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The Email that Revealed Cornish 'Lie Detector' Plan

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6:52am 23rd January 2013
(Updated 6:52am 23rd January 2013)

From Fiona Ferguson, the Cornwall Cabinet member for Finance, to Council Leader Jim Currie:

Jim,

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.

Fiona

Statement from Jim Currie:

I was saddened to receive Fiona's e mail this afternoon tendering her resignation from the Council's Cabinet.

Her portfolio is a key one which covers a number of complex areas. She is a highly capable councillor who has got to grips with her brief in a very short period of time.  

I recognise, however, that the combination of the role of portfolio holder for corporate resources and the leader of the Conservative group has put her in a difficult position on occasions.

While I am aware of Fiona's views over the issue of voice recognition software, the use of this technology is a key part of the review of council tax single person discount which is being carried out by CAPITA.  

There is tremendous pressure on the Council's budget and we need to do everything we can to prevent fraud. This will not affect people making genuine claims but we estimate that identifying and removing inappropriate claims could save the Council at least £1m. This money could then be used to support essential services. On balance, therefore, I am not prepared to place any restrictions on our contractor at this late stage.

Given the short amount of time left before the Council elections in May I will be taking back responsibility for the corporate resources portfolio in the interim period. As this was my previous Cabinet role I am fully conversant with all relevant budgetary issues.

6:52am 23rd January 2013

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