The government’s plans for unlimited surveillance on benefit claimants’ bank accounts should worry us all

Millions of individuals, landlords, charities, clubs, voluntary organisations and companies will become subject to 24/7 surveillance.


Prem Sikka is an Emeritus Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield, a Labour member of the House of Lords, and Contributing Editor at Left Foot Forward.

The UK government is taking statutory powers for unlimited snooping on bank and building society accounts connected with receipt of social security benefits and the state pension, even when there is no suspicion of fraud. This is the latest chapter in the right-wing coup that began in the 1980s.

Millions of individuals, landlords, charities, clubs, voluntary organisations and companies will become subject to 24/7 surveillance. No court order is needed and you won’t be told anything about the information extracted and how it is used or abused. There is no right of appeal.

The source of latest rush towards totalitarianism is the misleadingly titled Data Protection and Digital Information Bill. It has been passed by the House of Commons where the government used its big majority to stifle debate. It is now going through the House of Lords.

The attack on civil liberties is dressed up as a fraud prevention measure, but the government is unable to provide relevant data. The government claims that mass monitoring is needed to check benefit fraud, estimated to be around £6.4bn a year or 2.7% of the total benefit payments. Under the Social Security Fraud Act 2001, the government can request information from bank accounts on a case-by-case basis, if there are reasonable grounds to suspect fraud. This is being replaced by mass surveillance of bank accounts. A Minister told parliament that “proportionately fraud in the state pension is very low”, and was unable to provide any financial numbers but the government will place 12.7m retirees under surveillance.

The government claims that mass surveillance would reduce fraud by £600 million over the next five years though this somehow became  £500m during the debate in the Commons, i.e. £100m-£120m a year. To put this into context, during 2023-24, the government spent £1,189bn.

Financial institutions will be paid unspecified millions to conduct mass snooping and look for cash flow sources and patterns or the level of savings, and flag people exceeding thresholds for benefits. There is a danger that gifts to loved ones to buy clothes or a new bed could be counted as income, and result in loss of benefits. The inherent assumption in the Bill is that information generated by IT systems would be correct. The Post Office scandal shows that computer generated information isn’t necessarily correct, and can lead to injustices. Neither financial institutions nor the Department of Work and Pensions will owe a ‘duty of care’ to any injured party.

The Information Commissioner is unhappy and has stated that “the legislative measure must be drafted sufficiently tightly to expressly minimise the level of data collected and so that is clear what information will be processed and for what purpose. At this point in time, I do not feel that the drafting achieves this”.  Neither Clause 128 nor the accompanying Schedule 11 of the Bill provides the criteria for triggering, reporting, recording or scope of surveillance. Therefore, the government cannot easily be held to account. The Bill states that the government “may” (not “will”) issue a Code of Practice to regulate disclosure of information by banks and financial institutions. It will not be part of the Bill. In any case, voluntary codes rarely empower people to exercise rights and are often unenforceable in courts.

Surveillance will apply to all bank accounts held by eligible persons. Anyone connected with the account being monitored will become subject to surveillance. For example, many people’s housing benefit is paid directly to their landlord. In such cases, the landlord’s immediate bank account and all other business and personal accounts too will become subject to surveillance. The only way of escaping surveillance will be for the landlord to refuse to receive the housing benefit directly. Some landlords may refuse to rent accommodation to recipients of benefits.

If the benefit is paid into a joint bank account, then all accounts of the joint account holder will come under surveillance. If the benefit is paid into the account of a friend or a family member, all their bank accounts will become subject to surveillance. If anyone holds a power of attorney to operate a bank account, then all their bank accounts too will become subject to monitoring.

Some 38% of Universal Credit claimants are in work and may run a small business. That account too will become subject to surveillance. If a person receives state pension and is simultaneously a company director of a large or small company, then that company’s bank account will be monitored.

If the person under surveillance is a signatory to the bank account of a local bowling club or a line-dancing club, that too will become subject to surveillance. Many recipients of benefits voluntarily act as treasurers and trustees to small charities and are signatories to their bank accounts. Those charities too will become subject to surveillance. The only way of avoiding surveillance will be for people to withdraw from community roles.

Subjecting pensioners’ bank accounts to snooping is puzzling, as the state pension is not means-tested. Unlike most social security benefits it is taxable, paid on reaching a certain age and the amount depends on national insurance contributions for a number of years. The Minister was asked for explanation but failed to provide one. Perhaps, the government is preparing the ground for means-testing of the state pension.

Many retired people live abroad and have their pensions paid into foreign bank accounts in the US, Canada, Spain and elsewhere. The Minister was asked to explain how many foreign government and banks have agreed to permit the UK government to snoop on the bank accounts of their citizens. No satisfactory answer was received.

How many persons and bank accounts will be under surveillance? In 2023, some 22.6m people claimed benefits. The actual number of persons monitored will be much greater as it will include landlords, joint accountholders, SMEs, charities, local clubs and others. As each party under surveillance may have multiple bank accounts, the actual number of accounts under surveillance will be huge. Banks will need to trawl through millions of transactions to provide the necessary information to the government. The potential for errors is huge.

The Bill denies financial privacy to the old, sick, disabled, infirm, unfortunate and poor. It particularly discriminates against women. Women are in low-paid and insecure jobs and are forced to top-up their incomes with universal credit and other benefits. Majority of carers and retirees are women and they also receive targeted benefits such as pension credits or maternity pay. The Bill institutionalises discrimination on the basis of age and gender.

A legal opinion obtained by Big Brother Watch shows that the Bill violates Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights which states that “everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”. The Bill poses huge dangers to human rights. For example, through mass surveillance of bank accounts the government will be able to ascertain whether individuals have particular religious affiliations, or perhaps they belong to a trade union that the government disapproves of. Thus, the possibilities of persecutions will increase.

The government is camouflaging its attack on human rights by claiming that the Bill is about fraud detection and prevention. It is nothing of the sort. Any government serious about combating fraud would have authorised surveillance of the bank accounts of tax avoiders/evaders and money launderers. It would have taken powers to snoop on the bank accounts of accountants, lawyers and financial services experts who craft tax abuse schemes. It would have snooped on the bank accounts of companies who shift profits to low/no tax jurisdictions. It would have monitored the banks accounts of directors of companies who overcharge the government for defence contracts, NHS medicines and personal protective equipment contracts. But it does not do so. Instead, it is demonising the less well-off which will deter many people from claiming benefits that they are entitled to.

This Bill should concern everyone because no one will escape the mass surveillance unleashed by the government. We are all one serious illness or accident away from being incapacitated and reliant upon state benefits for survival. Most people expect to reach retirement age and receive state pension.  

This Bill is part of incessant attacks on human rights as the government aims to discipline the population through fear and produce docile citizens dedicated to advancing the interests of capital. Examples include The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 which has criminalised protests on the grounds that they are ‘too noisy’ and inconvenience others. The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021, empowers the government to use state and non-state actors to murder, rape and torture its own citizens “in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom” (Section 1 (5) (5c)). The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 enables employers to sack striking workers without any right of appeal.

Mass protests, written constitution guaranteeing human rights, and changes to the electoral system are needed more than ever before to check the loss of our rights.

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