bill, which MPs are expected to discuss tomorrow. delli Santi added:

“The government has added hundreds of amendments, making it almost impossible for MPs to scrutinise these proposals properly even though many of them could seriously impact the constituents they serve. The Bill could also lead to the UK adequacy decision being revoked, something that would cost 1.2 billion pounds to UK businesses in legal fees alone.

We urge the government to allow our parliamentarians sufficient time to do their duty and assess the impact of these proposals.”

Briefing on the DPDI Bill

Read ORG’s latest briefing on the key issues with the Bill.

Find out more

Notes to editor:

The DPDI Bill, which will replace the UK GDPR, is a problematic piece of legislation, which will remove some of the powers that individuals have over their data and hand them to government departments and corporations.

The UK adequacy decision was adopted by the European Commission in 2021 and allows the free flow of personal data to and from the EU. Conservative estimates found that the loss of the adequacy agreement would cost UK businesses 1 to 1.6 billion pounds in legal fees alone, not including the cost resulting from disruption of digital trade, investments, and the relocation of UK businesses to the EU.