This article was written by Randeep Ramesh, Social affairs editor, for theguardian.com on Monday 10th March 2014
More than 20 councils have used or plan to use controversial lie detector tests to catch fraudulent benefits claimants, despite the government dropping the technology because it was found to be not sufficiently reliable.
Responding to freedom of information (FOI) requests, 24 local authorities confirmed they had employed or were considering the use of “voice risk analysis” (VRA) software, which its makers say can pick out fraudulent claimants by listening in on calls and identifying signs of stress.
> Of course, people in genuine need never show signs of stress !
Although in 2010 the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced it had given up VRA software, the FOI responses show councils have been spending, in some cases, millions of pounds on the technology.
Local authorities have continued to use the system to check whether people are honestly claiming the single person council tax discount, which allows single adults to pay 75% of the amount levied on a family.
Tory-controlled Derbyshire Dales said it had taken part in a county-wide review of council tax in 2011 that had used the technology – a contract worth £280,000 to Capita.
> Crapita – who’d have guessed they’d be involved in something like this ?
The same company was hired by Labour-run Southwark in south London and was paid £2.5m over three years. The council says VRA technology “was used as one tool to assist in determining the customers’ eligibility for the discount”.
The council said it did not record how effective the scheme had been but did say that its real worth was in making the public aware that it would crack down on benefit cheats. A council minute last year records: “Although [VRA was] used in a minority of cases, a significant amount of publicity was received that assisted in communicating to residents the council’s intention to remove discounts if property occupancy could not be evidenced.”
VRA is supposed to detect signs of stress in a caller’s voice by analysing short snippets of speech, and is still used in the insurance industry to catch fraudsters. Critics say the system is not powerful enough to distinguish cheats from honest callers.
A number of councils – Redcar, Middlesbrough, West Dorset and Wycombe – said they were convinced of VRA’s merits and were considering use of the system in the future.
False Economy, the trade union-funded campaign group that put in the freedom of information requests to more than 200 local authorities, told the Guardian: “It says a lot about council outsourcing – and the benefits-bashing agenda – that this pseudo-scientific gimmick is now making its way in through the back door. Capita is a firm with a long rap sheet of expensive failure. Neither they nor their technological snake oil should be trusted.”
There have been complaints from claimants who were assessed using the technique. In South Oxfordshire two people formally protested after having their voices tested in 2013. The council says that Capita’s system helped reduce the number of people claiming the single person discount by 3%, and would consider using it again.
Voice risk analysis has been mired in controversy since scientists raised doubts over the technology soon after it reached the market. In 2007, two Swedish researchers, Anders Eriksson and Francisco Lacerda, published their own analysis of VRA in the International Journal of Speech, Language and Law. They found no scientific evidence to support claims for the device made by the manufacturer.
Lacerda, head of linguistics at Stockholm University, told the Guardian that VRA “does nothing. That is the short answer. There’s no scientific basis for this method. From the output it generates this analysis is closer to astrology than science. There was very good work done by the DWP in the UK showing it did not work, so I am surprised.”
However, the Local Government Association, which represents English and Welsh councils, said the tool was used to help identify possible fraud. Peter Fleming, chair of the LGA’s improvement board, said: “Councils detect almost £200m-worth of benefit fraud committed every year. Every pound fraudulently claimed by people trying to cheat the system is a pound less that councils have to help those who need it most.
“No one is going to be prosecuted for benefit fraud on the result of voice analysis tests alone. But, in a small number of areas, councils use this technology as part of a wider range of methods to identify cases which may need closer scrutiny.”
The DWP told the Guardian: “Local authorities are free to design their own approaches to preventing benefit fraud.”
In a statement Capita said that, when it “undertakes a council tax single person discount review, councils can choose to use voice risk analysis technology as part of the process. The technology is never used in isolation. It is only used in cases which are deemed ‘high risk’, when earlier stages of the review have indicated that more than one person may be living at the property.”
Capita added: “The selective use of VRA technology is a useful additional tool in the validation process of identifying potentially fraudulent claims for single person discount.
“The decision of whether to revoke benefits is made by councils, based on the range of information gathered during the review process. The removal of claimants receiving discounts that they are not entitled to reduces council spend, enabling money to be directed to those who really need the council’s support.”
> Tell you what – a compromise. You can use it on claimants after it has undergone an extensive test – 5 years, say – on all MPs, local councillors, Jobcentre staff, etc
Source – Welfare News Service, 10 Mar 2014
Blame the teachers time again –
Schools failing to prepare North East pupils for career in automotive sector
– declares the headline in the Newcastle Journal, and continues:
Schools are failing to encourage children to consider a career in manufacturing – and the economy of the North East may suffer as a result, a major new study has found.
