DWP: 200,000 people wrongly investigated for housing fraud

The DWP has come under fire for potentially flagging 200,000 people for possible housing benefit fraud when they should not have because of a dodgy algorithm
-Credit: (Image: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire)

More than 200,000 people have wrongly come under investigation for possible housing benefit fraud because of a DWP algorithm. As revealed by The Guardian, thousands of people in the UK have faced a probe from the Department for Work and Pension when they should not have.

A Freedom of Information investigation by the newspaper showed that two-thirds of claims flagged as potentially high risk by the DWP algorithm over the last three years were in fact legitimate. The findings also mean that not only have people been flagged as high risk when they should not have but £4.4m was spent on officials carrying out checks that did not save any money.

The figures were obtained by Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties and privacy campaign group, which said: “DWP’s overreliance on new technologies puts the rights of people who are often already disadvantaged, marginalised and vulnerable in the backseat.”

Read next: Murder probe after Westcountry tourist dies at holiday park

Read next: Nigel Farage to hold 'mass meeting' at Trago Mills

Susannah Copson, a legal and policy officer at the organisation, told the Guardian there were real "concerns over DWP’s relentless pursuit of privacy-invading tech", adding: "This is yet another example of DWP focusing on the prospect of algorithm-led fraud detection that seriously underperforms in practice. In reality, DWP’s overreliance on new technologies puts the rights of people who are often already disadvantaged, marginalised and vulnerable in the backseat."

As revealed by the Guardian's investigation the technology used by the DWP looked at claimants’ personal characteristics including age, gender, number of children and the kind of tenancy agreement they have.

Once the automated system flags a housing benefit claim as potentially fraudulent or erroneous, council staff are tasked with reviewing and validating whether claim details are correct, which involves seeking evidence from claimants over the phone or digitally. They must identify changes of circumstances and potentially recalculate claimants’ housing benefit awards.

The DWP decided to deploy the automated tool, which does not use artificial intelligence or machine-learning, after a pilot that showed 64% of cases flagged as high risk by the DWP model were indeed receiving the wrong benefit entitlement.

But outcomes of subsequent case reviews that claimants later faced revealed far less fraud and error. Only 37% of suspicious cases were wrong in 2020-21, 34% in 2021-22 and 37% in 2022-23. This is almost half as effective as the prediction.

The DWP did not reply to a demand for a comment from the Guardian stating that it was unable to comment during purdah, that is the pre-election period.