Tory quits council cabinet over 'lie detector' test for benefit claimaints

First published in Truro

Cornwall Council cabinet member Fiona Ferguson has quit over what she claims are plans to use 'lie detectors' to root out benefit cheats.

The voice “Voice Risk Analysis” (VRA) techniques will be used to assess people who, under law, have a single person discount on their council tax.

The 'lie detectors', are part of a review of claimants carried out by Capita, which has also sent letters to all those who receive the reduction on their bills.

The technology, which according to Capita, is "capable of identifying stress and emotion in a caller's voice pattern", has been broadly rubbished.

A trail by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in 24 local authorities found: "From our findings, it is not possible to demonstrate that VRA works effectively and consistently in the benefits environment. The evidence is not compelling enough to recommend the use of VRA within DWP." with suggestions that there is no evidence that it works."

The contract will cost the taxpayer about £50,000.

Mrs Ferguson said the use of the technology would be "extremely damaging to our reputation".

She claimed that the leader of the council, Jim Currie said she would be ‘sacked’ if she informed members that this software will be used.

Adding, in her letter to Mr Currie: "That will not be necessary. Please accept my resignation with immediate effect."

Mrs Ferguson's resignation letter is printed in full below.

As you know, it came to my attention that the contract let to Capita (before I took up my portfolio duties) to survey claimants of the single person’s council tax relief will include the use of “Voice Risk Analysis” (VRA) techniques when making phone calls to claimants.

These techniques are sometimes called “lie detector” tests.

It is clearly right that Cornwall Council takes a strong line against people who deliberately mis-claim tax benefits but in this case I am more concerned about the impact on the vast majority of honest claimants.

In passing, although this does not deal with my fundamental ethical objection, I note that the techniques used by Capita were trialled by the Department of Work and Pensions in 24 local authorities on the processing of Housing Benefit between August 2008 and December 2010.

Their report issued in September 2010 said: “From our findings it is not possible to demonstrate that VRA works effectively and consistently in the benefits environment. The evidence is not compelling enough to recommend the use of VRA within DWP.”

I have discussed this matter with the Monitoring Officer. He has advised me that, as this is an operational matter in relation to a contract that the Council has already entered into, he strongly advises me that I should not require that this software is not used. If, contrary to his advice, I maintain my stance that we must not use this software then officers will comply provided you also agree.

You have made it clear to me that you will not agree. Indeed, you have said that I will be ‘sacked’ if I inform members that this software will be used.

That will not be necessary. Please accept my resignation with immediate effect.

May I say that I have no reason whatsoever to believe that you were aware of this aspect of the contract before I drew it to your attention. I also appreciate that you are in a difficult position in view of the Monitoring Officer’s advice. But, I do not believe that his advice is correct and I cannot accept it on ethical grounds. I also do not believe that it will help the Council to pursue fraud (which we must surely do) if the public think we are using this software. Finally, I fear that it will be extremely damaging to our reputation.

Therefore, I am launching a petition to require any use of this type of technology to be approved by Full Council.

Comments (18)

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9:56am Wed 23 Jan 13

Poldark says...

I applaud Cllr Ferguson, is the County council now turning into a police state?
How dare Cllr Curry threaten her for daring to tell the public about these 'lie detector devices' it's our money they are spending, £50,000 which is being used also to employ this company[is that included in the £50,000?

What ever happened to 'innocent until proved guilty' are they saying that everyone is lying when they recieve the discount? and must prove their innocence through this ill thought out scheme?
Well, Jim Currie the cat is now out of the bag, I wonder what other councillors think or are they towing the line and keeping stum?
I applaud Cllr Ferguson, is the County council now turning into a police state? How dare Cllr Curry threaten her for daring to tell the public about these 'lie detector devices' it's our money they are spending, £50,000 which is being used also to employ this company[is that included in the £50,000? What ever happened to 'innocent until proved guilty' are they saying that everyone is lying when they recieve the discount? and must prove their innocence through this ill thought out scheme? Well, Jim Currie the cat is now out of the bag, I wonder what other councillors think or are they towing the line and keeping stum? Poldark
  • Score: 0

10:36am Wed 23 Jan 13

Gill Zella Martin 09 says...

