Case update: DWP boss admits there is bias in algorithm targeting disabled people for benefit fraud investigations

Area of work: Challenging unfair algorithms

Tagged with: disabled people, DWP, UK

Since the drama ‘Mr Bates vs the Post Office’ about the Horizon scandal was broadcast last month, there has been a lot of renewed public concern about the effects of technology being used to punish vulnerable people unfairly.

This is good – and long overdue! But sadly, new technology punishing people who rely on it to be fair and accurate is something Foxglove has been working on since we got started, for example, when we exposed how the government’s algorithm for grading A Levels during the pandemic was wrongly marking down students from disadvantaged schools

We’ve also been working on a case, alongside our partners the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, challenging the Department for Work and Pensions about an algorithm that unfairly targets disable people for invasive and painful benefit fraud investigations.

If you’ve seen the ITV Horizon drama, you’ll be familiar with scared people, trapped in endless phone loops with uncaring operators telling them: “no-one else has reported a problem, the technology is never wrong – this is your fault.”

Tragically, this experience of being targeted, gaslit and treated like a criminal is one that many disabled people will be able to painfully recognise, including members of the GMCDP.

We’ve not been able to say much about this case recently. However, recent comments made by DWP bosses to parliament have changed things.

At an evidence session of the Works and Pensions select committee in January, the DWP’s ‘Change and Resilience Director General’ Neil Couling was quizzed by Peter Grant MP about bias in the “machine or algorithm” used to select claimants for benefit fraud investigations:

Couling responded: “The systems do have biases in.” The is the first time the DWP has admitted on record that the algorithm they used to flag claims for benefit fraud is biased. 

But Couling wasn’t done. He went on: “the issue is whether they are biases that are not allowed in the law, because you have to bias to catch fraudsters.”

This is an astonishing admission. Not only do the DWP’s systems contain bias – but it is, as they say: ‘not a bug but a feature’.

In plain English: the DWP has told MPs that in its system that targets disabled people for benefit fraud probes, it is necessary for the system to be biased. 

That’s a shocking revelation – so we’re writing to government to ask them to urgently explain Couling’s comments and to stop the algorithm from targeting one more disabled person unfairly before they have done a robust review to make sure all bias is eradicated from the system.

We’ll keep you updated on what they say. If they refuse to explain – in full – how the algorithm works, and provide convincing evidence that disabled people aren’t being wrongly targeted, we are prepared to see them in court.

To stay up to speed with all the updates on this case as they come in, hit the button below: