21 February 2005
The DWP is continuing secretive, undocumented, investigations into the use of Voice Risk Analysis (VRA), a telephone based lie detection system originally developed for the Israeli security services, Benefits and Work can exclusively reveal. Nor will the Department rule out its introduction for use on benefits claimants, saying only that they have no plans to do so “at this stage”.
Meanwhile, Ron Aldridge, Executive Chairman of Capita Group Plc has claimed that the recent acquisition of the exclusive right to use VRA with public sector clients represents “a significant opportunity” for the company. Amongst Capita’s public sector clients is the DWP, with whom they have a range of contracts, including the provision of support for fraud officers.
Need some protection, guv?
Telephone lie detectors like VRA work by detecting changes in the voice brought about by the stress of telling a lie. Insurance companies claim to have had considerable success in pressuring people to withdraw what they believe to be fraudulent claims as result of employing VRA.
Using the Freedom of information Act, Benefits and Work put a number of questions and request for documents to the DWP relating to its investigations of such systems. As a result, we can reveal that the Programme Protection Division (PPD) of Jobcentre Plus, whose role is to tackle fraud and error throughout the DWP, is still examining the use of lie detectors. According to Jim Storrie, Corporate Services Officer at the DWP, they are “in the early stages of conducting preliminary investigations into how voice stress analysis is currently used in the private sector.”
A “preliminary investigation” into how the software is used in the private sector sounds, perhaps deliberately, innocuous. The reality, however, is that the DWP can only be looking into this system because they are considering using it on claimants. In addition, the fact that they regard the investigations as being in their “early stages” suggest that the DWP has in mind a lengthy and detailed examination of its use.
Tellingly, Jim Storrie does not rule out inflicting lie detectors on claimants, stating only that “The DWP have no plans for introducing this technology at this stage."
It’s also worth noting that the DWP’s interest in lie detectors didn’t result from a speculative approach by a private sector company looking for new contacts. On the contrary, it was the DWP who approached the distributors of VRA software, Digilog – who probably couldn’t believe their luck – after conducting a search for this type of technology on the internet.
This message will self-destruct in . . .
The DWP are prepared to admit that the Programme Protection Division has “had discussions and met with representatives of Digilog”. Astonishingly, however, the DWP claim that not a single record of these discussions and meetings, or of the DWP’s investigations into VRA as a whole, exists anywhere. The DWP claim that their contacts with Digilog “were arranged by telephone” and, that “There is no specific documentation in the DWP that refers to the use of VSA.”
These are claims that should set alarm bells ringing about the relationship between the DWP and private sector companies. The DWP is currently spending around a billion pounds a year of taxpayers’ money on the services of often extremely expensive private sector consultants, with much of this cash going on software development. It would be reasonable to expect there to be very tight systems in place governing the relationships between civil servants and private contractors looking to make handsome profits. That meetings between the two sides, which could eventually lead to large amounts of taxpayers money being spent, can take place without a single record being kept is nothing short of astonishing.
It is obviously vital, in order to ensure that there is no possibility of inappropriate - or even fraudulent - spending of taxpayers money that careful records are kept of meetings, that there is a culture of complete openness and a that clear separation is kept between the public and private sectors. Benefits and Work is now seeking information about whether any guidelines exist for such meetings and, if so, whether they have been adhered to.
We don’t yet know on what dates contacts between the DWP and Digilog took place. What we do know, however, is that, in November 2004 Capita Group Plc bought Brownsword Ltd, an insurance claims investigation service, in a multi-million pound deal. As part of the deal, Capita received an exclusive 10 year licence to use Digilog’s Advanced Validation Solutions system – which includes VRA – within the insurance industry. At the same time Capita also acquired an exclusive licence from Digilog to use the systems in the public sector in the UK. In other words, if a government department such as the DWP wishes to use Voice Risk Analysis software, they will have to hand over cash to Capita.
Ron Aldridge, Executive Chairman of Capita, expressed his delight at the acquisition, explaining that “This represents a significant opportunity for us as we do not currently use this software and associated techniques in the public sector and we wish to explore with our clients the application of this powerful solution to support entitlement and anti-fraud programmes further.”
One of Capita’s many public sector clients is the DWP, with whom they have a wide range of contracts, including one for transcribing notes for Fraud Officers who have carried out interviews under caution with claimants.
There are two deeply disturbing aspects to this story. The first is that the DWP are continuing to look at the possibility of using lie detectors on claimants, particularly at a time when they are switching to carrying out more and more work by using a combination of IT and telephone systems. It isn’t hard to see how such technology could be used on claimants when quizzing them about their health problems in relation to Disability Living Allowance and Incapacity Benefit. The distress this might cause to already increasingly stigmatised benefits claimants can also easily be imagined.
The second is that no records appear to be being kept of the DWP’s investigations into lie detectors or of their contacts with the private sector in regard to what could be a very lucrative area of private sector involvement. It is alarming that the Programme Protection Division, whose role is to protect taxpayers money, seems to take such a relaxed attitude towards keeping records of its own activities.
On 18 February the DWP announced the appointment of Dr Bill Gunnyeon as Chief Medical Adviser, Medical Director and Chief Scientist to the Department for Work and Pensions. According to Richard Mottram, Permanent Secretary at the DWP:
"Dr Gunnyeon will be taking on an exciting and challenging welfare reform agenda which will be delivered at the same time as a wholesale modernisation of all our businesses and IT systems."
In order to take up the post, Dr Gunnyeon will be giving up his current position . . . as Medical Director of Capita Health Solutions.