The use of techniques to ascertain as to whether or not someone is lying during a telephone call has in fact been in action for a long time in some places.

I do agree the council should in some capacity check on those claiming the single persons council tax discount as it has transpired in the past there have been fraudulent claims. Letters sent out to those claiming single persons discount enquiring about their eligibility to the claim in my opinion should be filled in and returned, if one has nothing to hide then one has nothing to worry about. After all, I would imagine that those wishing to claim a discount in any capacity would be quick enough to answer all questions in order to receive financial benefit.
Although this country works on the theory innocent until proven guilty, it makes sense to clamp down on any possible fraudlent claims and send out the message that defrauding the council will not be tolerated.
Just reading all the past articles in the Packet about various benefit fraud cases shows that benefit fraud is fairly prolific.
The use of techniques to ascertain as to whether or not someone is lying during a telephone call has in fact been in action for a long time in some places. I do agree the council should in some capacity check on those claiming the single persons council tax discount as it has transpired in the past there have been fraudulent claims. Letters sent out to those claiming single persons discount enquiring about their eligibility to the claim in my opinion should be filled in and returned, if one has nothing to hide then one has nothing to worry about. After all, I would imagine that those wishing to claim a discount in any capacity would be quick enough to answer all questions in order to receive financial benefit. Although this country works on the theory innocent until proven guilty, it makes sense to clamp down on any possible fraudlent claims and send out the message that defrauding the council will not be tolerated. Just reading all the past articles in the Packet about various benefit fraud cases shows that benefit fraud is fairly prolific. Gill Zella Martin 09
  • Score: 0

10:49am Wed 23 Jan 13

Gill Zella Martin 09 says...

Incidentally I do not believe the voice analysis works anyway, If one is making a claim for example after the death of a partner then one could be stressed and emotional when making a phone call anyway. I am sure I would be perfectly capable of causing a reading during normal circumstances that said I was lying when I would in fact be telling the truth.
I agree with the principle of checking
on people but believe the methodology could be better.
Why on earth Councillor Fiona Ferguson resigned from the cabinet over this issue I have no idea as the checking on single persons council tax claims is public knowledge anyway due to the letters sent out and telephone calls made.
Incidentally I do not believe the voice analysis works anyway, If one is making a claim for example after the death of a partner then one could be stressed and emotional when making a phone call anyway. I am sure I would be perfectly capable of causing a reading during normal circumstances that said I was lying when I would in fact be telling the truth. I agree with the principle of checking on people but believe the methodology could be better. Why on earth Councillor Fiona Ferguson resigned from the cabinet over this issue I have no idea as the checking on single persons council tax claims is public knowledge anyway due to the letters sent out and telephone calls made. Gill Zella Martin 09
  • Score: 0

10:55am Wed 23 Jan 13

Gill Zella Martin 09 says...

It is additionally public knowledge that some firms use telephone voice analysis to ascertain whether or not people are telling the truth, therefore common sense would tell me that anyone checking on benefit claims are likely to use this technique.
It is additionally public knowledge that some firms use telephone voice analysis to ascertain whether or not people are telling the truth, therefore common sense would tell me that anyone checking on benefit claims are likely to use this technique. Gill Zella Martin 09
  • Score: 0

11:22am Wed 23 Jan 13

Chelz65 says...

