DWP staff will be given the power to arrest Brits in a hardline Universal Credit crackdown.
Two million claimants will have their cases dredged up and face fines for fraud under sweeping laws – even if they’re not convicted of a crime.
Department for Work and Pensions officers will be allowed to mass-request bank data more easily to spot-check if people are cheating the Jobcentre.
DWP staff will then make arrests, execute warrants, conduct searches and seize evidence themselves instead of leaving the work to police.
Even if a case does not make it to court, they will then get power to dish out civil fines – like those issued by HMRC.
But Tory ministers will be accused of chasing headlines as there’s no timetable for a new law and it’s unlikely to start work for at least a year.
Many of the new powers need an Act of Parliament – but it’s thought this would only be introduced from May 2023 at the earliest.
Shadow Employment Minister Alison McGovern said the Tories “left the till open to organised crime” during Covid.
She said if ministers were “serious about fraud, they would have taken action to get back the £11bn” lost to “dodgy PPE deals, loans and grants”.
The move is part of a £200m-a-year benefit fraud crackdown announced today that ministers claim will save £670m a year.
It comes after benefit overpayments due to fraud and error rocketed to a record £8.3bn in 2020/21.
But this includes errors by the department or claimants – not just deliberate fraud.
It repeats a pledge to hire 2,000 staff to rake through 2million cases, from new claims to existing ones flagged as potentially suspicious, over five years.
Cases could be flagged by data matching and algorithms, which have worried campaigners in the past. Officials insist human agents will carry out the reviews.
The agents are already being recruited across the country and DWP chiefs hope to have them all in place by the Autumn.
But a sweeping new Act of Parliament would hugely expand their powers.
It would give a smaller DWP team of investigators the power to arrest people for the first time on suspicion of criminal offences.
Sources insist this would only be a small number of staff – not all 2,000 agents – and only apply to serious offences.
However, if they are unable to prosecute the cases in court, they could instead slap fines on benefit claimants under civil law.
These fines will be easier to push through – as they’re on the ‘balance of probabilities’, instead of the criminal proof of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
Fines will be a fixed percentage of the amount of suspected fraud per case. But what that percentage will be hasn’t been decided yet.
The proposed Act would make it easier to request bank account data of people whose cases have a “signal” of potential fraud.
Currently the DWP can only request the data of an identifiable person, but the Act would broaden those powers. Exact details were unavailable.
Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said the crackdown would stop the benefit system being “a cash machine for callous criminals”.
She added: “Thousands of trained specialists, combined with targeted new tools and powers, will mean we can keep up with fraud in today’s digital age and prevent, detect and deter those who would try to cheat the system.”
It came as MPs were warned blind and mentally unwell Brits are set to “fall off a cliff” as 2.6million Brits are moved to Universal Credit.
People on six ‘legacy’ benefits – most of them long-term sick or disabled – will be transferred to Universal Credit between this summer and the end of 2024.
But charity chiefs raised fears about a three-month window for them to claim under the new system, after which their old benefits face being stopped.
Tory ministers assured MPs there will be at least an extra month’s extension if people fail to apply to UC, with the DWP contacting them directly.
But Dominic Milne of the Royal National Institute of Blind People told the Commons Work and Pensions Committee the time limit “seems to be a big mistake.
“The extra month, yes that may be helpful, but it’s not enough. There will still be people falling off the cliff in that respect.”
He added: “It seems a very risky strategy to be taking so many people and basically taking a lot of chances with their income.”
Sophie Corlett of mental health charity Mind said: “We know people absolutely struggle with the process because it’s online, they may not be well enough to engage, they may not have the cognitive ability to engage in some circumstances.”
She warned having money cut off would be “devastating” in a cost-of-living crunch.