Pupils in Sunderland are not being given the advice they need to make an informed choice about their future career, said think tank IPPR North, with girls in particular failing to consider careers in science, engineering or technology.
Researchers from IPPR North worked with two schools in the city to examine the attitudes of pupils towards a career in manufacturing, and particularly in the automotive sector.
As part of the study, they arranged for pupils to visit Nissan’s factory in Sunderland, and asked them whether this had changed their attitudes towards manufacturing.
The think tank warned: “Employment avenues for young people are not being closed off so much as never being opened. A systemic lack of interaction between schools and businesses is restricting the career options of young people in Britain.”
The failure to interest girls in science, technology, engineering or maths – the so-called STEM subjects – was robbing the sector of potential future employees, said the report.
> With such high levels of local unemployment ? Pull the other one ! There is probably going to always be be more people than there are jobs, so hardly a lack of potential employees. Many of them will already have the necessery skills, and if they haven’t they could learn them… if the employers were willing to invest in a little training, of course. But that would probably bite into short-term profits.
It warned: “The lack of interest in post-GCSE STEM subjects and vocational education among girls is a cause for concern given that skills shortages in these sectors are looming.”
IPPR focused on the automotive sector because of its importance to the economy of the North East – and it said there is “evidence to suggest the automotive sector would continue to grow in the coming years”, making it even more significant. Around 1.5 million cars and commercial vehicles and three million engines are produced annually in the UK, and 70% of vehicles manufactured here are exported.
> Hmmm… and its not so long ago that call centres were being touted as the big new thing. Which they may have been momentarily, but as soon as the companies found they could transfer the work to low-wage (and thus higher profit) economies overseas, you didn’t see them for dust. Anyone want to bet the automotive sector wouldn’t do the same if it was deemed profitable ?
Nissan’s plant in Washington is Europe’s most productive car manufacturing site, responsible for one in three of all cars produced in the UK.
> It’s also generally understood locally (but unprovable) that Nissan don’t employ anyone over the age of 30. Not much hope for the older unemployed there.
However, the think tank warned that manufacturers were concerned about the lack of available skilled labour in the UK, which could limit future investment in the country.
> People aren’t born with the skills for a particular industry fully formed. What’s wrong with the companies involved training workers to the required level ? They always used to.
It also pointed out that “pay tends to be significantly higher for graduate engineers than for most other graduates”, but young people considering their future career were not aware of this.
> But not everyone can be a graduate engineer, nor is that the only job in manufacturing. Perhaps kids realise this. Or perhaps they just think there’s more to life than selling their souls to an industry that may up sticks and move abroad if they think it in their interests.
The study warned: “Given the importance of both good careers advice and business-school interaction in shaping the choices that young people make, it is essential that Government, schools and businesses take action to plug future skills gaps and change the perceptions of those who might potentially be attracted towards careers in the automotive industry, and in engineering more widely.”
> School are like government training schemes – you might get a nice certificate, but it does not prepare you for the world of work. But why blame the schools, it’s not their role to provide factory fodder, surely ?
Once again we seem to be rushing to put all the eggs in one basket – mining, shipbuilding, call centres, automotive … in a year or two the same claims will be made again about the next transient industry, and all the unemployed automotive workers will be told they dont have the right skills and so must retrain…and so on ad infinitum.
Universities and colleges in the North East could be stripped of millions of pounds in funding used to give students from poorer backgrounds a fairer chance of getting a degree.
The cash is at risk because the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is responsible for higher education, needs to make savings of £1.4bn.
Teesside University currently receives £5.9m each year, the University of Northumbria at Newcastle receives £3.5m, University of Sunderland receives £3.3m, University of Newcastle upon Tyne receives £1.1m, University of Durham receives £660,000, Newcastle College receives £959,00 and New College Durham receives £637,000.
The money, known as Student Opportunity funding, is allocated to universities and higher education colleges which succeed in attracting students from neighbourhoods where few people have traditionally taken part in higher education.
It also goes to institutions which succeed in retaining students who would statistically be more likely to drop out, and to those that recruit students with disabilities.
Leaked documents have revealed that the Department for Business is looking for ways to save £570m this year and a further £860m after the election.
Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is reported to be pushing for Student Opportunity funding to be abolished, while Business Secretary Vince Cable and Higher Education Minister David Willets are lobbying to keep it.
Asked to comment on the reports, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said in a statement: “The Department is going through the process of allocating budgets for 2014-15 and 2015-16 and will set out plans in the usual way.”
Prof Peter Fidler, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sunderland, was one of nine university leaders across the country to write a public letter warning: “The removal of this fund will damage economic growth and have a wider impact on sectors beyond higher education.”