I applaud Fiona for making this public knowledge.
However, today in Council it will be discussed how to go about saving the Council money. As VRA has been discontinued by many Councils that trialled it, perhaps CC should consider doing the same.
It's incredible to think, we get LIE Detection whilst Councillors are considering getting rid of their WEBCAST in order to save money. pushing Open Democracy behind closed doors. Hmmnn?? Definitely a step in the wrong direction!!
Maybe Cornwall Councillors should be subject to VRA when doing their own expenses??
Bring on the Local Elections!!
I applaud Fiona for making this public knowledge. However, today in Council it will be discussed how to go about saving the Council money. As VRA has been discontinued by many Councils that trialled it, perhaps CC should consider doing the same. It's incredible to think, we get LIE Detection whilst Councillors are considering getting rid of their WEBCAST in order to save money. pushing Open Democracy behind closed doors. Hmmnn?? Definitely a step in the wrong direction!! Maybe Cornwall Councillors should be subject to VRA when doing their own expenses?? Bring on the Local Elections!! Chelz65
  • Score: 0

1:05pm Wed 23 Jan 13

Gill Zella Martin 09 says...

I remain cynical, with the elections coming up I personally believe Councillor Fiona Ferguson would have resigned from the cabinet anyway for one reason or another.

"Your call may be recorded or monitored". How often have I heard that during a phone call, it's no big secret the department for work and pensions used to use voice analysis techniques.
I remain cynical, with the elections coming up I personally believe Councillor Fiona Ferguson would have resigned from the cabinet anyway for one reason or another. "Your call may be recorded or monitored". How often have I heard that during a phone call, it's no big secret the department for work and pensions used to use voice analysis techniques. Gill Zella Martin 09
  • Score: 0

9:03am Thu 24 Jan 13

Poldark says...

'Fiona Ferguson would have resigned from the council ' anyway' inside knowledge again Zella.?

I happen to disagree on that one, she is one of the few councillors who doesn't put her own interests first and is not afraid to speak up, unlike Curry and the rest of the councillors .

By the way I am still waiting to hear other councillors opinions and I agree entirely with 'Skipper' as would most people.
.
Fact I, most people are honest why should they be asked to prove themselves innocent, that old chestnut of 'if you have nothing to hide' is a fallacy and an excuse used far to often..

I wonder if this company even lives in Cornwall and employs Cornish people.

Look at the last fiasco when they hived of the work to BT,I I read afterwards that our CEO used to work for BT, surely that should have been regarded as an interest?.. was it even noted?

But not to worry this council is on it's last leg's it's time is almost up I have to say I have never seen a CC behave so irresponsibly and that includes all parties Idependants not withstanding as they did not make an iota of difference working hand in glove with the conservatives and securing resposible posts [courtesy of the last leader.
'Fiona Ferguson would have resigned from the council ' anyway' inside knowledge again Zella.? I happen to disagree on that one, she is one of the few councillors who doesn't put her own interests first and is not afraid to speak up, unlike Curry and the rest of the councillors . By the way I am still waiting to hear other councillors opinions and I agree entirely with 'Skipper' as would most people. . Fact I, most people are honest why should they be asked to prove themselves innocent, that old chestnut of 'if you have nothing to hide' is a fallacy and an excuse used far to often.. I wonder if this company even lives in Cornwall and employs Cornish people. Look at the last fiasco when they hived of the work to BT,I I read afterwards that our CEO used to work for BT, surely that should have been regarded as an interest?.. was it even noted? But not to worry this council is on it's last leg's it's time is almost up I have to say I have never seen a CC behave so irresponsibly and that includes all parties Idependants not withstanding as they did not make an iota of difference working hand in glove with the conservatives and securing resposible posts [courtesy of the last leader. Poldark
  • Score: 0

11:31am Thu 24 Jan 13

Gill Zella Martin 09 says...

Poldark wrote:
'Fiona Ferguson would have resigned from the council ' anyway' inside knowledge again Zella.?

I happen to disagree on that one, she is one of the few councillors who doesn't put her own interests first and is not afraid to speak up, unlike Curry and the rest of the councillors .

By the way I am still waiting to hear other councillors opinions and I agree entirely with 'Skipper' as would most people.
.
Fact I, most people are honest why should they be asked to prove themselves innocent, that old chestnut of 'if you have nothing to hide' is a fallacy and an excuse used far to often..

