‘Another Horizon’ – MPs table motion against DWP bank-monitoring proposals

A group of 29 MPs – including independents and representatives of six parties – has claimed that the new laws would be a ‘huge infringement on an individual’s right to financial privacy’

A group of almost 30 MPs has tabled a parliamentary motion warning that a proposal to grant new legal powers for government to monitor the bank accounts of millions of citizens “risks creating a Post Office Horizon-style scandal”.

Supported by five other Labour member acting as sponsors, Leeds East MP Richard Burgon last week introduced to parliament an early-day motion related to ‘Government surveillance of bank accounts’.

The surveillance in question is set to be enabled by proposed changes to the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill which would require UK banks and building societies to proactively provide information on account holders to the Department for Work and Pensions. Currently, the DWP can only undertake checks of account data for a named individual already under suspicion of fraud.

The motion states “that this house is deeply alarmed by new powers contained within the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill that would allow the Government to engage in the mass surveillance of tens of millions of people’s bank accounts”.

It goes on to claim that the legal update “would force banks to spy on the 23 million individuals in the welfare system, including those who are disabled, sick, caregivers, jobseekers and pensioners, as well as on the private banking data of people related to them including partners, parents, landlords and other associates”.

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The 29 MPs also say that the new surveillance regime “will be reliant on systems using artificial intelligence to monitor the accounts” of benefit recipients – something which “risks creating a Post Office Horizon-style scandal”.

“[This house] believes that this is a huge infringement on an individual’s right to financial privacy and violates the principle of a presumption of innocence that people should not be spied on unless the police suspect wrongdoing,” the motion adds. “[It] rejects the idea of treating the disabled, sick, carers or those looking for work as criminals by default; further believes that the government already has significant powers to review the bank statements of fraud suspects under existing laws; and calls on the government to remove these powers from the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill.”

A total of 16 Labour MPs have signed the motion, as well as members from Liberal Democrats, Green Party, Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, and the Democratic Unionist Party.

Supporters also include four MPs who, having their party whip removed, now sit in parliament as independent. This group includes former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and ex-shadow home secretary Diane Abbott. Several other former shadow cabinet members – including John McDonnell, Clive Lewis, and Jon Trickett – have also undersigned the motion.

Early day motions are primarily intended to raise awareness of an issue and are rarely debated in parliament.

The MPs’ stand against the proposed government powers comes in light of claims made by civil society groups that the measures are “likely unlawful” and would breach citizens’ legally enshrined rights to privacy.

First unveiled in November, PublicTechnology reported that the legislative changes are forecast to result in about 7,400 benefit fraud prosecutions per year over the coming years – about a third of which will require legal aid support, and 250 of which are expected to result in custodial sentences. Over the past three years, an average of fewer than 400 prosecutions were brought annually – meaning that the new powers are expected to result in a near-twentyfold increase, according to government’s formal impact assessment.

The assessment also revealed that government plans to test the data-sharing regime with two – unspecified – banks or building societies next year, with a full-scale rollout across all institutions from 2030 onwards.

Government indicated that this will encompass all of the 15 banks and building societies that, collectively, receive 97% of all benefit payments. This includes: Bank of Scotland; Barclays; Halifax; HSBC; Lloyds; Metro Bank; Monzo; NatWest; Nationwide; Santander; Starling; The Co-Op; Royal Bank of Scotland; TSB; and Yorkshire Bank.

Sam Trendall

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