ICO warns DWP to honour data protection laws

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The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has warned the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) that it should tread carefully when it begins to use credit reference agency reports in assessing benefit claims.

Experian, the credit reference agency, is expected to begin to assist the DWP in the near future. The ICO's action appears to be a warning shot to remind the department that it should not rush into things.

Information commissioner Christopher Graham has requested a meeting with welfare reform minister Lord Freud. A spokesperson for the ICO said: "The ICO is seeking further clarification from the Department of Work and Pensions in relation to the government's proposal to use information provided by credit reference agencies to combat benefit fraud."

"The Data Protection Act is not a barrier to sensible information sharing, and some sharing already takes place with credit reference agencies. However, it appears that the latest proposals may go further," added the source.

One area of concern is that the claimant should be informed of the DWP's actions. The ICO spokesperson explained: "Most organisations make it clear that, should they need to, they will share details with authorities for the prevention and detection of crime. It is reasonable to expect that, if you are committing benefit fraud, your details will be shared with the appropriate authorities dealing with this. But any information sharing should be made clear in privacy policies."

The Government is keen to cut the sum of 5.2 billion annually lost to benefit payment errors. It feels that use of credit reference agencies is a fair way to discover undeclared cohabitation or other fraudulent activities.