Voice risk analysis to be introduced into benefits offices

It looks like it’s open season on benefit claimants again. Hard on the heels of the news that housing benefit will be withdrawn from “antisocial” tenants, comes the revelation that lie detectors are to be used to identify “suspect” benefit claimants.

It’s a pity that the lie detectors aren’t being used on officials at the Department for Work and Pensions because when this development was reported in The Independent in December 2004, the DWP vehemently denied that there were any plans to introduce voice risk analysis (VRA) technology. Just over two years later, this technology was introduced this month at Harrow housing benefit office and will be rolled out to job centres later this year.

Telephone operators, trained in intelligent questioning and behavioural analysis, will use VRA technology to analyse changes in a caller’s voice, giving an indication of whether they are genuine.

At the beginning of each call, the characteristics of a claimant’s voice frequency are sampled with a selection of “easy” questions, in order to establish a benchmark. This is then used during the conversation as a guide for analysing changes in frequency caused by changes in emotions, which allegedly allows the technology to identify genuine callers.

If benefit staff, guided by the VRA technology, do assess the answers as suspicious then the caller may be asked to provide further evidence to support their claim. According to the DWP, it will improve the service for genuine claimants “as staff will be able to accurately validate a customer’s information during a phone conversation” – that seems to put a lot of trust into a machine.

Apparently, some insurance companies use this system already – others decided it was a waste of time, effort and money.

It also throws up some interesting legal questions, as effectively the housing benefit section or job centre may be asking for a higher standard of proof of entitlement for some claimants than others. This could be open to legal challenge, and the effectiveness of the VRA technology would be significant in any challenge.

What is interesting is that it is the DWP that is introducing it and not Revenue and Customs, which is responsible for tax. You don’t have to be an unreconstructed class warrior to ask why is it aimed only at benefit claimants and not tax accountants or City bankers submitting self-assessment tax forms?

Claimants are also singled out in the two-year pilot planned for housing benefit sanctions on antisocial tenants. In the intended pilot areas (Blackburn with Darwen, Blackpool, Dover, Manchester, New Forest, Newham, South Gloucestershire and Wirral) it is proposed that housing benefit sanctions will apply to those who have been evicted for antisocial behaviour and who refuse to improve their behaviour despite the support and help offered to them.

Lord McKenzie of Luton gave an assurance to parliament that the new sanctions were not intended to be widely used and that they would be judged to be a success if they were never applied as “that would suggest that the households involved would have engaged in rehabilitation”.

Let’s hope for his sake that his speech wasn’t subject to voice risk analysis.

If you have any questions for Gary Vaux, e-mail them to Graham Hopkins

This article appeared in the 31 May issue under the headline “When you claim, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”

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