Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The lie detectors behind the fig leaf

It may be widely regarded as a fig leaf as a reason for Fiona Ferguson's resignation, but that doesn't mean that the issue of Cornwall Council commissioning lie detector tests isn't a genuine concern. And I am certain that it is an issue on about which Cllr Ferguson is passionate.

The story is this:

Anyone who lives on their own (or with other people who are not liable for council tax) receives a 25% discount in the council tax that they pay. Cornwall Council is concerned that some people might be claiming the discount even though they are not entitled to it. And so they commissioned a review.

That's fair enough. None of us wants to see people defrauding the council. But there are concerns about the manner of the review.

I first raised problems with the process when I learned that Capita would be conducting the review on a 'no win, no fee' basis from Kent. Why couldn't a Cornish firm do the job, I asked, and wouldn't the bounty hunter basis lead to pressure on Capita to over-report

All of these points were made to the Chief Executive of the council but it seems nothing was changed.

What was unknown to the rest of us, until now, was that Capita would be using lie detector technology in their phone interviews with some of the discount claimants. It has been suggested to me that this should not be a concern - that if you have done nothing wrong then you have nothing to hide. Except that, as Cllr Ferguson pointed out in her resignation email, the technology is viewed as unproven by no less a source than the Department of Work and Pensions. If you have an unreliable system - particularly if that system throws up false positives - then it becomes a real concern.

And what about the attitude of Cllr Currie?

If Cllr Ferguson is to be believed, he did not want this issue becoming public and threatened to sack Fiona if she told anyone about it. Is that really the sort of attitude we expect? That controversial issues will be swept under the carpet on pain of dismissal.

We now know that Cllr Currie is refusing to review the use of the technology. His email to all councillors today makes that clear. He says:

"While I am aware of Fiona’s views over the issue of voice recognition software, the use of this technology is a key part of the review of council tax single person discount which is being carried out by CAPITA. 

There is tremendous pressure on the Council’s budget and we need to do everything we can to prevent fraud. This will not affect people making genuine claims but we estimate that identifying and removing inappropriate claims could save the Council at least £1m.  This money could then be used to support essential services.  On balance, therefore, I am not prepared to place any restrictions on our contractor at this late stage."

Personally, I am not reassured by that statement. I believe that councillors should have been told that this sort of system was in use and that it was considered unreliable by the DWP (among others). I will certainly be signing the petition that Cllr Ferguson plans to present to stop its use.

1 comment:

Carla said...

Appaarently it is £50,000 for the service. A con I feel. Jeremy Kyle? I would not want anything from that programme as recommended. A neighbour of mine pretended to have someone stay with her as protection being a single person to give security against someone who might prey on the single and vunerable. Also in this county are a lot of widows and widowers and I am afraid for them as given what would amount to personal information over a telephone.