The letter said that axing the fund “suggests that the Government is willing to abandon the cause of social mobility in higher education.”
The future of the fund was raised in the House of Commons by Labour’s Shadow Higher Education Minister Liam Byrne as MPs discussed funding for engineering students. He said: “On top of the huge cuts for educating 18-year-olds in college, we now hear rumours that the student opportunity fund that helps poorer future engineers will be completely axed.
“Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to promise the House that he will not sacrifice social mobility to pay for the chaos in his Department’s budget?”
In reply, Business Secretary Vince Cable highlighted £400m in funding for science, technology, engineering and maths courses – but did not comment on the future of the Student Opportunity Fund.
The National Union of Students has launched a campaign to preserve the funding.
Toni Pearce, NUS president, said: “Cutting the Student Opportunity Fund is an absolute disgrace and, in the wake of cuts to the National Scholarship Programme, looks like the Government is backtracking on its commitment to support social mobility in favour of balancing the books on the backs of the poor.”
Mr Byrne said: “The Department for Business budget is a complete mess because high paying students at private colleges got access to the state student loan system. Now it looks like help for poorer students will be axed to pay for it.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 25 Jan 2014
A huge restructure of Northumbria Police will see more than 400 jobs go and police stations closed as part of ongoing measures to save a total of £104m in response to “relentless” Government funding cuts.
The force will lose 230 members of staff – some by voluntary or compulsory redundancy – and reduce its number of senior officers by 200, through ‘natural turnover’.
They will also close “expensive” police stations, and reduce the number of area commands from six to three.
The restructure plans were announced last night as it was revealed that Northumbria Police has to save an additional £46m by March 2017, having already delivered £58m of savings since the start of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review in 2010.
Police and Crime Commissioner, Vera Baird, branded the cuts “unfair” but promised to protect frontline services working in neighbourhoods throughout the region.
> What does that mean ? We still wont see the coppers we already never see, unless speeding past in a car ?
She said: “The Government cuts are relentless and unfair. They impact far more heavily on our police service than on many others. The Chief Constable and I are very committed to maintaining the number of police officers and staff working in our neighbourhoods.
“To achieve this we need to do things differently, use technology more effectively and work from different buildings that are cheaper to run.”
The proposals, which the force stress are in the early stages, will see some “outdated” police stations closed and Neighbourhood Policing Teams relocated to bases within the communities they serve in shared accommodation facilities such as leisure centres.
> A plastic plod in the front of a supermarket, strictly 9-5, and able only to refer you to the police’s website, no doubt
However, a spokeswoman for Northumbria said that no police buildings will close until suitable new locations have been found.
Mrs Baird added: “We will relocate Neighbourhood Policing Teams to bases in the local community, usually shared with other services. We are currently doing this in North Tyneside where we are proposing to have police in the White Swan Centre at Killingworth following public consultation, rather than in an outdated, expensive-to-maintain police station in Forest Hall.
“We are keen to make further savings by relocating other neighbourhood policing teams into the communities that they serve, as this is what local policing is all about. However, we guarantee no police services will be relocated until we have found accessible bases within the community for neighbourhood teams to work from and they are working well.
“I am conscious that local people are feeling the effects of the economic downturn very acutely in our region. We have managed to protect frontline numbers and deliver the savings needed without the public having to pay more.”
> You’d never guess she used to be an MP, would you ?
Another change in the way Northumbria Police operate will be the down-sizing of the current six area commands – Newcastle, Gateshead, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Northumberland and Sunderland – to three.
These will cover existing local authority areas coming under North, Central and South. North will cover North Tyneside and Northumberland, Central will serve Newcastle and Gateshead and South will cover Sunderland and South Tyneside.
> With the possible closure of Sunderland’s city centre Gilbridge police station being mooted – to go with the probable closure of the city centre fire station. How long before someone decides the city doesn’t really need a hospital either ?
The force has said it has made every effort to safeguard the services the public say they value most, which is visible policing in their communities.
> Invisible policing, more like ! Otherwise only seen when there’s a football match on.
The proposed changes, which won’t see any increase in council tax, will not reduce the service to the public nor impact on the force’s ability to reduce crime and disorder, according to Northumbria Police.
> Truth is, the region is never going to be a potential Tory electoral gain (Hexham aside), so why should anyone in government really care what happens here ?
On the other hand, it’s safe Labour seats, so they don’t appear to feel the need to stand up for us either – they take it for granted that they’ll get voted back whatever happens.
Talk about being between a rock and a hard place !
Perhaps, should Scotland go independant, they might consider extending the border down to the Tees…
Source – Newcastle Journal, Sunderland Echo, 09 Jan 2014