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Cornwall Council Tory group leader Fiona Ferguson quits Cabinet post over "lie detector" tests

By RWhitehouse  |  Posted: January 22, 2013

  • Fiona Ferguson

Comments (27)

THE leader of the Conservative group at Cornwall Council has sensationally quit her role on the Cabinet in a row over the use of lie detector tests on people claiming single person's council tax discount.
Fiona Ferguson claimed in her resignation email – which was placed online by councillors – that leader of the council Jim Currie had threatened to sack her from her Cabinet post if she revealed the details of the lie detector test being used.
The Voice Risk Analysis (VRA) software – which is known as a lie detector test – is allegedly being used by company Capita which has been employed by the council to carry out a review of people claiming single person's council tax discount.
The relief allows anyone living on their own to claim 25% of their council tax bills. Letters were sent out to those claiming the benefit last year and these were being followed up with telephone interviews.
During these interviews, Mrs Ferguson claims, the company was going to use VRA.
On Capita's website it states that VRA is "capable of identifying stress and emotion in a caller's voice pattern".
In her resignation email to Mr Currie she states that VRA had previously been reviewed by the Department of Work and Pensions which found that it was not reliable.
She wrote: "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."
In a statement Cornwall Council said that the interviews were being carried out to verify details provided by claimants.
It said: "These interviews will be carried out by trained assessors who will use specialist technology to assist this process. This technology has been successfully used by a number of local authorities carrying out similar reviews. All claimants will be advised that the calls will be recorded, monitored and used for fraud prevention purposes."

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  • Cornishwonder  |  January 23 2013, 11:17PM

    Fiona Ferguson's resignation has more than a whiff of political expediency about it. Isn't this the same councillor I heard moaning on Radio Cornwall last week that she needed more time to get on top of her Cabinet brief because she had been on holiday? One could be forgiven for thinking that it dawned on her just how unpopular the Cabinet member for corporate services was about to become given that she would be the flag waver for further unpopular cuts to council budgets. And just weeks before the local elections. Fancy that! Can't help thinking that the high ground on which councillor Ferguson has so firmly planted her flag of moral indignation may soon be overcome by a rising tide of hypocrisy.

  • Macloud  |  January 23 2013, 10:56PM

    Fiona Ferguson is right to be concerned about the use of voice risk analysis (VRA) or voice stress analysis (VSA) software by the Council checking claims for single person council tax discount for a number of reasons: 1. The Department for Work and Pensions in 2010 after extensive trials by 23 councils stated it could not concluded that VRA works effectively and consistently in the benefits environment and decided not to use it. Was the Council aware of this when it decided to award the contract to Capita? If so, on what basis did it decide to ignore the results of these trials? 2. If the Council is using this technology, described as a form of "lie detector test", without the knowledge and specific consent of the person being interviewed on the phone this may be a form of covert surveillance requiring approval under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. If so, has this approval been given, by whom and on what basis? 3. Similarly if the person interviewed does not have knowledge of or has not given consent to the use of a "lie detector test" does this breach Article 8 Human Rights Act 1998 (the right to privacy)? 4. The Disability Alliance and others have expressed concerns that VRA has not been tested on those who have speech/ language impairments, and may wrongly identify people with mental health issues as high risk (i.e. likely to be committing fraud). Has the Council undertaken a full Equality Impact Assessment and undertaken appropriate consultation on the impact of the use of this technology? 5. Did councillors understand that this contract involved the use of VRA when it was awarded? Or was this agreed by officers without informing councillors?

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  • 4becks  |  January 23 2013, 4:29PM

    this is 'stress analysis tool' - it was designed for call-centres so that supevisors can jump into calls before customer or telephone worker loses temper or starts swearing. They do NOT work as lie detectors as they cannot possibly do that from a voice pattern in a phone call alone.

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  • Den_a_Gernow  |  January 23 2013, 1:50PM

    Tory principles are that you outsource work from councils - then they whinge, moan and resign when those very same private companies don't do things that they agree with. If you want public services for people with democratic accountability then they need to be public services provided by the council not outsourced. Cllr Ferguson is brighter than most tories but even here she shows she is lacking - in May we all get a chance to get rid of the Tories whether they are blue, red or yellow ones. My recommenadation would be independents or Mebyon Kernow at least they will be answerable to local people.

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  • Nevman  |  January 23 2013, 1:07PM

    If these cod-science toys are really as reliable as other councillors and officers claim, let's see them applied to everything those people say in a public forum, shall we? No, didn't think so...

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  • Fistral20  |  January 23 2013, 8:06AM

    Isn't everyone slightly missing the point here? VRA is being brought in to stop people cheating the system, which is likely to impact on the amount of Council Tax that Cornwall residents have to pay. I worked in a Local Authority where over 40% of the properties were claiming single occupier discount, which we all knew was a totally inaccurate figure, but we didn't have the bodies needed to check every one of them, so jabbathebutt's suggestion that officers "get off their backside" is a non starter. I can assure you jabba that illegally claimed discounts such as this annoy Council staff as much as anyone else, but unfortunately it's not seen as a priority.

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  • RobertJPowell  |  January 23 2013, 7:26AM

    I have no problem with facing a lie detector test in any form for any of my benefits. I have a massive objection to it being done without my knowledge. It is a breach of my human rights.. And no, calls may be monitored or recorded does not cover the use of a lie detector Mister Currie

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  • PaddyTrembath  |  January 23 2013, 12:08AM

    Doitdreckley wrote:- "It would be interesting to know when Cllr Ferguson knew about these tests as she has been in the Cabinet since October. It may be a little silly to resign so close to an election unless its about making a name for youself." I am sure I remember hearing about the use of this "technology", for this very same purpose, on the Radio Cornwall Phone-in show some time ago, there was quite a debate about it. Perhaps Cllr Ferguson, and others, missed the show that day?

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  • Cassandra1959  |  January 22 2013, 11:23PM

    Quote from the leader of the council "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. No Mr Currie, it is not voice recognition software, it is voice risk analysis software, and I am rather concerned that you don't appear to recognise that they are different things!

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  • dee_2  |  January 22 2013, 10:48PM

    The more I hear of this mob in Truro the more I dislike them. It was a tragedy for Cornwall the day the Libdems brought in the unitary authority. It has been a downhill slide ever since. And it's no use the Libdems saying it's the Tories running the council. They're all in it together: Libdem, Tory and Independents (with one or two exceptions). Time to get UKIP on board.

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