I wonder if this company even lives in Cornwall and employs Cornish people.

Look at the last fiasco when they hived of the work to BT,I I read afterwards that our CEO used to work for BT, surely that should have been regarded as an interest?.. was it even noted?

But not to worry this council is on it's last leg's it's time is almost up I have to say I have never seen a CC behave so irresponsibly and that includes all parties Idependants not withstanding as they did not make an iota of difference working hand in glove with the conservatives and securing resposible posts
Poldark , you accuse me of "inside knowledge again". Please define "inside knowledge"
[quote][p][bold]Poldark[/bold] wrote: 'Fiona Ferguson would have resigned from the council ' anyway' inside knowledge again Zella.? I happen to disagree on that one, she is one of the few councillors who doesn't put her own interests first and is not afraid to speak up, unlike Curry and the rest of the councillors . By the way I am still waiting to hear other councillors opinions and I agree entirely with 'Skipper' as would most people. . Fact I, most people are honest why should they be asked to prove themselves innocent, that old chestnut of 'if you have nothing to hide' is a fallacy and an excuse used far to often.. I wonder if this company even lives in Cornwall and employs Cornish people. Look at the last fiasco when they hived of the work to BT,I I read afterwards that our CEO used to work for BT, surely that should have been regarded as an interest?.. was it even noted? But not to worry this council is on it's last leg's it's time is almost up I have to say I have never seen a CC behave so irresponsibly and that includes all parties Idependants not withstanding as they did not make an iota of difference working hand in glove with the conservatives and securing resposible posts [courtesy of the last leader.[/p][/quote]Poldark , you accuse me of "inside knowledge again". Please define "inside knowledge" Gill Zella Martin 09
  • Score: 0

11:33am Thu 24 Jan 13

Gill Zella Martin 09 says...

Incidentally I did not say resign from the council I said resign from the cabinet.
Incidentally I did not say resign from the council I said resign from the cabinet. Gill Zella Martin 09
  • Score: 0

11:45am Thu 24 Jan 13

Gill Zella Martin 09 says...

The reason I think Fiona Ferguson may well have resigned anyway is because she was the portfolio holder for finance and the council are currently going through their budget proposals. There is an election coming up. That is my personal opinion and I am purely speculating.
The reason I think Fiona Ferguson may well have resigned anyway is because she was the portfolio holder for finance and the council are currently going through their budget proposals. There is an election coming up. That is my personal opinion and I am purely speculating. Gill Zella Martin 09
  • Score: 0

11:51am Thu 24 Jan 13

Gill Zella Martin 09 says...

What inside knowledge have I had in the past then Poldark ? Any information I have is freely available to any of the public. Do you not read the Packet newspaper or have you not yet discovered Google.
What inside knowledge have I had in the past then Poldark ? Any information I have is freely available to any of the public. Do you not read the Packet newspaper or have you not yet discovered Google. Gill Zella Martin 09
  • Score: 0

12:00pm Thu 24 Jan 13

Gill Zella Martin 09 says...

Poldark you also say Fiona Ferguson is not afraid to speak up, unlike Currie and the rest of the Councillors. I disagree, many Councillors speak up.
Poldark you also say Fiona Ferguson is not afraid to speak up, unlike Currie and the rest of the Councillors. I disagree, many Councillors speak up. Gill Zella Martin 09
  • Score: 0

9:02am Fri 25 Jan 13

ucsweb says...

If this software is so good, can we use it on the councillors and the cabinet to find out if they really believe they are doing their best for Cornwall?
Or if they are only persuing their own agendas.
If this software is so good, can we use it on the councillors and the cabinet to find out if they really believe they are doing their best for Cornwall? Or if they are only persuing their own agendas. ucsweb
  • Score: 0

10:08am Fri 25 Jan 13

Poldark says...

