Is the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) using research data to compare to its own records of benefit claimants? Alex Tiffin investigates.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is using data collected by a not-for-profit social research organisation to compare to its own records so as to snoop on benefit claimants. Claimants have raised fears that they will be targeted for giving poor responses to the survey. The DWP themselves refused to answer any questions about its partnership with the company.
NatCen Social Research is an independent not-for-profit social research organisation that undertakes research for a range of government bodies including the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
The organisation is contracted to deliver the Family Resources Survey (FRS) on behalf of DWP and Office for National Statistics (ONS).
According to the government website, the Family Resources Survey (FRS) is:
The Family Resources Survey (FRS) is a continuous household survey published annually provide statistics on a household and individuals:
- Savings & Income from all sources
- Housing status
- Any caring needs and responsibilities
- Pension participation
I became aware of NatCen Research after being contacted by several people who claimed they’d been harassed by the company’s researchers. They also raised fears that the DWP would be using their responses to snoop on them.
NatCen Research comment.
After being made aware of the above allegations I reached out to NatCen for a comment. Their spokesman got back to me with very clear and detailed answers.
On the question of whether the company is contracted by the DWP to carry out research their spokeswoman said:
“NatCen is contracted to deliver the Family Resources Survey (FRS) on behalf of DWP, which they do in collaboration with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Northern Irelands Statistics & Research Agency (NISRA).”
I asked what the scope of the research was and to what end it can be used by the government to which I was told:
“The FRS has been running for over 25 years and is the cornerstone of Government research into household incomes and poverty, including child poverty as well as caring responsibilities, disability and childcare.
“For example, without the FRS, DWP could not fully assess the likely impact of proposed policy changes (such as those in the Budget) on household incomes.
“Data are collected from a representative sample of households drawn from across the UK. The data the survey produces are deemed as National Statistics.”
DWP can compara data.
The most important comment by NatCen came when I asked, “Is it standard practice to ask that respondents sign so as their answers can help update DWP records?”
NatCen’s spokeswoman was very forthcoming in the answer saying:
“Respondents who choose to take part are not asked to sign anything and data are not used to update any records that DWP may hold about them. Data can be compared with other details the DWP holds about respondents to help provide context to the findings.
“However, as part of the National Statistics accreditation and GDPR requirements, the data collected can only ever be used for research purposes.”
The data collected “..can be compared with other details the DWP holds about respondents..” Although NatCen may see the data a purely research, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is known to use any means possible to snoop on claimants.
Most people who have dealt with the DWP would find it hard to believe that they would just use any extra data for “research” only.
DWP refuses to comment.
I obviously reached out to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to ask them about their take on the claims of data being used.
I was surprised to receive an unually less than forthcoming reply from the department’s press office.
I asked the DWP the exact same questions as I did NatCen. Whether they contract the research, the scope, data sharing and allegations of harassment by researchers in the field.
A spokesman for the DWP said:
“Thanks for getting in touch. I’m afraid that the questions you’ve asked are more an FOI request, rather than a press enquiry. If you would like to, submit an FOI request.”
It is rather odd for the DWP to not respond to allegations of data misuse or about publicly known contracts. I have submitted an Freedom of Information request (FOI) as requested but fail to see the point when NatCen have answered the questions in full.
On the allegations of harrassment by field researchers the NatCen spokeswoman told me:
“NatCen expects its interviewers to conduct themselves in a professional and courteous manner at all times, adhering to both industry and internal guidelines relating to data collection.
“All instances or reports of poor interviewer conduct or negative participant experience are taken very seriously by NatCen, investigated thoroughly and followed up accordingly. We would welcome further information from you or your contact to help us to investigate these reported instances further.”
I can confirm that after speaking to two complainers, I have passed on the details they could provide. Should I hear back I will of course keep you updated.🔷
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