Three things you should know about benefit fraud ‘lie detector’ tests

Why are local authorities permitted to squander taxpayers' money on something that appears to be about as effective as homeopathy?

As reported in the Guardian today, more than 20 councils have used or plan to use controversial ‘voice risk analysis’ (VRA) lie detector tests to catch fraudulent benefits claimants.

Responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by the campaign group False Economy, 24 out of 200 local authorities confirmed that they had used or were considering using voice risk analysis (VRA) software, which its makers claim can identify fraudulent benefit claimants by identifying signs of stress over the phone.

The government has previously rejected the software, but according to the figures released today many councils continue to use the software.

So just what is VRA software, and should you be worried by the fact that councils continue to use it in an attempt to crack down on fraud?

1. The Department of Work and Pensions’ own analysis found the software ‘unreliable’

After spending £2.16m on trials to assess whether the technology really could identify people suspected of benefit fraud, a Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) analysis concluded that the system was “not very good value for money”.

Nine local authorities piloted the lie detector test on telephone calls with new benefit claiments. Of the 12 local authorities who used VRA to spot cheats during benefit reviews, just one considered it a success.

During the study, Jobcentre staff also concluded that VRA was “not suitable for claimants who may be vulnerable because of age, learning disabilities or mental health problems”. Worryingly however, staff found during the study that they could “not always guarantee that vulnerable claimants avoided the VRA process”.

2 There is no evidence that VRA actually works at all

Back in 2007, Swedish researchers Anders Eriksson and Francisco Lacerda published an analysis of VRA in the International Journal of Speech, Language and Law. They found no scientific evidence to support the claims about the device made by the manufacturer.

Commenting on the study, Eriksson and Lacerda VRA said that VRA “does nothing” and was “at the astrology end of the validity spectrum”.

“That is the short answer. There’s no scientific basis for this method. From the output it generates this analysis is closer to astrology than science. There was very good work done by the DWP in the UK showing it did not work, so I am surprised,” he added.

3. Councils are spending millions of pounds on something which has zero evidence behind it

Councils are spending millions of pounds on VRA technology despite there being very little evidence that it actually works. Tory-controlled Derbyshire Dales had a contract worth £280,000 with Capita to use the technology for a county-wide review of council tax in 2011. The same company was paid £2.5m by Labour-run Southwark over three years to assist in determining whether residents were eligible for council tax discounts.

In conclusion, you should be very worried by the continued use of VRA software. The government has said that local authorities are “free to design their own approaches to preventing benefit fraud”.

The question is: why are local authorities permitted to squander taxpayers’ money on something that appears to be about as useless as homeopathy in remedying the problem it is supposed to solve?

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