Ucsweb, I agree, to many are persuing their own agenda's, you have it in one.
I am not one of these starry eyed individuals who think all councillors have the interests of the public at heart either ...
Ucsweb, I agree, to many are persuing their own agenda's, you have it in one. I am not one of these starry eyed individuals who think all councillors have the interests of the public at heart either ... Poldark
  • Score: 0

11:30am Fri 25 Jan 13

meerkats says...

Poldark wrote:
'Fiona Ferguson would have resigned from the council ' anyway' inside knowledge again Zella.?

I happen to disagree on that one, she is one of the few councillors who doesn't put her own interests first and is not afraid to speak up, unlike Curry and the rest of the councillors .

By the way I am still waiting to hear other councillors opinions and I agree entirely with 'Skipper' as would most people.
.
Fact I, most people are honest why should they be asked to prove themselves innocent, that old chestnut of 'if you have nothing to hide' is a fallacy and an excuse used far to often..

I wonder if this company even lives in Cornwall and employs Cornish people.

Look at the last fiasco when they hived of the work to BT,I I read afterwards that our CEO used to work for BT, surely that should have been regarded as an interest?.. was it even noted?

But not to worry this council is on it's last leg's it's time is almost up I have to say I have never seen a CC behave so irresponsibly and that includes all parties Idependants not withstanding as they did not make an iota of difference working hand in glove with the conservatives and securing resposible posts
Why do you accuse or assume that Gill has inside knowledge, this is not the first time you have said it. If you regularly read her comments ,you will know that Gill is very knowledgeable and takes an interest in a lot of things and the local area etc. I see that you have not replied to Gill.s question so can assume that you have no comment to make as to why you said it.
[quote][p][bold]Poldark[/bold] wrote: 'Fiona Ferguson would have resigned from the council ' anyway' inside knowledge again Zella.? I happen to disagree on that one, she is one of the few councillors who doesn't put her own interests first and is not afraid to speak up, unlike Curry and the rest of the councillors . By the way I am still waiting to hear other councillors opinions and I agree entirely with 'Skipper' as would most people. . Fact I, most people are honest why should they be asked to prove themselves innocent, that old chestnut of 'if you have nothing to hide' is a fallacy and an excuse used far to often.. I wonder if this company even lives in Cornwall and employs Cornish people. Look at the last fiasco when they hived of the work to BT,I I read afterwards that our CEO used to work for BT, surely that should have been regarded as an interest?.. was it even noted? But not to worry this council is on it's last leg's it's time is almost up I have to say I have never seen a CC behave so irresponsibly and that includes all parties Idependants not withstanding as they did not make an iota of difference working hand in glove with the conservatives and securing resposible posts [courtesy of the last leader.[/p][/quote]Why do you accuse or assume that Gill has inside knowledge, this is not the first time you have said it. If you regularly read her comments ,you will know that Gill is very knowledgeable and takes an interest in a lot of things and the local area etc. I see that you have not replied to Gill.s question so can assume that you have no comment to make as to why you said it. meerkats
  • Score: 0

6:15pm Fri 25 Jan 13

Gill Zella Martin 09 says...

Thank you meerkats,
I am still trying to work out what my inside knowledge would be. Perhaps I should put a bugging device in New County Hall, or it may just be easier to watch the publicly available webcasts from the council meetings.
Thank you meerkats, I am still trying to work out what my inside knowledge would be. Perhaps I should put a bugging device in New County Hall, or it may just be easier to watch the publicly available webcasts from the council meetings. Gill Zella Martin 09
  • Score: 0

8:08am Sat 26 Jan 13

molesworth says...

Does anyone know where I can get the software to enable me to test Mrs M for lying? Yet another recently purchased expensive item of fashion clothing was "in a sale".
Does anyone know where I can get the software to enable me to test Mrs M for lying? Yet another recently purchased expensive item of fashion clothing was "in a sale". molesworth
  • Score: 0

9:13am Sat 26 Jan 13

Gill Zella Martin 09 says...

All you need to do is develop a very good sixth sense.
All you need to do is develop a very good sixth sense. Gill Zella Martin 09
  • Score: 0

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