People with disabilities are subjected to stressful checks and months of frustrating bureaucracy after being identified as potential benefit fraudsters by an algorithm the government refuses to disclose, according to a new court challenge.
A group in Manchester launched the action after collecting testimonies from people with disabilities in the region that they were being disproportionately targeted for benefit fraud investigations. Some said they were living in “fear of the brown envelope” showing that their case was under investigation. Others said they received a phone call, without explaining why they were reported.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has previously conceded that it was using “cutting edge artificial intelligence” to track possible fraud, but has so far rejected attempts to explain how the algorithm behind the system has been compiled. Campaigners say that once reported, those examined can face an invasive and humiliating investigation that can last for up to a year.
A legal letter has been sent to the DWP demanding details of the automated process that triggers the investigations. The Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP), which sent the letter with the help of campaign group Foxglove, said a “huge percentage” of the group had been affected by the system. The group believes that the government has a legal obligation to be transparent about how the algorithm works.
Concerns were expressed by the charity Privacy International, which for the first time found references in a DWP report to its use “of cutting edge artificial intelligence to crack down on organized criminal gangs committing large-scale fraud. social benefits â. A 2019 UN report on the “digital welfare state” said algorithms were “highly likely” to repeat biases reflected in existing data and make them even worse. He added: âIntrinsic forms of discrimination can seriously undermine the right to social protection of key groups and individuals.
The government has until Friday to respond to the legal letter.
“We are tired of the fear of the brown envelope and tired of being repeatedly coerced by DWP officials just to justify who we are,” said Rick Burgess of the GMCDP. âIt’s time for the DWP to make it clear how this algorithm works and why so many people with disabilities are being flagged for investigation. People with disabilities need support – not to be crushed by a brutal system that assumes we are fraudulent until our innocence is proven. “
Foxglove said, âThe DWP algorithm seems to be sending poor and disabled people to the call center from hell. The DWP needs to explain exactly how their algorithm works and what is being done to eliminate bias – or get sued. “
Officials stressed that specialist staff were involved in all cases of fraud and alleged error and that support was offered to those who needed it. A DWP spokesperson said: âThe DWP will respond to the letter written by representatives of the GMCDP in due course. “