Benefit claimants and job seekers could be forced to take lie detector tests as early as next year after an early review of a pilot scheme exposed 126 benefit cheats in just three months, saving one local authority £110,000.
Last May, the Department for Work and Pensions asked Harrow council in London to undertake a year-long, £63,000 pilot of the ground-breaking Voice Risk Analysis (VRA) technology.
‘We will wait until the end of the formal evaluation period to make a final decision about rolling the technology out across the country but this early review by the council is very positive,’ said a spokesman for the DWP.
‘If our own review comes to similar conclusions to Harrow’s, we would like to see this technology rolled out across Britain as soon as possible.’
VRA technology works by measuring slight, inaudible fluctuations in the human voice known as ‘micro-tremors’ that indicate when a speaker delivers words under stress, and when those moments of stress are generated by an attempt to deceive. Voice patterns are analysed and displayed on a computer.
Normal speech ranges in frequency from 8 to 12 hertz. When they are being honest, the average sound is below 10 hertz. When they lie, the stress causes the frequency to rise to above 10 hertz.
‘This technology is successfully used in the insurance industry and analyses changes in a caller’s voice, giving an indication of the level of risk that they are lying,’ said Richard Sheridan from Capita Group which owns the technology and is helping implementation for Harrow council. ‘These changes are measured against the caller’s “normal” voice which is recorded at the beginning of the phone call, ensuring that nervousness or shyness is not a trigger. If the technology flags up a caller as being suspicious, they will be asked to provide extra evidence to support their claim.’
The technology is being tested on people claiming housing or council tax benefit but will be extended at Harrow Jobcentre for other benefits this year. The government claims the technology also improves services.
‘Operators trained in intelligent questioning and behavioural analysis will use the system to identify suspect cases at the start of the claim process, enabling low-risk claimants to be fast-tracked,’ said a DWP spokesman.
Over the past two years the procedure for claiming benefits has been reformed. The claim often begins with a telephone interview, after which people may need to provide evidence and sign forms.
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, said the system ‘adds to the demonisation of claimants’.
‘Whatever their views on welfare policy, anyone who cares about science and reason should also be alarmed: lie detectors do not work, they are as likely to finger the innocent but nervous as the genuinely guilty,’ he said. ‘Innocent people will account for a majority of those whose claims are delayed while they provide extra evidence.’
Experts in America, where the most comprehensive scrutiny of the technology has taken place, warn that the technology is far from failsafe.
David Ashe, chief deputy of the Virginia Board for Professional and Occupational Regulation, said, ‘The experience of being tested, or of claiming a benefit and being told that your voice is being checked for lies, is inherently stressful.
‘Lie detector tests have a tendency to pass people for whom deception is a way of life and fail those who are scrupulously honest.’