DWP will look at two specific things when carrying out benefits investigations

A man with a magnifying glass looking at a document
The DWP has explained what it will look for during investigations -Credit:Getty Images

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has outlined two primary factors they will scrutinise when bestowed with new powers to inspect bank accounts in benefits investigations. According to the DWP, the aim is to minimise the instances of fraud, debt, and errors in the benefits system through these powers.

Under this plan referred to as "Third Party Data Gathering" investigators will have the ability to examine a claimant's bank records and other "data sharing" authorities. The DWP will rely on third parties like banks to provide crucial information that could indicate a claimant fails to meet the eligibility criteria for the benefit they receive, such as possessing excessive savings.

Existing Universal Credit rules exclude those with more than £16,000 in funds, savings, and investments, a limit which the DWP emphasises will remain their "main priority". They will also oversee if recipients reside abroad longer than permitted by regulations.

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An amendment to the current bill now journeying to the House of Lords mandates banks to monitor customers receiving these benefits and report to the DWP if an account exceeds the capital threshold or is used overseas past four weeks, reports Wales Online.

The DWP has moved to reassure the public that new measures will only provide "limited and relevant" information to detect improper benefit payments, without allowing access to individuals' bank accounts or monitoring spending habits. Previously, the DWP announced plans to oversee transactions from the UK's leading 15 banks, covering 97% of benefit claimants' accounts, including major names such as the Bank of Scotland, Barclays, Halifax, HSBC, NatWest, Santander, and TSB.

The DWP has clarified that each case flagged will undergo standard investigation procedures, with no automatic penalties. In a recent assessment document, the department confirmed that decisions would not be made solely on data, emphasising the importance of considering claimants' potential vulnerabilities and ensuring responsible use of automation.

The document stated: "[This] measure can potentially include vulnerable people, [and] these areas will be explored further in the equality impact assessment. We are clear, however, that no automatic decisions will be made based on data alone, and DWP staff will follow the usual business processes when looking into any cases, taking account of circumstances and wider vulnerabilities before deciding on a course of action."

Despite these assurances, campaign groups continue to express concern, criticising the DWP for seemingly treating means-tested benefit recipients as "criminal by default".

Silkie Carlo, director for Big Brother Watch, expressed her concerns: "Such proposals do away with the long-standing democratic principle in Britain that state surveillance should follow suspicion rather than vice versa. It would be dangerous for everyone if the government reverses this presumption of innocence. This level of financial intrusion and monitoring affecting millions of people is highly likely to result in serious mistakes and sets an incredibly dangerous precedent."

A spokesperson for DWP reassured that these measures are aimed at areas where fraud and error are most prevalent, such as Universal Credit, and clarified: "These changes will not allow DWP direct access to bank accounts, but will require third parties to share data signalling fraud with us so it can be considered further. It will also help identify people who have made a genuine mistake with their claim, preventing them from potential debts."

The plans were initially introduced in the 2022 policy paper on "Fighting Fraud in the Welfare System".

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