DWP amends personal data guidance to reflect use of ‘automated processing in some decision making’

The department updates policies to include explicit reference to use of automated tools in decision making – but indicates that humans always have final say if benefit applications are denied

The Department for Work and Pensions has amended its personal data policies to provide – a small amount of – extra detail concerning its use of automated systems in supporting decision-making, while removing references to citizens’ right of appeal.

The DWP recently updated its online personal information charter – a department-wide document, also known as the privacy policy, that sets out publicly the rules and practices that represent “how and why we use your personal information and your rights and responsibilities”.

The latest changes to the guidance are entirely contained within the section headed ‘Automated decision making’, which has been completely rewritten.

Unlike the previous version, the updated section explicitly states that the department does make use of “automated processing in some decision making” and provides for the possibility that some decisions could be made entirely via automation – where “the law allows this”. The changes also include the removal of references to “meaningful input from staff” and “review or appeal options” for benefit claimants.

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The updated version reads: “DWP uses automated processing in some decision making to help us deliver efficient services. DWP will not make any decision based solely on automated processing which has a significant effect on you unless the law allows this. You have rights relating to this type of decision. We will tell you more about this if we make any such decision.”

The previous version read: “Most of the decisions DWP makes that have a substantial effect on you – for example whether or not you are entitled to a benefit – are made with meaningful input from staff. Review or appeal options are built in to all DWP benefit processes, even where this is not specifically required by data protection laws. DWP is developing new digital services all the time. If any new services involve automated decision-making, we will tell you about this when the decision is made.”

The DWP declined to comment for this story, but indicated that individuals retain exactly the same rights of review and appeal for all its services and decision – despite the removal of the explicit reference to these rights in the charter.

The department also pointed PublicTechnology towards an unchanged section of the

policy that states: “DWP does not use AI to replace human judgement to determine or deny a payment to a claimant. A final decision in these circumstances always involves a human agent.”

The DWP has faced criticism for its deployment of algorithms in helping to detect fraud in claims for Universal Credit advances. Civil society groups such as the Public Law Project have raised concerns about the potential for bias, claiming there is currently a “lack of a transparency and accountability” in the department’s use of automation – which is set to be significantly increased in the coming years.

The DWP’s recently published accounts revealed plans to invest £70m between now and 2025 in expanding its use of algorithms and analytics to help tackle benefit fraud.

Sam Trendall

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