Local councils are spending millions of pounds on "voice risk analysis" (VRA) software in the hope of finding benefits cheats, despite the Department for Work and Pensions having already dropped the systems, and researchers calling the controversial lie detectors "closer to astrology than science".
Derbyshire Dales used VRA software in a £280,000, 2011 review of council tax fraud, while Southwark in South London had a £2.5 million run with the software over three years. Each council had hired Capita to install the systems, with a further 24 local authorities confirming that they were either considering using VRA software or were already using it, following a freedom of information request from False Economy.
VRA tests are designed to detect points of stress in a phone caller's voice, and is still a widely used system in the insurance industry, used to catch out would-be scammers.
However, speaking to the Guardian, Francisco Lacerda, head of linguistics at Stockholm University, said 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, Peter Fleming, chair of the Local Government Associations improvement board stressed that no-one would be "prosecuted for benefit fraud on the result of voice analysis tests alone." Instead, VRA systems would be used as "part of a wider range of methods to identify cases which may need closer scrutiny."
Snake oil or otherwise, it seems the use of VRA systems will become an increasingly-present weapon in local council fights against benefit cheats. It seems that for some councils, merely the presence of lie detector tests and the public's (perhaps-misguided) fear of them is expected to act as deterrent enough. [Guardian]