Voice risk analysis makes claiming benefits more stressful

Before the results of the pilots are released, voice analysis technology is being introduced into even more councils, writes Gary Vaux (pictured)

The Department for Work and Pensions has announced that it is pushing ahead with the introduction of voice risk analysis (VRA) in another 15 local authority housing benefit teams. But VRA is not a lie detector it’s simply a machine that measures changes in a person’s voice patterns, indicating “stress”. That in turn alerts the benefit official to probe deeper into the claim.

When used on President Clinton’s famous “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” statement, a VRA machine recorded a “high risk” reading.

It’s already used by some insurance companies (Esure, Halifax and Provident among others) and no one condones benefit fraud so it must therefore be a good thing, right? Well – maybe not.

The advice sector is concerned that VRA is being trialled despite there being little evidence so far as to its effectiveness in comparison with more traditional methods of fraud detection. The research into its impact in the first seven local authorities to use it isn’t even due to be finished until August.

We also don’t know what effect it will have on genuine claimants – the “if they’re honest, they’ve nothing to worry about” line of argument misses the point. The fact that every call and every claimant may ultimately have to be screened in this way, with the assumption that you might be accused of being fraudulent on the say-so of suspect technology is enough to deter many genuine claimants. This is especially true of those who find claiming benefits stressful enough already.

There has also been no disability impact assessment so far either. As Andy Rickell, executive director of Scope, said: “We would want assurances that this software gives accurate results when used for people withcommunication impairments, mental health conditions and learning difficulties and we would also like to see a disability impact assessment carried out to make sure this software does not disproportionately disadvantage disabled people.”

In fact, the use of VRA in the insurance world is far from universal. “Use is down to individual insurers’ discretion,” said an Association of British Insurers spokesperson in an article in the Observer in January. “We say, and this is echoed by the few insurers that use it, that it has to come with a lot of caveats. No insurers are going to rely on it solely because it measures irregularities and stress patterns – and when you claim, you have a certain degree of stress anyway.”

Several major insurers also remain unconvinced. Sun Alliance piloted the system extensively and decided there were “not sufficient additional benefits”. Norwich Union was similarly unimpressed, saying “we don’t perceive that it delivers anything beyond the existing methods we have in place”.

Incidentally, the technology was originally used in Israel for security purposes, including border control. Measuring stress in a war zone might have a different flavour to measuring stress in someone making a housing benefit claim.

Despite these concerns, the DWP announced the extension of VRA as a major anti-fraud measure (“this cutting edge technology can be used to stop criminals and is a unique weapon in the fight against benefit fraud”, according to minister James Plaskitt).

But it’s not being used by Revenue and Customs to verify tax returns and it’s not being used at the House of Commons to check MP’s expenses claims so it seems only certain sections of society are being targeted – and the equating of benefit claimant with benefit fraudster will once again deter valid claims from being made.

Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a question e-mail http://www.communitycare.co.uk/maiklto:natalie.valios@rbi.co.uk

This article appeared in the 22 May issue under the headline “Controversial technology risks harming genuine claimants”

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